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The Paradox in US-China Relations

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Published: Mon, 02 Oct 2017

The Paradox in the US-China Relations: A Commentary

Almost a decade and half ago, one of the leading thinker and strategic expert on China; Gerald Segal prophetically described the implications of Chinese power especially in the East Asian region. He argued, “…There is no more weighty uncertainty for East Asia, than the future of China. If China staggers amid leadership struggles and perhaps even disintegrates as a state, the region will fear mass migration and spreading chaos, if China forges ahead with a double digit growth, East Asia will fear the implications of Chinese power…[1]

Segal in the concluding remarks of his article titled, “Tying China into International System” (Survival; 1999) presented few assumptions. He foresaw that the uncontrolled economic growth in China would result in an increasing need and desire to trade with the outside world and China needs to be tied into the international system on the basis of these assumption about China’s future. One of them was a) that it will not disintegrate in chaos, will have a looser political system b) second that East Asian region will fail to develop any serious multilateralelism. There will be much talk in the region about the need to work more closely at the ASEAN and CSAP forum on the security of the region, however no real action was perceived. Surprisingly the East Asian region will have ramification of the Chinese power and the lead in dealing with China in the coming years would not be initiated by the East Asian countries. This would leave China unchallenged in the region. He also asserted that China would also likely to have a major long term adversarial relationship with the west.

The aforementioned analysis describes some of the reality of the Chinese rise as of today. Beijing has certainly not disintegrated into chaos, through a steady projection of its influence, it has established that it is indeed a rising power and would continue to do so. The West especially the US may not have a direct adversarial relationship with China but all that is not hunky-dory in the Sino-US relationship. Interestingly this becomes evident when the trajectory of the bilateral relations is analysed at a profound level. Both the US and China are ambitious countries as far as projecting their influence is concerned. China is the only country which has directly challenged the US hegemony after Soviet Union. In the post-Cold War era of multipolarity the decline of the West (US) has also been juxtaposed with the rise of the rest (China) even by American scholars. (Zakaria; 2008).

While the US was preoccupied with the global war on terror campaign and entangled itself in Iraq and Afghanistan; the People’s Republic effectively utilised this opportune moment of US occupation to its advantage by extending its international interactions and maximised its inventory of allies in the international political system. The Chinese influence in the international politics was regarded significant to such an extent that US too responded to the emerging threat discourse with an accommodating view. In a Congressional Report (2008) and the US Quadrennial Defense review (QDR-2001), the US administration was counselled to adopt ‘engagement’ as the best way to integrate China into prevailing global system.

Today, China is engaging itself with the international community like never before by crafting a multitude of bilateral agreements and partnerships. Beijing has sought trade agreements, oil and gas contracts, scientific and technological cooperation, and de-facto multilateral security arrangements with countries both around its periphery and around the world such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It has also extracted oil and gas exploration contracts with Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, and Cuba; and with Central Asian states such as Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan; in search to satiate its hungers for energy security

International Negotiations & Diplomacy

The emergence of multiple centres of power in the international politics have not only declined the pre-eminence of the American power but have also made space for China to exerts it influence in various spheres such as international economy, international negotiations on significant issues such as climate change, the South & East China Seas and even in the nuclear realm. On all these issues China has taken a powerful stand.

For instance on the issues of currency, China maintains a low exchange rate of its currency for its economic growth. Financial experts from both US and Europe have called China to allow its currency to rise. This sentiment was resonated even by the US President himself during his first visit to China in 2009. The same year Presidents of major banks like Europen Central Bank; Jean-Claude Trichet, and Dominique Strauss-Kahn; the former managing director of the IMF have also called for a stronger yuan but China did not adjust its currency in response to a foreign pressure.[2]

China has boldly stood up against the US on the issue of Climate Change too. It is referred as the world’s largest Green House Gases (GHGs) emitter and suffers from a poor record as far as environment issues are concerned. In-fact China occupies a unique position in the Climate Change negotiations. It is one of the largest emitters of Co2 but it is also a developing country and possesses a valid claim of right to further develop like the US. It is one of the major voices in the Climate Change talks and some experts has suggested that it was China that blocked the last Copenhagen (2009) talks by asking for an appalling deal such that western leaders can walk away and thus creating a stalemate. At the Copenhagen it not only insisted on removing the binding targets for itself but also for other countries.[3]

The strange power play by the Chinese delegation can also be viewed as an effort to weaken the Climate Change regulation regime. Very recently the UN Climate Summit at New York was concluded in which both the US and China seems to have agreed on reaching an agreement on reducing emission from 26 to 28 percent for the United State by 2025 and China to reach the emissions warming peak by 2030 or earlier[4]. Being a top emitter of Co2 China’s budge towards a substantial position on emission cuts ; only after the US has promised to take a step ahead on emission reflects nothing but geopolitics manifesting at the negotiation table.

Nuclear Relations

A similar Chinese behaviour of pushing the US to do its bit first can also be seen in the realm of nuclear security as well. Nuclear capability symbolises power in international politics. While China is far away from matching the US inventory of nuclear weapons, it cannot be ignored that being the only P-5 that is increasing its nuclear arsenal; China’s potential in influencing the nuclear debate at the international multilateral forum remains strong. It is interesting to note here that the official Chinese position on nuclear arms race is that, “… the nuclear-weapon states with the biggest stockpiles should undertake special responsibility for nuclear disarmament and take lead in reducing their nuclear arsenals and delivery systems,…”[5] China expects the US to first pave way for the other nuclear-weapon states to join the nuclear disarmament process.

Furthermore the 2013 nuclear notebook of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists describes the Chinese nuclear capability as growing slowly and increasing in capability. Many in the US presume that the growing Chinese nuclear capability especially the long range missiles which includes as many as many as 60 LRBMs can reach some portion of the United States. In-fact according to the US intelligence community prediction by the mid-2020s, China could have more than 100 missiles capable of threatening the US.[6]

In-fact the American experts for nuclear issues believe that there is a need to maintain a long term stability in the US-China nuclear relations even though the nuclear dynamics between the two countries are relatively stable at the present. The exponents of such idea have based their judgement on the US concerns about the Chinese expansion of the quality and quantity of its nuclear arsenal. The analysis of US-China nuclear relations by the working group reveals a possible intensification of strategic arms race between the two countries. This might manifest in increasing the uncertainties about the nuclear deterrence and thus crisis management between the two must take effect. In-fact it is advised to the US government to take up informal ways to shape China’s nuclear decision making.[7]

Geopolitical Ends at the Asia Pacific Region

The current Chinese Ambassador to the US; John Kerry in his remarks described the bilateral relations as “the most important as well as the most sensitive, the most comprehensive as well as the most complex, and the most promising as well as the most challenging …”[8] and referred it as the most consequential one determining the shape of the 21st century world. While officials from the White House have diversified adjectives to describe beautifully the US-China synergies, they have also acknowledged the difference the two countries have a two distinguished countries. Moreover, these two distinguished countries also have comparable power interests in the same geographical entity called the Asian Pacific region.

For both the countries the region is a crucial one and the most promising as far as security is concerned. The US has blatantly announced its pivot to Asia Pacific in order to execute its rebalancing strategy. One must reckon that in the recent years China too has started looking at the region more prominently. The US has categorically announced its reservations on the Chinese assertive foreign policy behaviour in the South and East China Seas region. Even though the US is not directly related to any of the South China Sea dispute; the United States maintains a strong position on the Chinese claims on the South China Sea Vis-a-Vis claims of other littoral states.

The South-China Sea region is a strategic pass way containing critical sea lanes of communications. It is also a region through which half of the world’s oil transport passes through. The sea connects the Pacific Ocean with the Indian Ocean it has utility for major naval power. It must be reckon that the United States considers itself as a influential player in the Asian Pacific region and it has sustained its pre-eminence over this region for over six decades. [9]The region not only has a symbolic utility for the United States but it is also practically being used as a transit point and an operating area for its Navy and Air Force to shuttle between the military bases in Asia the Indian Ocean and Persian Gulf.

Similarly on the East China Sea, the similarity of ambitions and the difference in policy approaches towards the region also appear to be clear. Very recently the US deepened its commitment to the East Asian region and invited Japan and Australia for a military co-operation towards collectively working on strengthening maritime security in the Asia-Pacific region. It is noteworthy that in the same platform revealed President Obama’s subtle hint to China that aggressive acts on territorial disputes concerning the region might, “…spiral into a confrontation”.[10] In addition to this President Obama categorically conveyed his idea of an effective security order in Asia that ought to be based on alliances of mutual security and driven by international norms and laws instead of spheres of influences or driven by acts of intimidation of big nations ( such as China)[11]

Cyber Space

It is a known fact that the United States was the progenitor of what we know today as the world wide web/internet. The internet owes its birth to the US Department of Defense in the 1960’s where it was developed and used for defence communication. Today the commercialised internet has grown so big and forms part of much bigger virtual domain known as cyber space. This cyber space in its totality is, practically out of a complete control of one singular country let alone the United States, which ironically gave birth to it. The cyber space has escalated itself in international politics as a powerful domain. It is regarded as one of the battle domain for future wars among countries. China is notorious for practicing all forms of cyber theft, hacking, cyber terrorism, etc. towards the United States.

China is an increasingly growing player in the Cyber security realm. It is the only Asian country with one of the most internet users, which is state controlled. While the domestic environment of China’s internet is largely defined as strict; externally China is identified by the United States as real cyber threat for other countries. According to the US reports on China uses cyber warfare for data gathering, to constrain an adversary’s effective communications etc.[12] United States has suffered the most out of these evil intentions of China. Many instances of cyber-attacks such as ‘Titan Rain’ from China have been reported. In-fact it was revealed in 2004-2005 that the Chinese hackers have compromised the computers of NASA and other military and technological centres across the United States. Not only have the Chinese denied all these allegations as baseless, but have also refused to cooperate with the American investigations.

The White House has recognised cyber security as linked to America’s economic prosperity national security, and individual liberties. Indeed the cyber space touches the American lives closely on a daily basis and to safeguard the security in this realm, the US has been evolving a policy to shape the future Cyber security regime. It starts from domestic ownership of critical infrastructure combined with an improved reporting of incident and response. Since the Cyber domain involves virtually all countries with no boundaries any cyber policy would only be effective if international partners are engaged effectively. Under this context the co-opting of China becomes really critical.

The United States seeks to build a consensus based approach as far as implementing international cyber norms are concerned[13].

The American concern for the on growing Chinese Cyber warfare capabilities appears evident from the statement of a former US Defense Secretary; Leon Panetta two years ago have reiterated the need for both the countries to work together in the realm of cyber security as both of them have developed technological capabilities in this arena to a great extent. [14]

Concluding Observations:

China too has registered its presence as influential players in the international politics. Interestingly it has raised concerns in the US about its ramifications upon the American goal of sustaining its pre-eminence. Indeed China continues to ameliorate its presence in the strategic calculus of the US almost daily with the American strategic narrative painted with the shades of Sino-US Strategic partnership, competition, bilateral ties, cooperation etc.

There are number of American experts such as Selig Harrison, Aron Friedberg, David Lampton etc who have predicted a rise of a peer competitor in Beijing especially bearing in mind the Chinese power influence in the Asian region. These experts have categorically highlighted the prospects of a regional threat to the US from China. The China watchers in the US; even after a decade have analysed that China would look outward as its foreign policy ambitions are as aggressive as the United States. [15]

The US views on China could be assessed from various perspectives such as realist and liberal and each lens is likely to put forward a conflicting rudimentary divide between the two countries. This is clear from the analysis of former Deputy Assistant for National Security Affairs; Aron Friedberd and even the greatest practitioner of diplomacy in America; Henry Kissinger himself. While Friedberg argues that both countries have locked themselves in an increasingly intense struggles for power and influence; Kissinger have put forward his advice to the US in dealing with China and have insisted that both sides should be open to convincing of each other’s activities as a normal part of international life. He further argued that, “…the inevitable tendency to impinge on each other should not be equated with a conscious drive to contain or dominate…”[16]

The US-China interaction in international politics cover so many arenas that is has become rather tricky for scholars to identify one set of variable to describe the bilateral relations that both share. In the most recent times the labels for US-China relations have ranged from business-partnership, strategic partnership, strategic competitors and even Sino-US cold confrontation.[17]

Finally, the graph of US- China relation s that started officially with the US Secretary’s ‘open door’ notes have fluctuated from being estranged countries to strategic partnership and today have become the one of the most significant bilateral relations defining the shape of the international politics. A saying about history suggests that it repeats itself. It is ironical that several decades ago the United States was driven to China for trade prospects so much so that; the Chinese silk, tea can be credited with bringing the first set of millionaires in America. The American fascination for the oriental products dates back to the year 1784 when a commercial (US flagged) vessel ‘Empress of China’[18] sailed the Chinese seas. It was the trade issues that normalised the US-China relation during the 1970’s. While the US cut the Chinese melon into sphere of influence for economic benefits, today it is the American markets flooded with Chinese goods. Moreover, it is the American ‘Apple’ that is now reverse engineered in China. The United States in the first part of its relationship with China dominated the terms but today China has turn the dynamic of relations into a partnership. It may not be incorrect to suggest that history indeed might be repeating itself in reverse.

[1] Segal Gerald, (1999) “Tying China Into International System”, Survival, Vol.37, No 2, p .60

[2]“China’s Exchange-Rate Policy: A Yuan-Sided Argument” 19 November 2009, The Economist, at , accessed on 21 November 2014

[3] Mark Lynas, “How Do I Know China Wrecked The Copenhagen Deal? I Was In the Room”, The Guardian, December 22 2009 , at, accessed on November 25, 2014

[4]Laura Barron-Lopez, November14 2014, “ US Climate Envoy: China Deal Boosts Paris Talks, But Uncertainty Remains” The Hill, at , accessed on 24 November 2014

[5] “China’s Contributions To Nuclear Disarmament”, Ministry of Foreign Affairs,           People’s Republic Of China, at, accessed on December 1, 2014

[6] Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, (2013), “The Chinese Nuclear Forces”, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Vol. 69, No. 6, pp. 79-85 and Hans M. Kristensen and Robert S. Norris, (2014) “ US Nuclear Forces, 2014, Bulletin of Atomic Scientist, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp.85-93

[7] John K. Warden, Elbridge Colby & Abraham Denmark, (201p, “ Nuclear Weapons and US-China Relations: A Way Forward” Report by PONI by a Working Group on US-China Nuclear Dynamics, Centre for Strategic and International Studies

[8] John Kerry, 4 November 2014, Remarks on U.S.-China Relations, at, accessed on 23 November 2014

[9] Hina Pandey, (2011), “ Recent Developments in the South China Sea: US China Confrontation”, World Focus ,pp. 261-268


[11] Jamie Smyth, (2014), “US, Japan and Australia to Deepen Alliance” The Financial Times, at, accessed on 3 December 2014

[12] E. Dilipraj, (2014), “Mapping the Cyber Dragon: China’s Conduct of Terror in the Cyber World”, Defence and Diplomacy, Vol.3, No.4, July- September, pp. 85-97.

[13] Cybersecurity, 4 December 2014, at , accessed on 4 December , 2014

[14] David Alexander, (2012), “US- China Must Work to Avoid Cyber Conflict: Panetta”, Reuters, at , accessed on 4 December 2014

[15] Selig Harrison, (2000), “China And The US in Asia: The Threat Perception in Asia” cited in “ China’s Future: Constructive Partner or Emerging Threat” in Carpenter and James A. Don, CATO Institute, pp.109. and Robert Kaplan, (2010),“The Geography Of The Chinese Power: How Far Can Beijing Reach On Land And At Sea?” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2010

[16] Friedberg L. Aaron, “The Future of U.S. China Relations: Is conflict inevitable?” ,International Security, Vol. 30, No. 2, Fall 2005, pp7-45 and Henry A. Kissinger,(2012) “The Future of US-Chinese Relations: Conflict Is a Choice, Not a Necessity”, Foreign Affairs, Vol.91, No.2, p.44

[17] Chintamani Mahapatra (2014), “US-China Cold Confrontation: New Paradigm of Asian Security”, Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies, at , accessed on 1 August 2014

[18] Song Yuwu (2009), Empress, “Encyclopedia of Sino-US Relations,” McFarland & Co., p. 99.

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