US-China ties: cooperation and competition
In the mid-1960s, when the world was dominated by the two superpowers ― the United States and the Soviet Union ― China routinely described their relationship as one of “colluding and contending” for power and influence.
That was the view of a China that was economically weak and diplomatically isolated. Today, things are very different. The Soviet Union no longer exists and the world’s top two powers are now the United States and China, a rising superpower.
No one uses the phrase “colluding and contending” to describe their bilateral relationship, though that would not be too far off the mark. But the United States, at least, is quite willing to characterize the relationship as one of “cooperation and competition.”
Hillary Clinton, in her recent trip to Beijing, met with American embassy personnel and candidly acknowledged that the difficulty was “trying to find the right balance between cooperation and competition.”
In fact, her last visit to China as secretary of state underlined the nature of the U.S.-China relationship today, one in which the two countries compete for influence around the world but where they also cooperate when it is in their interest to do so, as in jointly opposing Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons.
While both openly attest friendship for the other, there is also a deep suspicion of the other’s intentions. Given this lack of mutual trust, perhaps the word “frenemies” best describes their relationship.
At a joint press conference with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, Mrs. Clinton frankly presented the situation as one of an established power dealing with a rising power.
Her conclusion was that the “United States and China must strive to achieve practical outcomes that benefit each of us as well as the broader region and the world.”
Mrs. Clinton’s itinerary itself is revealing. Her trip began with the Cook Islands in the South Pacific, which had never before been visited by an American secretary of state. But, the United States can no longer take any country, no matter how small, for granted any more.
"We are in a competition with China that is unbelievable," she said last year during congressional hearings. "They are expending enormous amounts of money. They have a huge diplomatic presence across the Pacific."
After visiting China, the top American diplomat went on to Timor Leste, a relatively new Southeast Asian country that had never previously hosted such a high-level U.S. official.
Cooperation and competition are illustrated by the hotspots of Iran and Syria. China and the U.S. share similar goals in Iran, where both oppose Tehran’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons, but they are far apart on Syria, where Washington supports the opposition in the widening civil war but Beijing insists on its principle of nonintervention in another country’s internal affairs.
There was evidently little if any movement on the South China Sea, where China’s territorial claims are contested by several Southeast Asian countries. The U.S., which asserts its neutrality in territorial disputes, says it is interested in maintaining freedom of navigation, but China insists that such freedom is not in danger.
Unfortunately for Washington, the ASEAN countries and China agreed in 2002 that territorial disputes should be resolved bilaterally by the parties involved. However, Beijing is agreeable in principle to negotiating a code of conduct with ASEAN, though it is utterly improbable that such an accord can be reached before this year’s East Asia Summit in November, as Mrs. Clinton urged.
On the territorial dispute between China and Japan over a group of small, uninhabited islands, the United States has stated its neutrality on the sovereignty issue but asserts that the islands are covered by its security treaty with Japan. China has protested repeatedly against this American stance.
Behind the scenes, however, Washington may well advise Japan not to take provocative actions. But Japanese right-wing nationalists sometimes deliberately provoke China, eliciting a Chinese protest, and the Japanese government then publicly reasserts Japanese sovereignty, touching off another round of recriminations.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China and the signing of the Shanghai communique, a remarkable document which emphasized differences between the two countries.
Today, managing their differences is more important than ever, not only for the health of the relationship but for the well-being of the world as well. And an ability to manage their differences is the prerequisite to working together to resolve global issues. After 40 years, both sides recognize the importance of maintaining a stable relationship, even if each continues to stick to its principles.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. Email the writer at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1.