What the US and China need to do

By Elizabeth Economy
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail China Daily, February 13, 2012
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 [By JIao Haiyang/China.org.cn]

 [By JIao Haiyang/China.org.cn]

With Vice-President Xi Jinping's visit to Washington, DC, there is hope that a new face will usher in a new era in Sino-US relations.

The simple truth is that the US and China have had few reasons to celebrate their relationship since China's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001. Efforts to cooperate on issues as wide-ranging as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, climate change and Iran have fallen well short of full cooperation. Different priorities, approaches and values often undermine the best intentions on both sides. The result is a bilateral relationship that is characterized above all by uncertainty, mistrust and frequent friction.

There is a path forward, but it will necessitate a reorientation in the perspectives of leaders in both countries. First, both sides need to acknowledge that they are unlikely to find themselves aligned closely on most issues. In some cases, the difference will be a matter of degree. For example, while Washington and Beijing agree on certain issues against Iran, they don't agree on how broadly encompassing the sanctions should be.

In other cases, the differences will be more profound, as when the US and China found themselves on opposite sides of the recent draft UN Security Council resolution on Syria. There may even be instances in which we find ourselves actively at cross-purposes, such as in the South China Sea, where China's moves have run up against opposition from some of its neighbors and a consequent enhanced US presence.

Recognizing and admitting openly the differences is the only way to begin developing policies that will either mitigate the potential for serious conflict or expand the opportunities for real cooperation.

Second, perhaps counter-intuitively, both sides should de-emphasize the potential import of the relationship. While talk of a "G2" has subsided, there is still a tendency to raise unrealistic expectations of what the bilateral relationship can accomplish. De-emphasizing the relationship might also help avoid placing issues into a bilateral context when they don't belong there. In fact, most issues should not be understood in the context of the US-China relationship. The decision of Myanmar's president to halt construction of the Myitsone dam or to undertake the first steps toward political reform, for example, is not usefully understood as an issue between the US and China, although it affects both countries.

Similarly, as China becomes more engaged in Afghanistan, there has been a tendency to place Afghanistan in the cross hairs of the US-China relationship to no good effect. The extent to which both China and the US view the bilateral relationship - as one among many bilateral relationships - will help reduce the pressure on the relationship to shoulder more than it can bear.

Third, China and the US must also make an effort to be the standard-bearers for multilateral institutions. Institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) help constrain the worst excesses and impulses of both economic powers and provide an impartial arena for the adjudication of disputes. The rules-based system thrives on understanding that you win some and you lose some.

Fourth, the US and China should identify a long-term common objective that will force both sides to engage deeply and continuously, as they did during China's WTO accession process.

Given the increasing economic stake both countries have in each other, one possibility might be a free trade agreement or bilateral investment treaty, both of which have been proposed by senior US business leaders. Such agreements are likely to take years to negotiate. However, the ongoing talks would force a certain discipline on both sides, offer clear benefits for powerful actors in both countries and provide the potential for meaningful accomplishment.

Finally, as the US and China work to establish themselves as credible leaders in the international community, each has at least one serious deficit to overcome. The US must ensure that it practices what it preaches. Whether on climate change or fiscal responsibility, the US cannot urge others to adopt best practices if it does not have its own house in order. And for China to be an effective global leader, it needs to increase transparency, improve the rule of law and enhance official accountability.

I hope, along with most Americans, that the visit of Xi Jinping will mark the beginning of a more cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship. A more realistic appreciation of both the real challenges and opportunities the relationship confronts will help both China and the US find their way forward.

The author is a senior fellow at and director of Asia Studies in US-based nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank Council on Foreign Relations.

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