Consider Our Allies

Be Wary Of China

July 27, 2009|By Abraham M. Denmark

China will occupy President Barack Obama's agenda today as he delivers a major speech on the future of U.S.-China relations. The speech will aim to set a cooperative and constructive tone to kick off the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, which will be chaired by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and their Chinese counterparts. The president's speech - as well as the breadth of issues to be covered during the two-day dialogue - will undoubtedly demonstrate the global character of this relationship and the ability for the U.S. to manage a consequential and global relationship with China.

However, while hope about the possibilities of U.S.-China cooperation may soar, Washington should take a moment to keep the rhetoric and excitement below the boiling point. Many significant hurdles remain, and overheated proclamations may damage our other, more important, relationships in Asia.

Given China's global economic and political footprint, as well as its status as the world's second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases and third-largest economy, it is natural that Washington and Beijing attempt to work together to address global issues such as climate change and the worldwide economic recession. Moreover, China's regional influence heightens the importance of gaining its assistance and active cooperation on North Korea, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

This array of global and regional issues has led some American analysts to call for a U.S.-China "G-2" that will address international problems and, at least implicitly, manage the world in a somewhat cooperative, bipolar arrangement. But hopes for such a system overestimate the cooperative nature of the relationship and mistake shared interests with common values and priorities.

While the U.S. and China have many shared interests and concerns, Beijing's priorities and policy preferences are highly problematic for U.S. interests. One example is the global economic crisis: Chinese officials have publicly blamed the U.S. for the global recession and regularly call for the dollar to be replaced as the standard currency of international trade. Similarly, China's leaders are concerned that environmental regulation will slow its economic developmen, and have called on the United States to bear the cost of reform while insisting that China and other developing countries should not be held to stringent pollution-prevention standards.

Last, while China and the United States will certainly cooperate on specific issues of mutual interest, we are not allies. Our true allies in Asia - Japan, South Korea, Thailand and the Philippines - also have important roles to play bilaterally, regionally and globally. Moreover, an increasingly multipolar world demands new structures and modes of cooperation, not merely a condominium between two nations.

Over the long term, the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and India will all be essential players in Asia and around the world. Overinflated rhetoric regarding China and our various "strategic" dialogues runs the risk of alienating our allies at a time when these relationships are becoming increasingly regional and global.

High hopes and bold pronouncements for cooperation between the U.S. (the world's only superpower) and China (an emerging regional power) are justified. Solving problems cooperatively is a better option than resorting to competition and conflict. Yet, Washington should not lose perspective on what China wants, what it's willing to do, and who America's friends really are.

Abraham M. Denmark is a fellow and director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. He is an editor and contributor to the forthcoming volume "China's Arrival: A Strategic Framework for a Global Relationship."

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