The 2015 China Focus Essay Contest winners are Christine Jiang from UC Berkeley and Xiao Yuan from Fudan University. Their excellent essays answered the question, “What is the biggest cliche in US-China relations?” China Focus partnered with the UC-Fudan Center on Contemporary China to offer each winner $1000! Congratulations to our 2015 winners!
Below is Christine Jiang’s essay. She is a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley studying Political Economy and Linguistics.
A quick glance across major news sites, and you’ll find articles with titles like Relax, China Won’t Challenge U.S. Hegemony, China’s Challenge to American Hegemony, and America Must Face Up To The China Challenge. What all these stories have in common is a core assumption that is at once the greatest cliche in U.S.-China relations, and the most dangerous, as it posits a world stage that cannot fit both states a narrow playing field that treats conflict between an incumbent U.S. hegemon and a rising China as inevitable.
The biggest cliche in China-U.S. relations is the notion that great power relations is a zero-sum game.
The biggest cliche in China-U.S. relations is the notion that great power relations is a zero-sum game. This is problematic because it leads each side to perceive actions by the other through a lens of paranoia: China comes to interpret Obama’s pivot as containment, and the U.S. becomes overly worried about China’s space, military, and even economic development programs. All this paranoia yields negative gains for both sides in the form of needless time and energy expended on posturing, hedging, and attempts to undermine the other side. The truth, clear to anyone who looks past the myopia of zero-sum realpolitik, is that the world’s two greatest powers would be far better off collaborating with each other.
We can trace this idea back to its genesis in the realist school of international relations theory. Realists such as John Mearscheimer have argued that, as China rises economically, it is sure to challenge the U.S.; conflict between the U.S. and China is all but guaranteed. Thinkers like Mearscheimer draw on ideas like power transition theory, which suggests that when a challenger (i.e. China) rises in power and enters into a system dominated by an existing hegemon (i.e. the U.S.), the challenger will attempt to change the status quo, the hegemon will push back, and the entire affair will end in terrible, protracted war. For evidence to the contrary, we need not look far the U.S. did not go to war with Japan in the 70s and 80s, and moreover did not go to war with China, even though the Chinese economy overtook the U.S. economy in purchasing power parity terms last year. Realist determinism hasn’t borne out in practice, so we should ignore the pundits on both sides that have been forecasting war since 71.
Far from challenging the prevailing status quo, China’s rise has been fueled more by accepting and embracing international economic and financial norms than by resisting them.
The school of thought that better explains the nature of China-U.S. relations right now is liberalism, which predicts that rising states will join more multilateral institutions, with positive (if not equal) gains for all. Far from challenging the prevailing status quo, China’s rise has been fueled more by accepting and embracing international economic and financial norms than by resisting them. From its opening in the late 1970s, to its accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001, to its recent bid to become a reserve currency for the International Monetary Fund, it is clear that China has taken steps to become integrated into the post-Bretton Woods multilateral global financial architecture. Last year, China took a leadership role in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, hosting the annual APEC summit and introducing initiatives for a Free-Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific, and on the sidelines reaching a landmark agreement with the U.S. to reduce climate emissions. As liberal theory predicts, China has engaged in regional and international multilateral institutions. The U.S. should not be alarmed by Chinese initiatives such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, because these are actually signs of China trying to embed itself into the global economic institutional framework. Far from seeking to undermine the U.S. by dismantling the instruments of its world order, China is proposing initiatives that complement existing institutions. The AIIB is still a liberal economic institution, and there is nothing in China’s definition of development that sets it apart from the idea of development put forth by Western thinkers.
The world has already seen that it’s great when the Americans and Chinese can play nice with each other.
The world has already seen that it’s great when the Americans and Chinese can play nice with each other. The carbon emissions reduction agreement reached at last year’s APEC between Xi Jinping and Obama is just one example. As the two largest economies in the world, Chinese and American collaboration has the power to shape norms a commitment by the two largest polluters to pollute less is exactly what the global community needs. Indeed, without their joint commitment, the battle against climate change would be a lost cause.
Our shared interests don’t stop at climate change. China is the sole state with close relations with North Korea, as well as Iran’s largest trading partner and a large stakeholder in Iran’s energy sector. China thus enjoys an unparalleled degree of diplomatic leverage with these two states. Collaboration with China is thus the only chance that the U.S., and the rest of the world, has at curbing North Korean and Iranian efforts at nuclear proliferation. China, for its part, has just as much to gain from collaboration with the U.S. I’ll limit myself to one tasty example. After several decades of unprecedented growth, China’s 1.4 billion-odd citizens are updating their diets to keep up with their rising living standards and incomes. The average Chinese citizen in 2015 consumes more than five times as much pork as she did in 1975. Where do all those extra pigs come from? (Hint: U.S. pork exports to China grew about 1100% from 2009 to 2011 alone.) Also, pigs will grow as long as they have grains to eat. But where did all those extra grains come from? The U.S. has on average 4 times as much arable land per capita as China. So it’s no surprise that U.S. exports of soy and corn, which China needs to feed all its pigs, cows, and chicken, have skyrocketed and show no sign of stopping.
The U.S. can change the course of history by engaging with China instead of forcing it to create its own parallel world order, as it did with the USSR.
China has signaled a desire to integrate itself and embed itself into the current world order; Premier Li Keqiang said at a press conference in early March that China is willing to pursue a relationship of mutual respect with the U.S. he calls it a new model of major power relationship, characterized by mutual respect, no conflict, and no confrontation. The U.S. can change the course of history by engaging with China instead of forcing it to create its own parallel world order, as it did with the USSR. (The Chinese have been hedging their bets by spearheading initiatives such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) with Russia and Central Asian states, the Regional Cooperative Economic Partnership FTA (in negotiations) with 15 states in Asia-Pacific, and the BRICS development bank.) At the Boao Forum for Asia in late March, President Xi Jinping made a speech with rhetoric that was clearly directed at the U.S.: We only have one planet, and countries share one world…On matters that involve us all, we should discuss and look for a solution together. Being a big country means shouldering greater responsibilities for regional and world peace and development, as opposed to seeking greater monopoly over regional and world affairs. “Xi’s push to seek common ground while shelving differences seems to point to an ASEAN-style respect for mutual sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs as a core tenet of his proposed new model for great power relations.
The U.S. will have to decide whether it can accommodate China’s wish to create a new model for great power relations. At the very least, it can make sure that the future of the U.S.- China relationship is conflict-free. After all, any changes that the U.S. might want to make to Xi’s model would be much more easily communicated (not to mention more constructively received) in the context of a positive, trusting relationship with China. Leaders can move in this direction by embracing military-to-military exercises, information sharing, and other confidence-building measures. These high-level confidence-building measures are, of course, helped immensely by increasing people-to-people exchanges. According to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors Study conducted in 2014, Chinese students now make up 31% of international students in the U.S. But the numbers of U.S. students studying in China have stayed flat, and a report by the British Council last year found that only 1% of U.S. and U.K. students studying abroad are interested in going to China. Governments should aim to correct this balance, so that the next generation will prove a foundation of talented people who understand the positive parts of both cultures.
China’s leaders should recognize that drumming up anti-Western nationalism is dangerous, unnecessary, and unproductive.
China can play its part by making sure the zero-sum myth doesn’t extend into its ideology. In other words, it should put its mouth where its money is. China’s leaders should recognize that drumming up anti-Western nationalism is dangerous, unnecessary, and unproductive. Especially worrying is the recent state-sponsored pushback against Western ideology and economics in higher education despite having risen by embracing capitalist economic logic and liberal institutions, China’s leaders are fighting to keep these theories out of their classrooms. Positions like these just lead to awkwardness all around. Has China forgotten that the vaunted Marxist-Leninism upon which it was founded is also a Western idea? Have they forgotten about the billions that the West paid in foreign direct investment and trade to fuel China’s rise? In a globalized world like today, distinctions like West and East hardly matter anymore. We should stop worrying about who created what in the first place (after all, you don’t see Westerners disavowing use of paper or fireworks, even though the Chinese invented those). It is only through working together that we can create a brighter and more innovative future. With a story of growth unprecedented in human history, China has a lot to be proud of, and should find ways to express that pride without drawing a mutually exclusive dichotomy between the West and East.
The world is big enough for both of us.
The world is big enough for both of us. The U.S. and China need to take a good, hard look at their myriad interdependencies, and recognize that not only do they need each other, but the world needs them to need each other. Whew. The U.S., especially, should let go of the idea that any change to the existing world order would necessarily be negative, because agency matters, and we can shape the path that our relations, and by extension the future of the world, takes. China should let go of the idea that US is trying to contain it, and be clearer with its signals. If either party fails to engage more openly, and instead pursues actions to arouse the other’s suspicion, we could see military buildup and a spiral into the classic security dilemma, leading to instability and chaos in the Asia-Pacific.