Since US Deputy Secretary of State Robert
Zoellick used the term "stakeholder" in a speech
on US-China relations last September, it has
triggered a lot of discussions in both countries.
The administration of President George W
Bush - from the White House to the Pentagon - has
incorporated this concept into official documents
such as the recent Quadrennial Defense Review and
the National Security Strategy.
recent summit (on April 20) in Washington, top
leaders from both countries also endorsed it. In
his welcoming remarks on the South Lawn of White
House, Bush used the term for the first time.
President Hu Jintao's remarks at the White House
luncheon also mentioned "stakeholder", although he
quickly added that
China and US should also be
administration's China policymakers have made
laudable efforts to reconceptualize US-China
relations. Since taking office, the Bush
administration has gone a long way in modifying
its perception of China.
Zoellick made it
clear in his speech that China is not the Soviet
Union of the late 1940s as it does not have a
radical anti-US and anti-Western ideology. This
conclusion virtually put an end to the debate
about whether China is the next Soviet Union in
the post-Cold War era.
officials now emphasize the common "strategic
interest" between the two countries, which was
seldom talked about during the first term of the
current US administration.
not stick-holder The "stakeholder" concept
presents a necessary cognitive foundation for a
more stable US-China relationship: it highlights
common stakes in the existing international order.
However, we still need to wait to see if
it is enough to create a more robust relationship,
because each country could have a very different
understanding and definition of the essence of
this concept, as well as the means to realize a
concept was mainly put forward as a demand upon
China by the United States. The implication is
that China is not a "responsible stakeholder" yet.
In the September speech, Zoellick listed a
number of areas in which China's behavior was
perceived as problematic. And every time US and
Chinese leaders met, the Americans deliver a long
list of complaints and demands while the Chinese
often scrambled to address these concerns.
If "stakeholder" is only used to
facilitate the US demands upon China, it will not
serve as a solid basis for a stable relationship.
The United States should treat China in a
more reciprocal fashion. Acting as "responsible
stakeholders" should be the common objective;
"stakeholder" should be a mechanism of mutual
supervision through consultation rather than
policymakers have recognized this problem.
In a recent interview, Zoellick pointed
out that the US and other countries "also need to
be responsible stakeholders". In his welcoming
speech to Hu, Bush listed both the US and China as
"stakeholders" in the international system.
In short, "stakeholder" needs to become a
device for self-discipline and mutual examination,
not a stick wielded by one side against the other.
The key question is who will define the
"stake" and how it will be defined. If each side
only uses its narrow national interests to judge
the behavior of the other, the concept of
"stakeholder" is meaningless: it is merely asking
one side to subordinate its interests to the
We live in a US-centered
international system. It is only natural that the
interests of the United States and the interests
of the international system overlap to a great
extent. Therefore it is not surprising that the US
has more to say in defining the "stake" in the
international system. Beijing has to accept this
However, that does not mean the US
can automatically claim that its interests are
those of the international system. In fact, some
US foreign policies during the Bush administration
have weakened the international system that the US
And while China should
resist the temptation to maximize its parochial
interests at the expense of the global system and
should better accommodate the stakes as defined by
the US, Washington should not jeopardize China's
core national interests. For US-China
relations to have truly global significance, they
must, in Zoellick's words, go "beyond their pure
national interest" and recognize "how one develops
a national interest in the strength of the
increased the common stakes for China and the US.
The two countries have a common interest on almost
all important international issues, such as
fighting terrorism, the proliferation of weapons
of mass destruction, trade liberalization,
environmental protection, energy, transnational
crime, and pandemic diseases.
regarding the Taiwan issue that has historically
divided the two countries most, the maintenance of
peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait has
become a common stake for both sides.
this perspective, the concept of "stakeholder"
A common objective is
not a guarantee of effective cooperation. As
President Bush pointed out at the press conference
with President Hu when asked about the Iran
nuclear crisis, the US and China have a common
goal - preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear
weapons - but they may have different views about
how to achieve it.
The same situation
could also be found in other issues of common
concern such as the "war on terror" and the North
Korean nuclear issue.
The divergence in
tactics is no small matter, as it often leads to
skepticism about the commitment of the other side
toward the common objective.
States' reaction to China's performance in the
six-party talks on North Korea is typical in this
regard. Without consensus on means and tactics,
the common objective can't be achieved.
Finally, the concept of "stakeholder" has
not significantly reduced suspicions about
long-term strategic intentions.
Zoellick noted in his "stakeholder" speech, China
is not another Soviet Union. It does not have a
radical anti-American ideology, does not seek to
overthrow the international system, and does not
see itself in conflict with capitalism and
If so, should China's domestic
political system and its military modernization
cause such alarm? Such suspicions seem to be
deepening. As Zoellick put it, "Many countries
hope China will pursue a 'peaceful rise', but none
will bet their future on it."
have deep-rooted skepticism about whether the US
will genuinely accept a rising China as an equal
partner. Beijing has tried hard to assure
Washington that it has no intention of challenging
US leadership in world affairs.
China's rise will inevitably reduce US global
influence. The extent to which the US can embrace
this prospect is a big question for many Chinese.
To sum up, the concept of "stakeholder"
provides a positive first step for a new
conceptual framework for US-China relations. But
this new framework is still just a skeleton. The
two nations have a long way to go before they can
declare that they have found a way to co-exist
peacefully and cooperatively in the 21st century.
Jianwei Wang is a professor of
political science at University of
Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He is also a senior
associate at the Shanghai Institute for American
Studies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.