Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Redesigning path to the future

By Yuan Peng (China Daily) Updated: 2012-03-06 08:14

Sino-US relations have advanced steadily over the last 40 years but they should agree a road map for the way forward

In commemoration of the beginning of the normalization of bilateral ties four decades ago, China and the United States have been busy celebrating the anniversaries of the historical events that contributed to that ice-breaking moment, including the 40th anniversary in 2011 of both the Ping-Pong Diplomacy and Henry Kissinger's first secret visit to China and the 40th anniversary of former US president Richard Nixon's landmark visit to China this year.

To Chinese people the age of 40 is a milestone in a person's life. As Confucius said, "Man is free of confusion at 40." So these anniversaries are worth celebrating, as hopefully they will, to a certain degree, counteract negative speculation about Sino-US ties and help remove some of the confusion that impedes their progress.

Some basic points can be noted about Sino-US relations over the past four decades. Above all, the relations have survived all the disagreements and frictions that have arisen over the years, and while both countries maintain the different characteristics of their institutions and economic models, they coexist peacefully and have been steadily broadening and deepening cooperation. Furthermore, though the Sino-US relationship, like any relationship, has had its ups and downs, on the whole it has maintained an upward trend.

Despite this, uncertainty remains whether the upward momentum is strong enough to advance the development of bilateral ties over the next 40 years as the relations are undergoing some fundamental changes.

Most notably, the two countries have witnessed a change in the balance of strength, especially in the 21st century. China's GDP was 13 percent of the US' in 2001, while it soared to almost 50 percent in 2011. This has resulted in China becoming ever more confident in its role as a globally responsible power and the US growing ever more sensitive to China's rise.

The strategic basis for their relationship has evolved over time; it is different now from it was in the last century, indeed different from what it was in the past decade.

During the Cold War, China and the US jointly confronted the threat of the Soviet Union; and they pursued common interests, especially common economic interests, as a result of globalization in the post- Cold War period. Over the past decade anti-terrorism cooperation and economic and trade cooperation laid a solid foundation for bilateral relations.

Now, however, economic and trade frictions have escalated as a result of the global slowdown and the US has ushered in a global contraction and rebalancing toward Asia, posing new challenges for policymakers of both sides.

Meanwhile, the domestic, regional and international environments are undergoing some profound changes and these are adding even more uncertainty to Sino-US ties. Both sides have to withstand domestic pressure from different interest groups and their public; regional disputes involving countries such as Vietnam, India and Japan are interrupting the development of bilateral relations; and issues concerning the global commons, such as the oceans, atmosphere and space, are challenging the established framework of Sino-US relations. Long gone are the days when Ping-Pong Diplomacy and top-level meetings could forge a "handshake across the vast Pacific". Nowadays, the policymaking environments of both face multiple challenges.

Undoubtedly, the new decade calls for reorientation of Sino-US relations. In early 2011, the two countries reached a consensus that both sides should "commit to working together to build a China-US cooperative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit". But while this clearly signaled the direction and goal for bilateral relations, the two sides have so far failed to find the path or indeed a road map.

On China's part, it is at a diplomatic crossroads: to learn from the US, catch up, or prepare for long-term strategic competition with it. As for the US, it is striving to accept China as a rapidly emerging power and to maintain peaceful coexistence with it in the Asia-Pacific region.

However, these efforts are being impeded by those who promote the "China threat".

One view, represented by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, suggests the US should contain China, while the other, represented by Vice-President Joe Biden, insists on striking a balance between competition and cooperation.

One thing remains clear: we are in an era when profound changes are taking place and new common challenges will arise. It is an era calling for great diplomacy, one that requires China and the US to make joint efforts to go beyond the immediate bilateral issues to shoulder more international responsibilities. At this point, the two sides need to review Nixon's "China Shock" of 40 years ago and work toward another friendly shock of equal magnitude.

The author is director of the Institute of American Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

(China Daily 03/06/2012 page9)

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