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    Greater China
     Nov 14, 2009
COMMENT
China: A need for strategic reassurance
By Jing-dong Yuan

MONTEREY, California - United States President Barack Obama's eight-day trip to four Asian countries, starting in Japan on Friday, comes at a time of significant changes and growing anxiety about what appears to be an increasingly marginalized US role in the region.

America's traditional alliances are under significant strain. The Yukio Hatoyama administration came into power after his Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) unseated the long-time ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in August's elections. Tokyo is 

 
trying to renegotiate the terms of the US-Japan alliance and is advocating a regional community (the East Asian Community) that may well exclude the US.

Likewise, the failure to move forward with a US-South Korea free-trade agreement signals retreat from regional economic arrangements. Obama will try to make amends, reassure America's allies, while refrain from lecturing Tokyo and Seoul on their obligations.

But the most critical segment of his visit is in China. Here, a fundamental issue facing the Obama administration, almost four decades after president Richard Nixon's historic visit in 1972, is how Washington should define its relationship with Beijing. Certainly, there are increasingly more common interests between the two countries, from restoring global economic and financial stability to managing climate change.

At the same time, the nature of the bilateral relationship, and hence US policy towards China, remains to be defined, agreed on, and actively pursued. Three fundamental issues immediately come to mind.

First, whether and to what extent China's rise represents a fundamental challenge to US interests remains undecided and constantly under debate. Thirty years after it embarked on a path of economic reform and opening up to the outside world, China has emerged as a dynamic economic power, with its gross domestic product (GDP) soon to surpass that of Japan. It has the largest foreign exchange reserve in the world (US$2.5 trillion), and a resilient growth rate amid global economic recession and financial meltdown. If anything, China's influence and clout have only risen in the wake of the current crisis.

China's newly acquired power and influence have enabled Beijing to expand its presence beyond Asia to Africa, Central Asia and Latin America, looking for resources and establishing economic and political ties. Chinese activism also extends to areas of international peace-keeping, international fora on important global issues, and leadership in regional institutional-building.

This raises a serious question for the United States. Historically, the rise of great powers typically has been accompanied by periods of power transition and, except in a few cases, rarely peaceful. While Beijing has on many occasions sought to reassure the world, the US in particular, that its intentions are peaceful, Washington has yet to be convinced and continues to harbor deep concerns.

Second, what specific policy should be adopted by the Obama administration? The issue is how to strengthen cooperation where the two countries have common interests and how to manage disputes where they disagree. This is perhaps the most obvious and yet the most daunting task for Washington.

During the 1970s and 1980s, when China was still relatively backward and when the common threat they faced was aggressive Soviet expansionism, it was possible for the two countries to shelve their differences and focus on common interests.

Since the end of the Cold War, the pendulum of US China policy has swung between containment and engagement, between strategic partnership and strategic competitor, and from hedging China's rise to demanding that China become a stakeholder in the international system, where its growing power comes with greater responsibilities.

Obama has inherited a bilateral relationship that has been characterized as cooperative, comprehensive and candid. The new administration is attempting to redefine the ties as positive, cooperative and comprehensive. Given residual mutual concerns and suspicions between the two countries, even as their common interests and the degree of their interdependence have never been more numerous and deep, a concept is emerging that calls for "strategic reassurance". In terms of this, the US would not seek to impede China's rise, while Beijing would ease Washington's concerns.

Whether "strategic reassurance" would redefine and inform the US's China policy and constitute the basis of an implicit bargain between the world's fast-rising power and its reigning one, is not clear. Much will depend on how the concept itself is interpreted. But most importantly, how the actual policy is developed and implemented. This is the third issue.

Four principles, if observed, should help the two powers better adapt and adjust during a period of power transition and enormous changes.

First, the China-US relationship is complex and defies labeling. Is it one of rivalry, competitors, or partners? It could be all of the above. Specific issues. such as pragmatism and cool-headedness, not high expectations and unreasonable demands, should be the defining features of the relationship.

Second, managing this complex relationship requires vision, statesmanship and constant nurturing that promote and expand areas of common interests, that is, where cooperation can and should be deepened. At the same time, the relationship must be able to anticipate, prepare and manage where differences exist and where disputes could arise, so that any negative impacts are minimized.

From solving the North Korean nuclear issue to dealing with climate change and environmental challenges, Beijing and Washington have been working closely and they could further strengthen their cooperation. On trade disputes, human rights and the Taiwan issue, efforts should be made to seek understanding and solutions rather than punitive measures, and escalation of tension and the imposition of one's views.

Third, it is critical to institutionalize the bilateral relationship at different levels of interactions, from regular summit meetings to dialogue on important strategic issues. Most importantly, military-to-military exchanges and crisis-management mechanisms are critical and yet underdeveloped elements of the relationship.

Finally, Beijing and Washington should recognize that their relationship is no longer characterized as purely bilateral; it has significant implications for regional and global developments. Therefore, they need to manage their ties with the understanding that cooperation and partnership could further global causes, such as financial stability and climate change, and contribute to regional stability, from the Korean Peninsula to the Iranian nuclear issue to the development of multilateral institutions.

Obama has a rare opportunity to reassure the Chinese leadership, including the core members of the upcoming fifth-generation of leaders, that the US seeks a pragmatic and cooperative partnership with China. He also needs to convey to his interlocutors that America also values its allies in Asia as much as it places growing importance in China. The trip should define a relationship based on vision, pragmatism and common purposes, rather than labels.

Dr Jing-dong Yuan is director of the East Asia Non-proliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies, Monterey Institute of International Studies.

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