The Future of U.S.-China Relations Under Xi Jinping: Toward a New Framework of Constructive Realism for a Common Purpose
The future relationship between China and the United States is one of the mega-changes and mega-challenges of our age. China’s rise is the geopolitical equivalent of the melting polar ice caps – gradual change on a massive scale that can suddenly lead to dramatic turns of events.
In this Summary Report of a longer forthcoming work, former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a senior fellow at the Belfer Center, asks if this defining trend of the 21st century can be managed peacefully. He argues that it can – if Washington and Beijing commit to placing their relationship on a stable, long-term footing.
Rudd’s findings emerge from a major study he led at the Belfer Center on the possibilities and impacts of a new strategic relationship between China and the United States.
The choice is stark: Either China and America will author a common narrative of mutually beneficial achievements, or they will drift toward conflict. While the likelihood of near-term conflict is low, leaders on both sides of the Pacific are well aware of “Thucydides’ Trap,” the historical pattern of conflict when rising powers rival ruling ones.
Avoiding that trap means answering key questions about U.S.-China relations:
- Is China’s economic rise sustainable?
- How will China exert power differently under Xi Jinping?
- What does Beijing regard as Washington’s grand strategy toward China – and vice versa?
- What are the risks of armed conflict?
- How will China’s growing clout impact the regional and global order?
- Can both sides develop a common strategic narrative?
There is no deficit of analysis about these issues. The purpose of this report is to help policymakers synthesize that analysis to better anticipate and respond to one of the great challenges of our day.
As to whether recommendations contained within this report are adopted by the two governments is a matter for them. The report argues that a new conceptual framework for the relationship is necessary that is capable of embracing, simultaneously, apparently intractable problems with real opportunities for policy progress in difficult areas, without one becoming permanently hostage to the other. The report also argues for the evolution over time of a substantive sense of common purpose for the relationship centered around the idea of preserving and reforming a functioning global order for the future, as opposed to the incremental drift toward the absence of order and the emergence of chaos. Finally, the report argues for a partial reform of the bilateral machinery of the relationship in order to achieve the above. The last two years of President Obama’s second term, and the rapid consolidation of President Xi Jinping’s political authority during his first term, provide a unique political opportunity to place the U.S.-China relationship on a stable, mutually beneficial long-term footing.
There is a range of different scenarios for U.S.-China relations. The difficulty lies in the fact that these are very much shaped by different assumptions, different variables and their interaction with one another. Nonetheless, given what we know, a number of broad scenarios suggest themselves for the decade ahead.
First, we can imagine a cooperative scenario in which the dynamics of an increasingly globalized economy, and growing interdependencies between the United States and China across multiple policy domains, encourage both leaderships to: avoid any possibility of armed conflict; focus on their respective domestic policy priorities; and maintain a geopolitical status quo in the region. This scenario could also feature more concerted action on individual global challenges like climate change.
A second more collaborative scenario is possible, one which resembles a more ambitious and activist version of the first scenario above. In this, both Beijing and Washington conclude that, in order to deal with a range of underlying, structural difficulties in the relationship, they must not only manage their differences, but also collaborate in difficult policy domains to resolve them. This might include: a bilateral or multilateral agreement on cyber security; an agreed strategy on North Korea with the objective of achieving the denuclearization of the peninsula; and a joint determination to rejuvenate the G20.
Third, a competitive scenario in which fundamental differences are managed, but not resolved. In this case, China and the United States would compete for strategic influence across Asia and around the world, with both sides accelerating their military preparedness to guard against the possibility of long-term conflict.
Fourth, a confrontational scenario, which sees Asia dividing between groupings increasingly aligned to either Beijing or Washington because creative ambiguity on both security and economic issues on the part of regional states is no longer tenable. In such a scenario, incidents in the East and South China seas would increase and escalate to the point that conflict between China and a regional friend or ally of the United States would become increasingly conceivable. A fully internationalized RMB would begin to challenge the privileged status of the USD as one of a number of global reserve currencies. Globally, the contest between China and the United States would become increasingly ideological between their respective democratic capitalist and state capitalist models.
Fifth, and last of all, there is the implosion scenario. In this hypothetical future, political tensions and structural economic imbalances within the Chinese system would ultimately fracture, causing China to comprehensively and radically adjust its national development strategy. This report does not regard this outcome as a credible possibility.
National political leadership in both Beijing and Washington, and the leadership they choose to deliver to the future direction of their bilateral relationship, can have a major, and possibly decisive, effect on which of these scenarios, or blend of scenarios, becomes the more probable. There is nothing determinist about the future relationship between China and the United States. It is a matter for leaders to decide on an approach, and to execute it, either con-jointly or separately. That is why the narrative they use to describe their relationship to each other, and to their respective political constituencies, is important. And that is where the current U.S.-China relationship is lacking.
This report has focused on one such possible scenario for the future (namely the second scenario), and how it might in practical terms be brought about. If a new approach of “Constructive Realism for a Common Purpose” is to have any real chance of success, it will require a change in the political psychology or the “way of thinking” of the relationship. As noted above, the Chinese call this “siwei.” At present, the “siwei” between the two is overwhelmingly “realist” to the point that it is almost Hobbesian in its fatalism. The Chinese equivalent would be to run international relations according to the most pessimistic tradition of the “Legalist” (fajia 法家). This permanently assumes the worst of the other party and over time becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The report does not argue for the abandonment of skepticism in international relations. In fact, it argues for the retention of a realist premise concerning the hard security issues that currently separate the U.S. and China and will continue to do so for a considerable time. However, the report also argues that we should leaven the realist loaf with a level of constructive cooperation at multiple levels to build strategic trust over time. This will not require the wholesale abandonment of traditional strategic thinking or “siwei.” But it will require an adjustment to allow for the possibilities of constructive engagement changing deeply grounded strategic mindsets over time.
The report also departs from traditional strategic thinking in another way. At one level, there is a debate in the international community today about the type of global order we would like for the future: minimalist, maximalist global governance, realist, liberal internationalist, so-called “variable geometry,” etc. This seems to miss the point in the present international environment. We may no longer have the luxury of a sumptuous global smorgasbord of options to choose from. In truth, we now find ourselves confronted by multiple external challenges to an international order of any description. The enemies of “order” are there for all those with eyes to see:
• Violent, global jihadism seeking to destroy the very notion of secular states or any society of states;
• New weapons of mass destruction in the form of cyber terrorism, cyber crime and state-based cyber attack against critical infrastructure;
• A new generation of global pandemics;
• Existential threats to the planet through irreversible climate change; and
• Associated crises in food, water and basic energy supply.
These are attacks against “order” itself. They should, as a matter of both reason and emotion, cause states to conclude that whatever differences they have between them, these are now smaller than the common threats we now face together as a society of states and our U.S.-China 21: The Future of U.S.-China Relations Under Xi Jinping common need to defend the order itself. This should particularly apply to both the United States and China, given their respective levels of national vulnerability to all the above, as well as their sense of responsibility to other members of the international community. It is this consciousness, driven by the realities of globalization and interconnectedness, and the opportunities and now extreme vulnerabilities that arise from the same, that form a rational basis for at least some change in the traditional American and Chinese strategic mindsets or “siwei.” And that is the ultimate basis for the type of “Constructive Realism for a Common Purpose” recommended in this report for the two most powerful countries in the world today, who now share unique responsibilities on behalf of us all. In other words, to work together to defend and strengthen “an order” against those forces, political, climatological or biological, that would destroy order altogether.