The Great Debate: Whither U.S.-China Relations?

Copyright TMP

This is the first post in a new TMP series titled “The Great Debate,” a round-up of opinions from experts, officials, professors and students on a pressing question in international affairs.

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping concluded a significant trip to the United States last week. Speaking with his counterparts in Washington, traveling to the Iowa town where he spent part of his college years, and even taking in a Lakers game in Los Angeles, Xi presented an image of a confident, self-assured China.

Xi is expected to assume the leadership of his country later this year and his tenure comes at a particularly important moment in U.S.-China relations given the breadth of economic, military, and other international issues on which the two countries may collaborate or butt heads.

In light of his visit, TMP’s new series “The Great Debate” turned to the experts to ask:

Will US-China relations improve under Xi Jinping’s leadership? Or are they likely to deteriorate under the 5th generation of party leaders?

(Several experts weigh in on these questions. Here’s my take. The full article can be accessed via the link below.)

Howard French, Columbia University

There are simply too many variables and unknowns to confidently predict the direction of U.S.-China relations under Xi Jinping and the so-called Fifth Generation of leaders.

What stands out for me at this moment, nonetheless, are a number of signs that point more toward turbulence than to smooth sailing.

What are these signs? To begin with, leadership politics in China seem to be entering a major new phase with the prospect of increasingly open and contentious jousting between individuals and factions. There is every prospect of this extending beyond merely patronage, position and favors and extending into the realm of real contests over policy and direction. This will happen in the absence of a strong elder statesman figure to mediate and adjudicate matters.

The relevance for bilateral relations is indirect, but potentially important. A situation of such fluidity and turbulence could encourage leaders to play the nationalist card to shore up their credentials and popular appeal. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a new leadership under almost any circumstances staking its reputation and prestige on accommodation of the U.S.

This leads to a second and related consideration. There is a lot of tension inherent to a dynamic that involves the relative rise of a rising power at the expense, both real and perceived of the established superpower. This is an unavoidably awkward and potentially dangerous situation, with one side reluctant to concede and the other sometimes over-eager to assert its new prerogatives. In both countries, public opinion plays an important and sometimes capricious role, reducing the room for maneuver of leaders or pushing them toward bad decisions.

Having said all of this, ten years, which is the nominal term of the incoming Chinese leadership, is a very long time, during which much can happen, including not just unpleasant outcomes. Under the right circumstances, a successful beginning to the new leadership’s mandate could make it a much more confident and relaxed working partner over the longer term.

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