C3S Paper No. 0179/2015
Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, will pay his first state visit to the US from September 22-25 2015. Besides, he will also attend summits marking the 70th anniversary of the UN between September 26 and 28. Xi is no stranger to the US and the US President Barack Obama, for he has been to the US 6 times and has met Obama 4 times. Certainly, trade and economics is going to be the highlight of his visit, that’s why he has chosen to visit Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, and Boeing’s factory in Everett, and why not, when last year alone Boeing supplied a record 155 airplanes to China; and a deal perhaps would be signed to set up a facility in China to finish, paint and deliver narrow-body 737 planes as has been widely reported in the media. Obviously, a whole lot of issues pertaining to security including the hacking, freedom of navigation, reclamation and militarisation of the reefs in South China Sea, Taiwan, currency manipulations, human rights violation, people to people contacts and much more would be on the table.
China-US relationship could be considered as one of defining relations of this century having global implications, especially when the sole superpower of the world has been witnessing the rise of a challenger in the East. Historically, both fought bloody wars in the Korean peninsula, and Vietnam, and now a simmering spat in the South China Sea. China continues to perceive the US as a number one threat to its security and sovereignty. However, if we see the kind of engagement between the two, it becomes amply clear that their economic and even security interests are intertwined, and both have tried to accommodate each other without raising the pitch of the conflict to dangerous levels. Will there be a collision between the economic and security interests? The answer appears to be in the negative.
Today, bilateral trade between China and the US is over $555 billion, bilateral investment is over $120 billion, and it is expected that by 2020 Chinese accumulated investment in the US could be anywhere between $100 and $200 billion creating some 200, 000 to 400,000 jobs. Perhaps to the surprise of Indians, China is the largest creditor of the US, the value of which is $1.3 trillion or more than half of India’s entire GDP! There are over 90 government to government high level consultation mechanisms, over 240 mechanisms at provincial and city levels, and imagine the magnitude of flow of people between two nations resulting from these mechanisms. If the figures are to be believed, every 17 minutes there is a flight between China and the US; in 2014, 4.3 million Chinese and Americans traveled across the Pacific. There are 490,000 Chinese students studying in the US, and the kind of academic exchange both are having is unprecedented. Last year both conducted 217 academic conferences and some 12,000 US academicians from 75 institutions of higher learning visited China; 2.09 million Americans visited China and 2.18 million Chinese visited the US. If we compare these mechanisms and visits in the context of India and China, we have a long way to go.
Irrespective of having convergences on Afghanistan, Iran nuclear deal, and climate change, sailing has not been smooth for U.S.A and China on many issues. The relations have taken a nose dive over China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea. The US has blamed China for cyber theft, shielding North Korea from international sanctions, human rights violations in Tibet, currency manipulations and restricting the freedom of speech and internet. In the same vein, China has accused the US of meddling in its internal affairs, pursuing a policy of containment by virtue of US’ pivot to Asia, as well as ganging with other players in the region such as Japan, India and Australia; adding fuel to the fire by taking sides in its territorial disputes, especially in the South China Sea, and instigating the Philippines and Vietnam to rake up sovereignty issue with China. The Trans Pacific Partnership of the US is also viewed by China from a security prism. It is in this context China says that its ‘One Belt One Road’ initiative should be viewed, which breaks through the economic as well as security strangulation of China by the US. Many view these issues as a future flashpoint between China and the US, but will the collision take place? Similar contour are taking shape between India and China which again has regional as well as global implications. Therefore, I believe chances for collision are very minimal for the following reasons.
First, through the new type of major power relationship advocated by Xi Jinping, China and the US has reached a consensus that avoids war, conflict and confrontation between the two. It is also the consensus for peace, growth, prosperity, and win-win cooperation. Though the zero-sum and cold war mind set do reside in some quarters, both are trying to find out ways to accommodate each other.
Second, both are adapting to the new eco-system according to Professor Marcos Troyjo of the Columbia University where the re-globalization of the US has to come to terms with the globalization drive of China be it the ‘OBOR’ or other multilateral institutions like BRICS New Development Bank (NDB) and Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) China has set up with other emerging economies. The American exceptionalism is accommodating the ‘Chinese universalism’ or so called Tianxiaguan across the continents. However, the metamorphosis would be crucial; China did adapt well to the deep globalization of pre 2008, it would be interesting to watch it adapting to the ‘new normal’ domestic and global economic-political conditions, and the same would be true for the US.
Third, even if China is creating new institutions such as NDB and AIIB, however, it is not challenging the existing world order. These could be viewed as incremental reformist initiatives rather than revolutionary initiatives that challenge the established world order. Nonetheless, it is clear that China is not satisfied with the present system, not because it dislikes them, but for simple reasons that the present order has not been accommodative of China to its liking. Moreover, China knows that it is not the US of 1945, for there is an asymmetry in economic and force structure of the two. Furthermore, China is aware that the liberal value system of the US has found its echoes across the globe, and that China’s value system does not have such acceptability at this point in time, even if it has spent billions across the globe to promote Confucian values.
Four, China knows it well that to be at the periphery of the international governance is advantageous to it; it has seen the US bearing the brunt of being ‘world’s cop’ in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and other conflicts. It never intends to throw the US out of Asia-Pacific for obvious repercussions, despite of the fact that it considers the US as an outsider. It only seeks accommodations, that’s why the notion that Asia-Pacific is big enough to accommodate both the US and China. China knows that if someone has benefited most from post 1945 world order, it is China.
And finally, if the US makes some compromises on China’s core interests, China perhaps would be more accommodating with the US on issues such as Ukrainian and North Korean issues. It has come to realize that in the long run both would be a liability to China. In short term, it will never challenge the US hegemony, but it would be a happy reformist at number two. It will be happy with the win-win situation as demonstrated by the medal tally of the 2008 Olympic Games according to Professor Ruan Zongze of the China Institute of International Studies, Beijing, where the US won the highest number of the medals put together and China won the maximum gold medals.
India-China relations could be considered as a younger version of the US-China relations, albeit India is China’s neighbour unlike the US. India has similar apprehension about China as China has for the US. The US considers China a strategic rival, so is India to China. However, irrespective of mind games between the two, both have a robust trade and economic partnership; various issues have been addressed through numerous consultation mechanisms, and more importantly through the annual strategic security and economic dialogues. Should not India and China forge a similar strategic partnership irrespective of our apprehensions towards each other?
(Prof. B R Deepak is Professor of China Studies at the Centre of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The views expressed are his own. He could be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)