In the coming decades, nothing will matter more for global peace, prosperity and governance than how the United States and China handle the ongoing shift in their relative power. In the long term, today’s other pressing challenges — including Russia’s relationship with the West and events in the tumultuous Middle East — will amount almost to sideshows by comparison.
What makes the Sino-American relationship dangerous is that powerful forces in both countries seem intent on a collision course. On the Chinese side, under President Xi Jinping’s assertive leadership, the government is no longer heeding Deng Xiaoping’s injunction that the country should “hide its strength, bide its time, and never take the lead” in international affairs. It has pursued manifestly expansionist territorial claims, most notably in the South China Sea, and shown a clear determination to resist the indefinite continuation of American dominance in the region. The prevailing Chinese mindset is that the U.S. is intent on isolating, containing and undermining it.
Unhappily, there is plenty of evidence on the U.S. side to feed that sentiment. Whatever many American policymakers may be saying in private, their public discourse almost invariably reflects an intention to remain the world’s dominant power — and specifically in Asia — in perpetuity.
The most confrontational recent articulation of this position can be found in a report for the Council on Foreign Relations, by Robert Blackwill and Ashley Tellis, arguing that the central objective of American grand strategy must be “preserving U.S. primacy in the global system,” and urging a series of aggressive economic, political and military measures to “balance” China. They say this is not a “containment” strategy, but it amounts to nothing less.
Is there another way to manage the relationship that, while reflecting the reality of these forces and mindsets on both sides, would not risk turning legitimate competition into dangerous confrontation? In a new report for the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister and now head of the Asia Society Policy Institute, outlines just such a strategy, which he calls “constructive realism.” It’s a clunky label, but his analysis and policy prescriptions are compelling.
The “realist” dimension of Rudd’s argument recognizes that certain areas of disagreement — including Taiwan, territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas, U.S. alliances in Asia, Chinese military modernization and the legitimacy of China’s political system — will remain intractable for the foreseeable future. They will defy easy solutions — and thus will require very careful management.
The “constructive” part of Rudd’s thesis argues for systematic collaboration — with the U.S. treating China more as an equal — in tackling a series of other difficult issues at bilateral, regional and global levels. Bilaterally, such cooperation might involve an investment treaty, a joint intelligence task force on terrorism, a cyber-security protocol, agreed measures for managing unplanned military incidents and mutual ratification of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty.
On a regional level, Rudd argues, the U.S. and China could work on joint strategies to denuclearize and, ultimately, reunify the Korean Peninsula; tackle the lingering sore of Japan’s war history; harmonize regional trade agreements; and transform the East Asia Summit into a more complete Asia-Pacific Community.
Globally, Rudd believes that the joint agenda could focus on combating climate change, revitalizing the Group of 20, further internationalizing the renminbi; giving China a greater role in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; and reforming other key international institutions within the U.N. system.
Some in the West — including China watcher David Shambaugh — remain convinced that this kind of collaborative accommodation will not be necessary, because failures of economic and political management will bring about China’s implosion. Rudd argues that they are wrong, and that Xi will neither overplay his authoritarian hand nor under-deliver on growth. China’s rise will continue, and the world — including the U.S. — will have to find principled ways of peacefully accommodating it.
Rudd’s recommendations are undoubtedly ambitious. But, given his credentials — he is a formidable Chinese linguist and creative policy thinker, with long and close personal relationships with key figures in both the U.S. and China — his argument must be taken seriously.
Indeed, though Rudd’s tenure as Australia’s prime minister was anything but smooth, his sheer force of intellect is unmatched by that of any public figure with whom I have interacted over the last 30 years. (Not that this will much help his evident willingness to be drafted as the next U.N. Secretary-General: in that role the major powers have always preferred bland secretaries to creative generals.)
No American presidential candidate is likely to be comfortable talking about the U.S. as anything other than Number One. But we must hope that in the years ahead we hear less talk of “primacy” and “dominance” and much more about cooperation and collaboration. It is only with such U.S. policies toward China that the world can begin to be confident that the 21st century will not, like the last, become a vale of tears.
Gareth Evans, a former Australian foreign minister (1988-1996) and past president of the International Crisis Group (2000-2009), is chancellor and honorary professorial fellow at Australian National University. © Project Syndicate, 2015