U.S.-China G-2 Plan Sparks Debate

Experts debate U.S.-China strategic ties.
By Michael Lelyveld
2009.05.04
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BOSTON--Calls for closer U.S.-China strategic relations have run into criticism from policy analysts, who argue that too many differences between the two countries remain unresolved.

In January, U.S. experts including former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser, urged the incoming Obama administration to raise relations to a higher level.

On issues ranging from climate change to nuclear threats, little progress is likely without closer U.S.-China cooperation, Brzezinski argued in a speech reprinted by the official China Daily, marking the 30th anniversary of establishing diplomatic ties.

Brzezinski called for "an informal G-2" between the two powers that would advance cooperation beyond the frameworks of the G-8 group of industrialized nations and the G-20 list of the largest economies.

"The relationship between the U.S. and China has to be truly a comprehensive global partnership, parallel [to] our relations with Europe and Japan," Brzezinski said.

But the G-2 idea has drawn fire from other experts, who argue that the attempt will not work.

Raised expectations

"It will raise expectations for a level of partnership that cannot be met and exacerbate the very real differences that still exist between Washington and Beijing," said Council on Foreign Relations analysts Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal, writing in the current issue of Foreign Affairs.

"Even after 30 years of engagement, the United States and China still disagree about how the world should work," said Economy and Segal.

Among the "mismatched interests, values, and capabilities," the authors cited differences over the importance of human rights, particularly in countries like Sudan, where China invests and sources oil.

China is "often incapable" of meeting commitments on product safety and the environment because of internal resistance, they said. Military cooperation has been hampered by China's lack of transparency, maritime claims, and continued missile targeting of Taiwan.

Economic cooperation has also been frustrated by issues including trade imbalances and currency reforms. Instead of raising the level of bilateral relations, the United States should be coordinating multilateral approaches to China with its allies to make progress, Segal and Economy said.

"When bilateral efforts have yielded so little over the past decade or so in terms of real progress on some key issues like human rights, then I think stronger measures need to be considered," Economy told Radio Free Asia in an interview.

Coordination needed

Coordinated U.S. and allied action is appropriate to help China on some issues like the environment, but Economy also said that "we ought to be thinking about coordinated action in terms of pressuring China" on other issues like investment in Sudan.

"We've seen in limited cases, on the Darfur issue, for example, around the time of the Olympics, that global opinion does matter to China," she said. "You can get some movement when the rest of the world calls out to China to do the right thing."

During her February trip to China, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signaled an enhanced level of engagement with China, taking the form of a "strategic and economic dialogue," rather than the narrower Strategic Economic Dialogue pursued by former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, focusing on economic concerns.

In March, Clinton's meeting with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in Washington reportedly helped to ease strains over an incident involving a U.S. Navy surveillance ship and Chinese vessels in international waters of the South China Sea.

But commentators like John Pomfret have cited the risks of expecting China to cooperate on a broad range of issues. Writing in Newsweek and the Washington Post, Pomfret called the G-2 proposal "romantic" and warned against "falling into the trap of expecting more from China than it can deliver."

At a Euro-China forum in the northern city of Tianjin, former French Prime Minister Laurent Fabius also argued for a multilateral approach to world problems and criticized the G-2 idea as "largely an illusion," the official Xinhua news agency reported on April 29.

Middle course

China experts like Lowell Dittmer, a political science professor at the University of California Berkeley campus, see a middle course between a G-2 relationship and overt multilateral policy pressure to advance U.S. goals.

For years, U.S. policy in East Asia has been based on alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand, he said. Recent openings to India may also give China the impression that it is the object of a containment policy.

"In that sense, it's useful to try to think of something in which China could be included," Dittmer told RFA. But there are practical barriers to a G-2 relationship, not the least of which is Chinese resistance due to concerns about differences like human rights, Dittmer said.

Dialogue at any level is only a forum for debating differences, he argued, so that the new strategic and economic talks may open avenues to promote U.S. policies.

On the other hand, U.S. consultations with allies could be helpful to coordinate stands on issues like Tibet. Dittmer noted that China has retaliated against countries that receive the Dalai Lama. By agreeing on a common policy, U.S. allies could reduce the risk of retaliatory steps, he said.

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