USA and China: A Future Side-By-Side

09.06.13 Publication:

We all like simple narratives. Yet even our favoured narratives often contradict one another. One popular storyline is the idea that when a new power rises up, there will inevitably be an eventual clash with the existing dominant powers. The centenary next year of the start of the First World War between rising Germany and the old European powers of Britain and France has convinced many people that this danger exists now between China and the United States.

A second narrative, one of which journalists are particularly fond, and which contradicts the first, is the idea that personal diplomacy between the leaders of such great nations is what makes all the difference to whether the great powers will clash or co-operate. If only Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany and King George V of England had met during June or July of 1914, as President Barack Obama of America and President Xi Jinping of China have just done in a two-day summit in California, the perhaps the First World War would not have broken out a few weeks later. Then 20th-century history could have been totally different.

The competing storylines are like a contest between a classic Greek drama, in which tragedy must inexorably occur despite warnings called out by the chorus, and a classic Hollywood movie in which heroic individuals save the day and bring about a happy ending.

Reality, however, is different from either Greek plays or Hollywood movies. It is messier but also more reassuring. That is the way the US-China relationship looks, and not just because President Obama and the new Chinese head of state sat in their shirtsleeves, without ties, in the Californian sun and shared a joke or two together.

There is plenty of room in the world for these two superpowers to co-exist alongside one another, and to avoid conflict. Whereas the Soviet Union and the United States had very different ideologies and very different ways of looking at the world during the Cold War, the same is not true of America and China. Actually, despite one being a democracy and the other an authoritarian, single-party regime, the Americans and the Chinese have a lot in common in the way in which they look at the world.

This is shown, in fact, in the way in which, underneath whatever fears and suspicions each other has about the other country, they rather admire each other. Both are cultures of individual enterprise, of capitalism, of a desire to get rich, of constant reinvention. In China, that culture was hidden by the Communist of Chairman Mao Xedong, but since the early 1980s it has been steadily re-exposed and re-invigorated.

Both also are countries that are overwhelmingly preoccupied with their own domestic affairs. China calls itself “the middle kingdom” because it has for so many centuries seen itself as the centre of the world. Yet in its long history it has never been an imperial power or a colonial one, except towards people on its own borders, such as Tibet. It wants to protect its own territory, which at times has meant expanding it.

America, in its heart, is the same: protected by its two oceans, it has really always wanted to be left alone, ever since the days of George Washington, who warned his fellow countrymen against “foreign entanglements”. Since 1941, that has not been possible, and the US has of course since then seen itself as a global power. But it has never been comfortable about it. It has not been imperial in the European sense of the word: its empire has been of influence, of rules, of ideas, rather than of colonial territories.

Certainly, America is a more idealistic power than China has ever been and probably than China will be during this 21st century as its strength grows. There is unlikely to be a set of “Chinese values” or political principles that China will seek to impose on others. Yet America too has oscillated between ideals-based foreign policy and harder-headed realpolitik, with realpolitik usually having the upper hand.

For that reason, the Greek tragedy, or the 1914 scenario of an inevitable clash, really need not happen. The smiles between President Obama and President Xi were genuine and welcome, but not because their relationship will defuse a timebomb in the US-China relationship. The timebomb, as such isn’t there.

What there are, however, are real and important tensions that regularly need to be resolved. Currently, those tensions include mutual accusations of cyber-espionage or cyber-attacks, and, more dangerously, the tensions between China and America’s Asian allies, Japan and the Philippines, over territorial claims in the East China Sea and South China Sea.

Such territorial issues do have something of a smell of 1914 about them. The First World War began, let’s remember, not because of a direct clash between Germany, France and Britain but because the murder in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz-Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, led the Austro-Hungarians to declare war on Serbia.

In an analogous way, a clash between China and the Philippines out at sea, or worse still a clash between China and Japan, has the potential to then force the great powers to confront each other. And these territorial claims are really about strategic control of the oceans, rather than the specific islands under dispute. An important question hanging over that strategic control is whether the US Navy should be free to patrol around China’s coasts, or whether it should be pushed back towards its bases in Guam or Hawaii, or even the US mainland.

The signs about these disputes, however, are more encouraging than they were six or 12 months ago. Both China and America seem to understand how high are the stakes involved. Both have tried to lower the temperature. Last week, at a big defence and security conference in Singapore, it emerged that Chinese naval vessels are now sailing inside the territorial waters of Guam, which implies that China has decided not to ban the American boats but to emulate them.

Between great powers, there can be no doubt that more talking is better than less, and that the crucial issue is of regular communication about intentions, interests and pre-occupations on both sides. The US and China have expanded the amount of time they spend talking to each other hugely over the past decade, and this first big summit between Presidents Obama and Xi was a welcome consequence of that.

The 21st century has no need of being as bloody and tragic as was the 20th, and a clash between China and America is eminently avoidable. From a European point of view, that is welcome, as is the fact that the Presidents had such a long summit. What is, or should be, more worrying is that neither of them seems as keen to spend so much time and energy talking to Europeans. We look like the past, not the future.