United States and China: Will Positive Relations Endure?

By Robert Sutter, Visiting Professor, Asian Studies at the School of Foreign Service, Georgetown University

He recently completed consultations with officials and non-government opinion leaders in 15 Asian-Pacific cities.

Since the early years of the George W. Bush administration, US and Chinese leaders have endeavored to emphasize the positive aspects of the US-China relationship and to deal with

their many differences out of the public limelight, mainly through the dozens of largely secret dialogues that characterize recent Sino-American relations. Barack Obama came to office with the unusual distinction of avoiding significant China related issues during his long presidential campaign.

ince taking office, Obama has sought the cooperation of China and other world powers to deal with such key international issues as the global financial crisis, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and climate change. Despite this cooperation, Congress, the American media and various interest groups have continued to highlight security, economic and political differences that impede forward movement in US-China relations.

Meanwhile, the so-called propaganda apparatus of China, one of the six major governing systems in the Chinese administration, for many years ensured that Chinese media and other commentary followed the mainly positive posture favoured by the Chinese government.

Emerging differences

This discreet Chinese approach changed over the past two years. Chinese officials and media took issue with the United States in 2009 over such questions as US surveillance in the South China Sea; management of the US dollar and of China’s large investments in US government securities; US arms sales to Taiwan and US support for Tibet. This year, Chinese officials in private and public asserted the South China Sea is a core interest and objected strenuously to US exercises with South Korea in reaction to North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean navy vessel, Cheonan, which killed 46 South Korean sailors.

In apparent response, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reinforced recent US activism in Southeast Asia with an intervention over the South China Sea at the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi in July. The Chinese Foreign Ministry characterized her speech as ‘an attack’ on China.

Tensions seemed to rise further when China demanded that a US aircraft carrier not take part in exercises with South Korea in the Yellow Sea, and the US aircraft carrier George Washington and other advanced naval vessels soon dropped anchor off Vietnam, in celebration of US relations with the strongest disputant of China’s claims in the South China Sea.


Commentators have warned that China has now reached a point of economic, military, and political power in Asia such that it is prepared to confront and challenge many aspects of US policy and practice in the region that it has long disagreed with. These observers view the US leadership position in decline because of economic difficulties and extensive military commitments in the Middle East and South Asia.

Additionally, forces of ‘nationalism’ and behind-the-scenes maneuvers of Chinese leadership ‘factions’ seeking advantage by pushing a more assertive public stance against Washington are compelling Chinese leaders to adopt a tougher public posture toward the US.

These assessments and pronouncements foretell a worrisome situation of greater instability in Asia as rising China confronts and challenges the United States on Taiwan, Tibet, trade issues, access to waters near China, and other sensitive issues.

In contrast, this observer sees clear limits on how far China is prepared to go in pursuing a tougher posture toward the United States in Asia. Consultations with dozens of officials and non-government experts in 15 Asia-Pacific cities in recent months confirm the United States at present continues to exert unsurpassed security and economic influence in Asia, unchallenged by China or any other power or coalition of powers.

The People’s Republic of China has a long way to go in seeking Asian leadership; on account of its legacy as a disruptive force in the region for most of its history; its sometimes erratic efforts to reassure its neighbors; its unwillingness to bear the security and economic costs and risks borne by the United States in its leadership role; and pervasive contingency planning and ‘hedging’ by the independent minded Asian governments who seek closer relations with the United States in order to preserve their independence of action as China rises in prominence.

To challenge the United States also would seem to require the PRC to resort to the tactics used throughout its history when dealing with a key international target, improving its leverage with other actors and isolating the target. But the existing international situation shows China with poor or mediocre relations with European powers, Japan, and India, and with less favorable relations than in the recent past with such key regional actors as Australia, South Korea, and Russia.


China is in no position to launch a serious challenge to the United States. Like their US counterparts, Chinese leaders need positive engagement with the United States because they benefit from the engagement. Emphasizing differences hurts China as well as the United States, and both Chinese and American leaders remain preoccupied with many other priorities and seek to avoid additional problems that would come with serious tensions in Sino-American relations.

The Chinese administration has now opened the way to more public discussion and debate regarding Chinese differences with the United States. The administration may use the public debate to press for changes in US policy in key areas, suspecting that if the US remains firm China does not risk strong negative countermeasures from a US president still seeking Chinese cooperation on important issues.

This article was originally published by the East Asia Forum and can be found here.


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