A Partnership of Equals: How Washington Should Respond to China’s Economic Challenge

C. FRED BERGSTEN – Foreign Affairs

Copyright Foreign Affairs
An excerpt
In part, the strategy proposed here would treat old issues in new ways, recasting conflicts as opportunities for progress. The United States and China could agree to construct their regional trade agreements in ways that support, rather than impede, subsequent multilateral liberalization — and even permit eventual linkage between the regional bodies. Failures to offer significant new market-opening opportunities in the Doha Round would be addressed not as legitimate mercantilist behavior but as threats to the WTO that would jeopardize both countries’ stake in an open world economy. Competitive currency misalignments would be treated as deviations from IMF norms that hurt all trading partners, especially poor countries. Washington would concede that its errant fiscal policy has contributed to the overvaluation of the dollar, just as Beijing would concede that undervaluation of the yuan has reflected inadequate Chinese internal demand and excessive government intervention. The United States could escort China into the International Energy Agency to help organize the response of consuming countries to high oil prices.
More far-reaching steps might involve the creation of new international norms and institutional arrangements to govern issue areas that are important but currently unregulated, such as global warming and sovereign wealth funds (SWFs). To date, China has steadfastly refused to even contemplate binding constraints on its greenhouse gas emissions. So has the United States, but that stance seems likely to change dramatically after the presidential election in November, no matter who wins. An emissions regime, however, may well lead to the installation of trade barriers in participating countries against carbon-intensive products from nonparticipating countries. Moreover, global warming cannot be seriously addressed without China, which has become the world’s largest polluter. Unless Washington and Beijing find ways to cooperate in attacking the probem together, the result could be a trade war between them and little or no action on the environment.
China has already indicated some skepticism about the adoption of new international guidelines, even if voluntary and nonbinding, regarding the structure and investment activities of SWFs. But the United States is championing such codes in order to permit continued foreign investment and head off the risk of protectionist domestic reactions. Since the U.S. economy is especially dependent on Chinese capital, without some new agreement a frontal clash could develop over this issue, triggered either by China’s rejection of proposed new guidelines or by the United States’ rejection of Chinese investments in particularly sensitive areas.
Whether in dealing with old or new issues, the basic idea would be to develop a G-2 between the United States and China to steer the global governance process. Other major powers, such as the EU and, on some issues, Japan, would of course need to be deeply involved as well. The new rules, codes, or norms could frequently be implemented through existing multilateral institutions, such as the IMF and the WTO. Some of them might work better through new worldwide organizations created to deal with truly new issues, such as a global environmental organization to manage climate-change policy. But effective systemic defenses against international economic challenges in today’s world must start with active cooperation between its two dominant economies, the United States and China.
Given other powers’ sensitivities, of course, it would be impolitic for Washington and Beijing to use the term “G-2” publicly. But for the strategy to work, the United States would have to give true priority to China as its main partner in managing the world economy, to some extent displacing Europe. Nothing less is likely to attract China or engage the United States sufficiently to create the effective leadership that the world so desperately needs.
Some initial stes have already been taken in this direction. After I floated the idea of a G-2 in late 2004, Robert Zoellick, in his new capacity as deputy secretary of state, which he undertook in February 2005, launched initial discussions with Chinese counterparts. In 2007, Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson escalated the engagement to what is now known as the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue, which involves the leaders of ten or so cabinet agencies in each country. The beginnings of an institutional framework for a working G-2 have thus already been put in place, and patterns of cooperation are already developing on topics such as the environment and international finance. But it is not nearly enough for China to be seen as a “responsible stakeholder.” It must be seen, and accorded full rights, as a true leadership partner.
Such a relationship between a rich developed country and a poor developing one would be unprecedented in human history — as is there being a poor economic superpower, which is what China is. There are enough examples of similar cooperation on specific issues, however, to suggest that converting U.S.-Chinese disputes into systemic management issues can be extremely effective. In the late 1970s, for example, the United States was applying countervailing duties to scores of Brazilian products because Brazil’s export subsidies accounted for almost half the value of all of its foreign sales. A frontal assault on the subsidies was politically unacceptable in Brazil, but the two countries agreed to cooperate closely in negotiating a new subsidy code for the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (the precursor to the WTO): this agreement turned out to be simultaneously the linchpin of a successful Tokyo Round of trade talks, a basis for adding an injury clause to the U.S. countervailing-duty law, and a foundation for phasing out the Brazilian subsidy policy.
Are the United States and China ready for such a substantial reorientation? Washington would need to accept China as a true patner in managing global economic affairs, the development of an intimate working relationship with an Asian country rather than its traditional European allies, and constructive collaboration with an authoritarian political regime rather than a democracy. All these changes would pose substantial challenges for U.S. policymakers and would likely encounter domestic political resistance.
China is rapidly approaching a moment when its chosen strategy of integration into the world economy will force it to assume increased responsibility for the successful functioning of that economy. China’s own interests, in other words, should lead it to accept an invitation from the United States to help steer the system in a mutually acceptable direction. The Chinese today are hotly debating whether their country should proceed unilaterally or work within the international system, and an offer of true partnership could tilt the outcome of that debate decisively and constructively, raising the possibility that China could continue its upward trajectory without provoking the clashes that previous rising powers have.
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