US-China relations? It’s complicated (and interesting)

Allies, partners, adversaries… China-US relations probably defy all simplistic descriptions, but maybe a bit more on a personal personal level, in you opinion how does President Barack Obama see China and how does President Xi Jinping see the US? Read few comments.

Zhiqun ZhuAssociate Professor of Political Science and International Relations, Bucknell University

You are right, the US-China relationship defies a simple description. In fact, various descriptions miss the central point that the two countries are joined at the hip. They cannot choose whether they are friends or enemies.

President Xi is obviously very confident. China has always approached the US from a position of weakness, until now. One can argue that China under Xi is quickly narrowing the gap with the US. In some areas, China is in a position of strength, such as its purchasing power, its ambitious investments abroad, and growing global interest in learning Mandarin. Interestingly, Obama needs to use China’s “cap and trade” announcement on climate to sell his own initiative to US Congress.

President Obama is unlikely to achieve any diplomatic breakthrough in other areas such as North Korea or South China Sea during his remaining year in office. I think Xi’s eyes are on Obama’s successor, who will have no choice but seek cooperation with China. The ongoing global power shift will continue to create tensions between the two powers, and both powers will need to adjust to the new reality in which China is quickly catching up with the US.

Dibyesh Anand, Associate Professor, Head of Department of Politics and International Relations, London’s University of Westminster

The world is facing an interesting situation where the status quo major power and the primary emerging power are biggest trading partners with their economies entangled. The collapse of USSR for instance did not hard American economy but if there is a crisis in Chinese economy today, it will have a severe impact on the USA and the other way around. The phenomena of economic interdependence, political mistrust, and geopolitical competition explain the current state of US-China relations where the Cold War kind of mentality is absent but suspicion remains rife. While George W Bush was notorious for his war adventures in various parts of the world, it is under President Obama that the big shift of strategic focus of US military from West Asia to East Asia is taking place. Obama is aware that there is no option but to work with China and ensure that China does not challenge the existing liberal economic order by making it a stakeholder. He has been successful in this. However, US is also mindful that China harbours deep suspicion of US and respects power and not weakness and hence it will continue to maintain close relation with its Asian allies including Japan and Philippines and use them as buffer against possible Chinese expansionism. President Xi faces severe economic crisis in China and troublesome relation with a few neighbouring countries in Asia and would not want to antagonise USA and thus contribute to the self-fulfilling prophecy of encirclement. Xi’s main challenges remain domestic and in Asian neighbourhood and he will make sure the relation with US remain stable.

Harold TannerProfessor of Chinese History, Department of History, University of North Texas

To begin with, both men probably see each other’s countries in terms of very deep-set stereotypes. As a Chinese, Xi Jinping probably sees the United States as a very wealthy and powerful country, but one whose people are naïve and easily manipulated. It is also very likely that he sees the American government as dysfunctional and regards President Obama as a weak leader. Furthermore, Xi views the United States through the lens of China’s historical experience of imperialism and colonialism from the Opium War through the War of Resistance Against Japan, China’s Civil War, and the Korean War. This is a history in which the United States, for the most part, appears as the “bad guy,” working to subjugate China to Western hegemony.

As an American, Barack Obama probably regards China as a backward nation whose hard-working but oppressed people thirst for American-style freedoms.  He probably views Xi Jinping as a dictator who, while arrogating tremendous power to himself, is at the head of a very fragile government which could be seriously undermined by any crisis situation, leading to chaos and, perhaps, to the installation of a new, more democratic form of government. In historical terms, Barack Obama, like most Americans, probably sees a history in which the United States has always been the friend of the Chinese people (if not always of Chinese governments), a history in which the United States has always tried to help the intelligent, hardworking, but backward Chinese toward the blessings of modernity (i.e. capitalism and democracy).

Beyond these fundamental stereotypes, it is clear that as a leader of China, Xi Jinping regards the United States as a belligerent power. When Xi and his comrades in the Chinese Communist Party look at the United States, they see a country which is attempting to surround China with military bases, whose navy and air force operate in provocative ways around China’s maritime periphery, and whose diplomats have been consistently urging Japan, Vietnam, and the Philippines to take a stronger stance against China in the East China and South China Seas. With regard to Japan in particular, Xi probably interprets the re-interpretation of the Japanese Constitution to allow for joint defensive operations with allies (i.e. the USA) as clear evidence of a building American threat on the horizon.

By the same token, Barack Obama and the rest of the American leadership clearly regard China’s activities in the South China Sea, its increasingly assertive claims to the Diaoyu (or Senkaku) Islands, and its aggressive intercepts of American military aircraft in the region as evidence that China poses a military challenge to American hegemony in the Pacific/Southeast Asian region. China’s aggressive actions in cyberspace add to this perception.

In short, I think that the relations between the American and Chinese leaders are characterized by deep-set distrust and fear. These attitudes are reflected in the perceptions of ordinary Chinese and Americans. In a poll this year, the Pew Research Center found that “just 38% of Americans have a favorable view of China, compared with a global median of 55% across 39 countries. Only a slightly higher share of the Chinese public – 44% – give the U.S. a positive rating, in stark contrast with the global median of 69%.” Over half of Chinese surveyed believed that the United States is trying to prevent China from becoming a strong and wealthy country.

But at the same time, both Xi Jinping and Barack Obama are no doubt deeply aware of the degree to which the economies of their two countries are intertwined with each other and the degree to which both countries share not only economic interests but also have a common interest in combating environmental problems, particularly global warming. Both countries also have common interests in the preservations of stability in the Middle East (hence their ability to work together on the Iran nuclear deal) and on the Korean peninsula. These common interests provide at least some basis for continued cooperation. Nonetheless, the very deep differences between the two nations, and the deep-set cultural stereotypes through which Chinese and Americans, including Xi and Obama view each other, contain within them very serious challenges and, unfortunately, a very strong probability of conflict, up to and including outright war, in the next ten years.


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