China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?
China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?

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China and the USA: cooperation or conflict?

4.1 The United States ‘pivot’ to Asia

Figure 13 Hillary Clinton speaks on the US role in the Asia Pacific, Cook Islands, 2012

China’s rise and a reassessment of US priorities led the Obama administration to announce in 2011 a ‘pivot’ to Asia. In a much-publicised article in Foreign Policy magazine, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spelled out the new policy priority:

As the war in Iraq winds down and America begins to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan, the United States stands at a pivot point. Over the last 10 years, we have allocated immense resources to those two theaters. In the next 10 years, we need to be smart and systematic about where we invest time and energy, so that we put ourselves in the best position to sustain our leadership, secure our interests, and advance our values. One of the most important tasks of American statecraft over the next decade will therefore be to lock in a substantially increased investment – diplomatic, economic, strategic, and otherwise – in the Asia–Pacific region.

(Clinton, 2011, p. 56)

Activity 4

Timing: About 20 minutes

Listen to this short excerpt from a report from BBC Radio 4’s World Tonight programme recorded in 2013. The report is from the BBC's Washington correspondent, Paul Adams, and is introduced by Ritulah Shah. As you listen, make notes in the box below on the following questions.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: World Tonight
Skip transcript: World Tonight: Paul Adams

Transcript: World Tonight: Paul Adams

Ritulah Shah
Let’s think about how the new China handles its relationship with the United States. President Obama announced that the US was going to concentrate on the Asia-Pacific Region. It’s what’s become known as the pivot to Asia. Now this marked a departure from the more traditional focus on Europe and the Middle East and many in China have seen this as an attempt to contain China and they view it with deep suspicion.
Paul Adams, our Washington Correspondent, looks at what the Americans mean by ‘the pivot to Asia‘.
Barack Obama
After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia-Pacific Region.
Paul Adams
November, 2011 and Barack Obama addresses the Australian Parliament and announces a much anticipated re-balancing of foreign policy priorities, a pivot towards Asia and one country in particular.
Barack Obama
The United States will continue our effort to build a co-operative relationship with China.
Paul Adams
It’s been more than forty years since Richard Nixon’s stunning announcement that he was off to see Chairman Mao. It’s hardly been plain sailing since then. Human Rights, cyber espionage, Taiwan and Tibet there are any number of differences, but over the course of four decades an elaborate network of ties has evolved in order to keep this difficult relationship on track. Michael Pillsbury has been advising Presidents on Defence policy since Jimmy Carter.
Michael Pillsbury
There's more than fifty different mechanisms by which the Chinese government and the American government meet periodically. It’s a very extensive system for consultation but on top of the whole thing of course is the President and the Chinese leader and that is where, so far, nothing hostile has been said by one side against the other. The United States has avoided calling China a threat. We simply don’t do that. What you do find is lots of voices from scholars and some lower level officials who do say harsh things about the other side.
Voiceover
China is stealing American ideas and technology everything from computers to fighter jets. Seven times Obama could have taken action. Seven times he said ‘no‘.
And even though the President is supposed to sail above all this, China bashing is a staple of the American electoral cycle.
Voiceover
Romney’s never stood up to China. All he’s done is send them our jobs.
I'm Barack Obama and I approve this message.
Paul Adams
The implication of course is that one presidential candidate is more likely to bend China to his will than the other, a notion most China experts here would regard as fatuous. Not only does it not work but it serves to fuel Beijing’s fear that what Washington really wants is not so much co-operation as containment.
Michael Pillsbury
I think containment is a ridiculous notion to apply to US policy toward China. I see this in the media all the time. I especially see it in the Chinese media.
Paul Adams
Kenneth Lieberthal advised President Clinton on national security and is now a China specialist at the Brookings Institution.
Kenneth Lieberthal
I think that you have to ignore almost everything the United States has done in the last thirty years including in the last few years to reach a conclusion that we are seeking to contain China. We have developed a mutually interdependent set of economic and trade relations including financial relationships. We encourage if anything greater Chinese assumption of responsibility in issues around the world. We find the Chinese are not as willing to step up to issues as we would like them to.
Paul Adams
But if the desire for engagement is real, it’s hampered, says Kenneth Lieberthal, by a chronic degree of mutual ignorance, something decades of high-level contacts have yet to overcome.
Kenneth Lieberthal
I think there is a serious problem at a high level on both systems of a lack of real understanding of how the other political system works and therefore often a misinterpretation and misunderstanding may be interpreted as, you know, some major strategic move. I've seen that happen, frankly, repeatedly on both sides over the years. It does worry me.
Paul Adams
That might sound surprising given the huge importance of the relationship but Michael Pillsbury says there's something even more fundamental going on – call it a clash of exceptionalism.
Michael Pillsbury
Americans often say seriously, often they're joking, when they say we’re sent by God to enlighten the world and the Chinese have their own concept that they used to be the centre of the universe and some day will be again. So obviously when you have two rather powerful nations who have this sense of exceptionalism it’s rather difficult to co-operate on tangible things.
End transcript: World Tonight: Paul Adams
World Tonight: Paul Adams
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).
  1. In what ways do contributors to the report portray the relationship in terms of cooperation?
  2. What are mentioned as key problems and areas of conflict in the relationship?
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Discussion

  1. You will have heard speakers – President Obama, for example – talk of the attempt to build cooperation with China, and others talking of the extensive cooperation, communication and dialogue between the United States and China via multiple diplomatic channels.
  2. A range of issues – including cyber espionage, human rights and disputed territories – are highlighted as areas of tension and conflict. It is also claimed that there was substantial ignorance and misunderstanding between the two.

Now listen to this extract from the subsequent studio debate between US and Chinese analysts. The discussion is chaired by Ritulah Shah and features Chinese academics Wang Yizhou and Jin Canrong, and US analysts Paul Haenle and Ian Bremmer.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: World Tonight
Skip transcript: World Tonight: Studio debate

Transcript: World Tonight: Studio debate

Ritulah Shah
Wang Yizhou - a clash of exceptionalism. It sounds like a rather gruesome essay title but is it real? Would you say that is a way of thinking about this relationship?
Wang Yizhou
I think two things are very crucial for future Sino-US relations. One is whether two leaders can successfully manage some potential crisis. The second challenge is that whether United States majority really believe that China's prosperous and peaceful rising are opportunity for US, or think that China’s rising is finally will be big obstacle for US leadership, whether in Pacific area or global arenas. And to challenge that I think right now not only consider our narrow national interests but also decrease American’s concern will decrease other neighbouring countries’ concern. They will say ‘Okay, China is rising after all it is also our opportunities’.
Ritulah Shah
Paul Haenle, how much is this about US attitudes as much as anything else? We heard Kenneth Lieberthal talk about the ‘chronic ignorance’, I think is the phrase that he used, that there is in the United States of China. Is this relationship made much worse by that lack of understanding?
Paul Haenle
I think it’s on both sides. I don’t think it’s just the US. I mean I think here in China it’s also misunderstood. And frankly, you know, going back to the pivot, I think the pivot was rolled out very badly. You know we've had presence in Asia for a hundred years, especially since the aftermath of World War Two, but we never, that I can remember, in history felt the need to roll it out in such a high-handed sort of loud way to the region. And I think there was domestic political factors to that. I think there was also an element of reassuring our South East Asia friends and other friends in Asia that we’re not going away. But I think what the Chinese should – if you read the language closely and having worked in the White House for five years as China Director for two Presidents, I believe that the aspect that is missed is the fact that in order for the rebalancing strategy to work it requires constructive and stable relations with China, that’s a key aspect of it. Now you would not have – you would not have concluded that from listening to the pivot or from reading Hillary Clinton’s article in Foreign Policy magazine, which said as we draw down our forces in Afghanistan and Iraq we’re going to pivot to Asia. And I think what was left out of that was the diplomatic element of the rebalancing the economic element of the rebalancing and frankly the element that we need a constructive and stable relationship with China.
Ritulah Shah
Jin Canrong?
Jin Canrong
I think the financial crisis is a big issue for the recent US–China relations. Many change can trace back to that event. And this financial crisis hurt US economy and hurt the confidence of the society. And China also changed – China actually benefits from this event. The rise in China accelerated by – by financial crisis. Then comes the new issue of the pivot strategy. Most of the public here believe the pivot strategy is mainly targeted at China. And they are relying on military power and the goal is to have encirclement – encirclement against China. But according to my observation within the decision-making circle, the observation is much more balanced. I think the leaders know there are multi-motivations behind the pivot and not only targeted at China. And the approach is rather complicated not just relying on military and the goal is not to encircle against China but rather to put some norms on China’s future behaviour. So that’s why although the pivot leads to some mistrust but Chinese leaders, especially the new leader, Xi Jinping, rates that this new concept so called ‘new type of a major power relations’.
Ritulah Shah
Ian Bremmer we have heard a little bit about the mistrust just there. If there is to be this kind of new power relationship, do China and the United States need to focus on things where they can have a common interest and North Korea comes to mind.
Ian Bremmer
They do, but we also need to understand that there are fewer things that we have common interest than we used to and that is part of the problem. It’s not just mutual exceptionalism though that certainly exists. It’s also that historically the Chinese have followed America’s lead on all these norms and values because they were small and didn’t have a choice. Now they're bigger, they have a choice and they'd rather do less of it. We need to recognise how radically different these countries actually are. The United States is a rich industrial country.  China’s poor. Not just Greece poor or Portugal poor. It’s six thousand dollars per capita. The average American has no conception of what that actually means but it means that the Chinese have completely different perspectives on what they need to do and not do in terms of industrialisation; in terms of climate, in terms of trade. They have a state capitalist system. That’s a system that’s diametrically opposed to the US in many ways but it’s the way that the Chinese have become world beaters economically and they need to continue it. The Americans don’t accept that. So there are true mutual lack of interests and zero sameness in this relationship that will frankly become more problematic. They need to be well managed but they will become more problematic.
Ritulah Shah
But if you were about to take charge of China, then in a sense does that leadership now have to catch up with the fact that yes, the per capita income of the people may be very low, but this is economically an enormously powerful country and therefore has no choice but to take its place on the world stage?
Ian Bremmer
I think the answer is no. I would resist that strongly. If I were – if I were a Chinese leader I would say I want no part of a G2. I want no part of responsible stakeholdership. You're asking me to act like a rich country when I'm not. You're asking me to follow rules that you created to benefit you. That’s what the US wants. And I'm an American. We want that. But the Chinese government doesn’t want it. They’re saying increasingly loudly that they don’t want it. The fact that they're going to become the world’s largest economy should give us no illusions as Americans that they're going to act like the United States. They will not. And the responsible stakeholder concept is one that strikes most Chinese as arrogant and ill-minded.
End transcript: World Tonight: Studio debate
World Tonight: Studio debate
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  1. Note down what is said about the role of domestic politics and the views of political leaders.
  2. What contrasts in views can you note about the potential for cooperation and conflict?
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Discussion

You may have noted a number of points. Here are some that we noted:

  1. Wang Yizhou claims that crucial to cooperation will be the ability of the two leaders to successfully manage potential crises, and whether domestic populations in other countries see the potential gains from China’s rise. Paul Haenle also notes the damage to relations that the mishandling of the pivot announcement caused, obscuring areas of mutual interest.
  2. Jin Canrong notes how popular Chinese views saw the pivot as a hostile move and a signal for potential conflict. However, the Chinese leadership didn’t interpret the pivot in such negative ways. Speaking just as Xi Jinping assumed his premiership in 2013, Canrong argues that China's new leadership is pursuing a ‘new type of major power relations’. In stark contrast, and emphasizing conflict, Ian Bremmer highlights persistent and, in his view, growing areas of zero-sum relations.
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