There's No Simple Way to Describe U.S.-China Relations
Simplistic thinking on China will lead to terrible results
June 7, 2013
It is a conceptual fallacy to view China in simple terms as either friend or foe of the United States. Even worse, doing so makes for bad strategy.
The Sino-American relationship is messy, multi-faceted and dynamic. There are features of it that are highly competitive, in which Washington and Beijing have vastly different preferred outcomes, or, at the very least, radically divergent approaches to common goals. But at the same time, China and the United States are deeply interdependent economically, share an enormous stake in peace and stability in Asia and have both long-running and ever-growing cultural and people-to-people ties.
It therefore makes little sense to bundle this diverse relationship into a single assessment of thumbs up or down. It is a mix of competition and cooperation, something that has been acknowledged publicly by both governments.
Understanding this complexity – rather than applying simplistic and inaccurate labels – is necessary for effective policymaking. This is true for ideal-type conceptions on both sides of the cooperation-competition spectrum.
The trouble with interpretations of China being America's "number one foe" (in addition to being inaccurate) is that they will lead to self-fulfilling prophesies in which opportunities for cooperation are eschewed and provocative actions are taken without the necessary restraint. They also erode the political will to develop appropriate levels and channels of engagement necessary to manage areas of sharp competition and disagreement.
Equally problematic, however, is the belief that China is a critically important partner with whom preservation of positive relations should take precedent over butting heads on tough issues. This is no less detrimental to U.S. national interests than treating China like an outright enemy. It creates burdensome and unnecessary issue linkages that constrain the ability of the United States to pursue its interests in individual policy domains for the sake of managing or improving "the relationship." It also compromises U.S. relations with partners that more directly contribute in positive ways to U.S. national interests.
Learning to manage U.S.-China relations is a monumental challenge precisely because it does not neatly fit into existing categories of ally or enemy. Dealing with this complexity is what makes U.S.-China policy at once so alluring and frustrating.
There are real and significant areas of competition between the United States and China, and structuring the relationship to manage them is a more sensible approach than believing they can be solved or willed away through reassurance or by augmenting mutual trust. But prematurely designating China as an enemy not only misreads today's reality, it would also undermine precisely those mechanisms that will be necessary to deal with this unprecedented and complicated relationship.