A Game of Giants: The Future of Sino-US Relations

By Rigol, Natalia | Harvard International Review, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

A Game of Giants: The Future of Sino-US Relations


Rigol, Natalia, Harvard International Review


The end of the Cold War brought a profound restructuring in the international system of power; no longer driven by the constraints of a bipolar world, alliances between states became fluid and pragmatic. This trend was reinforced after September 11, 2001. Traditional US alliances, such as those with France and Germany, saw fractures due to the US War on Terror and War in Iraq, while non-traditional alliances, such as those with Pakistan and China, witnessed breakthroughs. This shift in patterns of global alignments has caused a reevaluation of the relationship between the United States and China. In the aftermath of September 11, a newly strengthened partnership, due to increased cooperation on issues of international security between the two countries, was welcomed. However, three years later, this friendship does not seem to be as strong as it initially was. Despite decreasing cooperation, outright antagonism is not what the relations have become. Yet, while China accepts the status quo on the hegemonic power of the United States and seeks to maintain constructive relations, it seems to have become less accepting of the status of its own power.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, China diplomatically mobilized to come to the aid of the United States. Chinese President Jiang Zemin and US President George W. Bush discussed terrorism in an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Shanghai in late 2001 and agreed to increase cooperation on intelligence sharing. The Chinese government allowed the United States to place a Federal Bureau of Investigation office in Beijing and has participated in the Container Security Initiative. Within the United Nations, the Chinese sought to strengthen the coalition of states against terrorism, especially in supporting the early stages of the US War on Terror. After the war in Afghanistan, China offered approximately US$150 million to help rebuild the country. Conflicts between the two seemed to be set aside. Bush actively revised his classification of China as a "strategic competitor" to something closer to a partner on terrorism. There have been multiple high-level exchanges and more than a dozen ministerial-level discussions between the countries. Even the Pentagon reports witnessed a shift in attitude toward China. While in early 2001 the Quadrennial Defense Review Report subtly implied a rivalry between the two countries, by 2002 the Pentagon emphasized cooperation. Fu Mengzi, researcher at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, recently agreed that the United States and China have improved their diplomatic ties, particularly in regards to the Korean crisis. The increasingly positive relations were perceived to be the dawn of a new age in international politics.

Cooling Off

However, as time has passed, relations between the countries have cooled. There are several reasons for the inability to have lasting positive cooperation with the United States on the issue of terrorism. It is likely that the initial Chinese engagement on terrorism was out of self-interest rather than out of the desire to have intense cooperation with the United States. The Chinese Communist Party has had issues in the Xinjiang Province where the Uighurs, who are ethnic Muslims, have led a separatist movement against the government. The War on Terror presented an opportunity for the Chinese to clamp down on the separatists by claiming that they were terrorists seeking to disturb global order (which worked well due to their ethnic background).

Once the United States went beyond Afghanistan and began seeking a regime change in Iraq, however, the Chinese were not supportive. Preemptive war and interventionism directly challenge the Chinese belief in state sovereignty. Thus, as the US campaign has expanded to actions against states without UN consensus, the Chinese have begun to renege on their commitment.

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