Obama in Asia

Despite dissimilarities between them, a G2 of China and the US haunts Europe

The specter of the G2 – a China-US condominium
– is haunting European governments as much as the specter of revolution haunted
its courts in the days of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto. As President Barack
Obama mentions a “strategic partnership” on the eve of his departure for Beijing, anxiety is
mounting. The words haven’t been used officially since 1996, when then
Secretary of State Warren Christopher talked about a “partnership” but rejected
the “strategic” adjective promoted by a public Chinese display in Shanghai. What the
concern about G-2 shows, though, is insecurity among major countries in the
absence of a clear architecture of power.

Of course, every official or officious spokesperson in America or China will deny that the G2, a
creative acronym coined by Zbigniew Brzezinski, bears any semblance with
reality. Indeed, the Obama administration has initially chosen to
emphasize “multiple partnerships”, breaking with some of the language of its
predecessors. Its most decisive international actions so far have been gestures
to reach out towards difficult partners, such as Russia
over the issue of anti-missile defense and forward basing of interceptor
radars, or partners where there was no established channel of dialogue: Iran, Burma,
Washington has also reconfirmed the strategic
partnership started with India
by the 2008 nuclear agreement, a heritage guaranteed to annoy China, and which goes far towards explaining Beijing’s various gestures of irritation at New Delhi. The Chinese
could not have failed to notice that there are many holdovers from the Bush era
in the area of defense and even at the State Department, and no significant cut
in defense spending has been announced.

For their part, Chinese leaders and experts abstain from any emphasis on
bilateral Sino-American cooperation. About global economic governance, for
example, they either point out America’s
responsibility in sparking the 2008 global crisis, or they encourage a more
systemic reform of the international economic system. Neither they, nor
the US,
talk very openly of the role that the world’s two intertwined giants might take
together in solving their mutual imbalances, and the implications for third
parties. Beijing is still full of hard-line
realists in think tanks or the press, who point out strategic disagreements
with America.
There is also a revival in China
of the five principles of pacific coexistence as a guiding principle for
foreign policy. This revival serves as a bulwark against what China feels are
incessant calls for increased responsibilities and burden sharing. As China’s footprint widens, it is indeed called to
take a leading role in resolving problems from North
Korea to Iran,
from climate change to public governance in Africa.
On president Obama’s visit, Afghanistan
and Pakistan
have been added to this long list.

 So even if Chinese experts talk of a
long-term decline of American influence and strategic leverage, they are the
first to point out, defensively, that the US is still in the driver’s seat.
Clearly, China
prefers to sit back and eventually criticize from a distance. This is
consistent with its long-standing strategic conservatism, but also with the
view that the burden on the West is increasing with time. Offering good offices
between parties, or perhaps whispering some realist advice to a rogue state,
seems to be the extent of China’s
strategic cooperation. On North Korea,
has simply not changed its basic stance, not even after two nuclear tests. On
Taiwan, where America has rooted for a government that is now more in sync with
Beijing than ever, there has been no let up in China’s missile deployment
across the Taiwan straits. In South Asia and about AfPak – today’s hot war
– there is no sign of movement by China beyond communiqués on
terrorism. Quite the contrary, China
criticizes some aspects of the US
military presence, and has pushed on a U.N. enquiry into civilian deaths from
aerial strikes in Afghanistan.
On Iran,
there remains political advocacy and shyness about sanctions, a cocktail not so
different from the North Korean case, and with more business interests. On China’s forward
deployment of ships to the Somali coast, it hasn’t led to more cooperation or
coordination with other nations. Not be forgotten either the incident with the
USS Impeccable in March 2009 off the coast of Hainan which served to remind
that China disagrees with
pervasive US
military presence in its neighborhood.

In sum, beyond praise about Barack Obama from high-brow Chinese experts, and
a blanket call by the new administration for a “comprehensive relationship”,
there is simply no basis for a strategic convergence between the US and China.
So why is it that the G2 is such a specter in the room, mentioned at every
conference and by many officials outside the United States? Well, for one,
appearances matter. At the Pittsburgh G20 summit, President Obama usually
addressed President Hu Jintao before anybody else during the leaders’ meeting.
And when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visits Beijing,
the Chinese government upgrades the relations with the US as “our most
important relationship”. But the talk about G2 is also fuelled by their
own angst about their weakness. Europe is on temporary
hold because of its eight year long institutional debate. Japan is
suffering through a dual crisis – economic recession and political uncertainty.
is still resource-rich, but its financial crisis has instilled a new modesty. India hasn’t ridden the crisis as China did. Only
Brazil, besides China, is
clearly gaining ground in these testing times.

Not only does this create feelings of helplessness about global trends, but
both China and the US sense this
weakness in their partners and use it to their own advantage. For America, whose
exit from the financial crisis depends on trust from the world’s investors, to
show undisputed leadership is essential. For China, two factors count. The
crisis is a golden opportunity to use its financial resources and its strong
government to make decisive gains in all directions. Never has the People’s
Republic been so assertive towards its partners. This holds true not only for
Europe – viewed with increasing irony for its disunity – but also for Japan or India. Premier Hatoyama’s call for
an East Asian Community is met with cool detachment. India, in principle the other
rising giant, is mercilessly tested on territorial and other symbolic issues.

But a second factor is also at work – the need for China to hide its acceptance to support the US’ bloated
monetary policy. China’s
leaders can’t afford a domestic political debate on their relationship with America. They
can’t be seen publicly to be doing exactly what they are doing – which is an
intense monetary cooperation to save their debtor, and with it their own
outstanding claims. It is all the more important for China’s
leaders to keep some political distance from Washington.

So China’s leaders hedge,
as do successive US
administrations (it’s called “managing risk” these days). They chitchat with
others, talk about multilateralism or a “harmonious world”. And there is expert
talk about mutual “mistrust” between China
and the US.
In truth, there may be less mutual mistrust than political shyness, on each
side, to eschew widely different political systems and admit to a G2. You don’t
have to agree on every topic to run a G2: you just have to be the two most
efficient political actors on the block, with a potential to hurt as well as to
help others by your actions.

That’s why everybody else is talking about a G2, and
why debates about a G8, G13, 14 or 20 must result soon in a workable new design
for global governance. Failing this, China
and America’s
mixture of interdependence and competition will define our world.

This piece was first published by YaleGlobal Online on 16 November 2009.  

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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