A Sino-American G-2?

Too many negatives exist to make the idea work
Published : 12 April 2014

By: Brad Nelson

Chinese officials have called for a new and special type of great power relationship with the United States for over a year.  Chinese experts believe that what the government of President Xi Jinping wants from America is a G-2-style relationship. Presumably, this “G-2” would be a concert-based system in which both states recognize each other as rough equals and attempt to jointly manage the world.

This is partly self-serving on China’s part. Beijing wants respect, status and prestige as a rising power. Should China receive greater respect from Washington, Xi and his associates will likely gain domestic political advantages, including a rise in Chinese pride and confidence in their governing abilities.

That said, we ought not to overlook the potential international benefits of such a great power arrangement. Most notably, the prospect of the US and China solidifying their relations is good for peace and stability in the world.  Moreover, a formal G-2 could provide the foundation for better policy coordination between Beijing and Washington to meet pressing international threats and challenges, thereby giving a big boost to the problem solving capacities of the international community.

Nevertheless, Team Obama has ignored these calls from China. The Obama administration does want to work with China, especially on issues like North Korea and climate change, as Secretary of State John Kerry's latest visit to Beijing attests. But Barack Obama does not want to grant China enhanced status in the world. He's unlikely to change his mind.

Why? What are some of the factors dissuading Obama from embracing a G-2? There are five things to consider:

1. It would be political suicide for Obama to elevate China’s place in the world. The political right in the US hammers him constantly for being weak and ineffectual on foreign policy. In particular, Republicans believe Team Obama has failed to demonstrate effective leadership on the world stage, and the trouble in Ukraine and sour US-Russian relations are only the latest in a long line of problematic issues for the White House.  This poor leadership, in their view, has given rise to chaos and turmoil internationally and ushered in a period of American decline.

By treating China as an equal partner in the world, Obama would surely play into all of the negative stereotypes about his presidency that have been propagated by the American right. But a G-2 would also be unpopular among independents and leftists. These groups have a strong working class base that already fears a Chinese takeover of the American economy.  They would likely see a G-2 as Obama going soft on Beijing at a time when US economic, security and political interests should be defended from Chinese encroachment.

Although he is a second-term president who does not have to worry about running for re-election, Obama still has reasons to care about how he and his policies are perceived by the American public. Costly, unpopular foreign policy decisions—something that would likely apply to a G-2—could damage Obama’s legacy, something that’s extremely important to him, according to friends, colleagues, and journalists who know him well. Additionally, if his presidency tanks over the next two plus years—perhaps as a result of ceding some leadership to China – Obama’s Democratic Party would be adversely impacted in the 2014 and 2016 elections. Obama does not want to be the one who leads the Democratic Party into a political wilderness.

2. In 2005, US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick exhorted China to come out of its shell and become an “international stakeholder.” Since that time, for whatever reasons, China has not fulfilled these expectations.  China formulates and executes its foreign policies with little regard to how they are received regionally and internationally. This is a major reason China lags behind the US in terms of soft power. Just look at China’s moves in the South and East China Seas or at how Beijing responded to typhoon Haiyan: in these instances, China has behaved selfishly and spitefully.  Clearly, China isn’t ready for prime-time just yet. If that’s the case, then why should the US accord China the kind of status that implies leadership and dependability in world affairs?

3. China is not a super power. Over the last 35 years, Chinese power has grown by leaps and bounds. Its economy is surging, its military is making rapid advancements, and its diplomacy is carrying greater heft. However, there is another side to the story. At this point, China’s ability to project military power is far inferior to America’s capabilities. Its economy has slowed from the days of double-digit annual growth and currently has several weak spots. Beijing has a major pollution problem to fix. China faces a homegrown terrorist movement that’s increasingly dangerous as evidenced by the recent and horrifying Kunming attacks. It also has few real friends in the world, and it faces regional states that are actively looking to constrain its rise.

Going forward, there is no guarantee that China will catch up to or pass the US in power and influence. By agreeing to a G-2, the US would be making a host of hasty assumptions about what China will look and act like in the future. Why grant China a piece of the leadership mantle when it might never be a regional hegemon or a peer? It doesn’t make sense at this point.

4. Sino-American ties are relatively good at the moment, but there's certainly a level of distrust and uncertainty on both sides. For the US, there are concerns about Chinese motives and long-term objectives. Some prominent American scholars, such as University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer, speculate that China’s goal is to kick the US out of East Asia and eventually all of Asia. And recent actions by China, such as its assertiveness in the South and East China Seas—especially China’s Air Defense Identification Zone in the East—only exacerbates these concerns. Put simply, the US just doesn’t trust China enough to take the leap of faith that it will be a benign, responsible partner. The US and China lack a longstanding history of warm ties to overcome the present barriers.

5. A G-2 would face protests and opposition from a number of countries, including those in Asia, like Japan, the Philippines and India, among others. They would fear being sold out by the US, essentially handing the region over to China. In such a position, they would reason, China could attempt to dominate and bully them. The reality is that these countries don’t want to be left alone to face China; they want America’s help to balance against it. As a result, most Asian countries, as well as countries in neighboring regions, would likely put immense pressure on the US to scrap any co-leadership plans with China.

 Brad Nelson is president and co-founder of Center for World Conflict and Peace, a research organization, and an adjunct professor of international relations at Saint Xavier University in Chicago, Illinois


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