Managing U.S. Relations with China: Towards a New Strategic Bargain

By Montaperto, Ron | Strategic Forum, August 1995 | Go to article overview

Managing U.S. Relations with China: Towards a New Strategic Bargain


Montaperto, Ron, Strategic Forum


Defining the Problem

United States relations with the People's Republic of China are fragile. Problems in one area, most dramatically Taiwan, affect our ability to manage other issues, such as proliferation. Negativism is greater than ever before. Despite continuing efforts to set the record straight, Beijing believes the United States regards China as its future enemy. In Beijing's view, the new goal of the United States is to contain China.

This is not a ploy. Although the leadership is clearly attempting to extract concessions, their statements fully reflect Chinese perceptions at all levels. In early 1992, the idea that the United States viewed China as a future, hostile peer competitor resided mainly within the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA). Now, the PLA appears to have carried the day. Where the United States sees Comprehensive Engagement, the Chinese see Containment.

Origins of the Problem

Basic disagreements have been a factor in bilateral relations since the early 1970s. It is only in the last few years that they have been so troublesome.

This is because the end of the Cold War eroded the previous strategic basis for conducting bilateral relations. Prior to 1990-1991, Cold War imperatives limited the negative impact of disagreements. Both sides had strong incentives for not allowing the Taiwan issue, controversy about the sale of Silkworm missiles to Iran, or a rising trade deficit to obscure the strategic purposes of the relationship. Although relations were never close, they were effective.

All that is left of that old strategic bargain is a recognition that stable ties are important because they bear on vital economic interests and that present relations will affect the future. This recognition is sufficient to prevent collapse. It is not, however, powerful enough to provide a stable equilibrium.

In the absence of a regulating mechanism, other factors are exerting a disproportionate, negative influence. A new strategic bargain is necessary. China and the United States are focused on domestic problems. In China, an uncertain leadership is coping with the transition to the post-Deng Xiaoping era and managing the political/social consequences of economic growth. In foreign and national security policy, regime concerns translate into an imperative to "avoid difficulties and maintain stability." The United States shares this desire.

Despite common interests, however, the two nations reflect marked differences in their respective values and experience. Although basic interests overlap, specific priorities at times do not. Also, in their approaches to international relations, China and the United States emphasize different concerns and have somewhat different perspectives.

For example, the United States is a global power. China remains essentially a regional power. China's approach to international relations is driven by a trenchant nationalism and a narrowly defined concept of state sovereignty that seems more appropriate to the nineteenth century than to the beginning of the twenty-first. For the Chinese, the immediate pre-1949 past is a period of national humiliation. Beijing's priority is still to build a "rich country and strong army" to guarantee that China will never again face similar treatment.

Accordingly, Beijing invests safeguarding sovereignty with a unique intensity. As the rhetoric over intellectual property rights shows, it is quick to interpret disagreement as an affront. There is a consistent tendency to escalate often minor disagreements to the level of high principle.

Beijing's approach to international relations is state-centered, inclined against alliances, overtly suspicious of multilateral security regimes, and skeptical about all but ad hoc coalitions. In contrast to the United States with its long experience of alliances, coalitions, multilateral regimes, and willingness to embrace interdependence, for Beijing, international politics remains very much a zero-sum game of "Beggar thy Neighbor. …

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