Debating China; The US-China Relationship in Ten Conversations

By Phar Kim Beng
Strategic Pan Indo-Pacific Arena
Twitter: @indo_pan

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Despite the assertions in the early chapter of the book, that current Sino US relations are maturely “handled by some sixty formal dialogues”, the truth of the matter is, even the strategic Economic Dialogue (SEC) alone, which was originally fostered by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson, with the backing of President George W. Bush, is heading nowhere. China is still accused by the US as a “currency manipulator” especially at the height of presidential and congressional election cycles. Even the military dialogue between the People’s Liberation Army and the Pentagon, which was originally held in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, has not made significant head-ways.

That leads us to the issue: Can more talks, and more exchanges, this time between leading Sino US experts on both sides, lead to more clarity in the world’s most important bilateral tie?

The easy answer is Yes. But the difficult issue is obfuscation. At every stage of Sino US relations, the “fog of war” seems to have set in; even on climate change. China believes the US does not want to transfer its technology to China, in order to curtail its ability to handle adverse changes in weather. Indeed, Nina Hachigian, despite her amazing efforts to gather tens of top scholars and experts to talk to, and with one another, seems to have left out a key issue: intellectual property rights.

China is notorious for copyright infringement. The US, on the other hand, is a leading producer of patents and research. When the twain cannot meet, especially in a century driven by knowledge and information economy, then it is little wonder that the two countries are struggling most acutely with security policy, as James Steinberg pointed out in his “conclusion”.

What is security policy if not the attempt to go one up on the other side. But if this one-upmanship is not backed by any institutional safeguards, then both will operate in perennial fear of one another. China wants to steal ahead of the 21st century, while the US wants to retain its role as the leading peer power. This is, nevertheless, a superb book, which every international relations specialist, or, an avid follower of global affairs, should own. Merely by flipping through the pages, one can see so much tension dripping through the copious books. And, the scholars and experts are supposed to be the calm, and logical lot. So, Nina Hachigian has gathered a group of “Spocks” to look at the Sino US relations. The irony is, none of them could see things in a dispassionate manner. Andrew Nathan, from Columbia University, who is a contributor in the book, blasted China for various human rights transgressions; this despite China’s amazing transformation in other fronts over the last century. If scholars cannot take a “break” from the heat of their passion, how does one expect the politicians on both sides, who have more to lose, conduct their policy with a level headed-ness?

This is the issue that Nina Hachigian did not engage, and in this sense, it reveals the gaping wound of the Sino US relations: both sides, if not all sides, are too nationalistic, without acknowledging their own nationalist bias. Nina Hachigian, did aver, in the first line, that the authors will have their own bias. But, as the editor of the book project, she should have asked them to curtail their own infantile tendencies. She didn’t. Hence, this book meanders through many arguments that were both familiar and unfamiliar, yet delivering one central motif: mistrust. Lots and lots of mistrust between the leading minds in China and the US.

James Steinberg spoke of the importance of “strategic reassurance,” but it could well be, China and the US need a third interlocutor that can bring the extremities of both countries’ positions to the middle. This role used to be performed by the late Lee Kuan Yew. He could read US politics extremely well, and Chinese elite factional struggles too. But with the passing of Lee Kuan Yew, the leading role of this function now redound on Henry Kissinger. But Henry Kissinger, despite his eminence, uses the analogy of Congress of Europe, to understand Asia. It is like using the 18th century, like a crystal ball, to understand how the tensions will pan out in the 21st century. Even the sound of the method sounds quirky, let alone, scientific. But this is what Henry Kissinger has got away with in numerous books. Nina Hachigian should have engaged someone to pick apart this concept.



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