Tuesday, March 9, 2010

326) USA-China: Tension is Overrated - Minxin Pei

The Tension is Overrated
Minxin Pei
International Herald Tribune, February 16, 2010

The state of the U.S.-China relationship exhibits classic symptoms of a bipolar disorder — sudden and dramatic swings between euphoria and depression. Barely three months ago, when President Obama was feted in Beijing, it was euphoria. At the moment, when Beijing hurls insults at Washington almost daily, it is decidedly depression.

The rapid downturn in a relationship that was, until recently, marked by cordiality and tranquility has led many to worry about another extreme: a qualitative deterioration and eventually a full-fledged rivalry.

Such fears are overblown, in the same way that recent talks of a close-knit U.S.-China strategic partnership (a.k.a. G-2) were premature and naïve.

In many ways, the sudden worsening of ties between Beijing and Washington really means that U.S.-China relations are returning to “normalcy.” Because of the deep and unbridgeable differences between the two countries in terms of their political values, conceptions of international order and geopolitical interests, constant frictions, even minor conflicts, should be the rule. Chumminess and absence of tensions, as displayed during Mr. Obama’s first year in office, are actually the exception.

Additionally, the downturn in ties also reflects two important policy adjustments by President Obama. First, a tough stance toward China is part of an overall hardening of his foreign policy. China is not getting special treatment. Second, the Obama administration has specific reasons to be less accommodating to China because of Beijing’s recent assertiveness, such as its uncooperative behavior at the Copenhagen climate change summit, obstructionism on sanctions against Iran, and intensified repression of dissent at home.

Some worry that Beijing will respond to Washington’s policy adjustments with retaliation, thus initiating a vicious cycle.

While it is true that the Chinese government has turned up its blustering several notches, we should learn to tell bark from bite. Other than canceling its military exchange program with the U.S., which is not viewed as productive in any case, China’s retaliations are mostly rhetorical and symbolic. The real test, of course, will be Iran. If Beijing single-handedly blocks sanctions against Tehran at the United Nations Security Council, that would be serious. But Chinese leaders must also know that they will surely face the united wrath of the United States and Europe, a prospect no smart mandarins in China relish.

There are additional grounds for cautious optimism. The two countries are now so economically intertwined that a major disruption in their political relationship could severely damage their respective economic interests, a price neither wants to pay. Economic interdependence also means that neither China nor the U.S. can hurt the other without harming itself. In spite of the heated words in the official Chinese press, it is reassuring to note that Beijing and Washington are merely fighting the same old fights: Taiwan, Tibet and human rights. Both sides are familiar with the ground rules for these disputes and, so far, have observed them.

Some worry that Chinese leaders may have such hubris that they will assert themselves with unusual aggressiveness. On the surface, that sounds plausible. However, Beijing’s rulers are ruthless, but cautious, realists. It is unlikely that they have deluded themselves into believing that they are now strong enough to stare down the U.S. Most importantly, acutely aware of their own domestic frailties, they understand that a costly confrontation with America will endanger their hold on power.

What lies ahead should be familiar to China watchers: After the huffing and puffing is over, Beijing and Washington will start repairing the damage. As for the rest of the world, it had better get used to frequent, but controlled, rows between China and the United States.
Minxin Pei is an adjunct senior associate in the China Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is also Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government and Roberts Fellow, and the director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies at Claremont McKenna College.

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