Skip to main content
Op-Ed

New Prospects Ahead for Sino-U.S. Relations

The US mid-term elections have enabled the Democratic Party to control both the Senate and House of Representatives for the first time since 1994, causing a wind of leadership change to sweep over Capitol Hill as well as the Pentagon. The dramatic Democrats victory has been widely attributed to popular opposition to the Bush administration’s mismanagement of US foreign policy over the past five years, especially the protracted war in Iraq. What, then, would be the implications of the mid-term electoral results for the direction (or redirection) of US foreign policy in the following two years, particularly for Sino-US relations? The answer is twofold: In the short term, no major policy change is likely to occur; but in the long run, a Democrats-controlled Congress might add new uncertainties to relations.

In general, there are several factors circumscribing the scope of policy change to be brought out by the political reconfiguration on Capitol Hill in the short term. Democrats were voted in not on a strong political mandate from the American people, but simply on a tide of nationwide antipathy to Republicans. Despite its numerical majority in Congress, the Democratic Party is deeply divided over China-related policy issues: While pragmatic-minded senators like Joseph Biden and Carl Levin are advocating a moderate and constructive approach to Beijing, other Democrats leaders have long had the reputation of pushing hard on ideologically charged issues such as human rights, freedom and democracy.

With China’s emergence as an influential “stakeholder,” US leaders have come to realize that co-operation from Beijing is of vital importance to maintain world peace and stability. The current Bush administration, for example, came to power in 2001 regarding China as a “strategic competitor.” But within merely a couple of years, it turned out to be a staunch advocate of a stable and constructive US-China relationship in order to secure China’s co-operation in such pressing issues as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), Iran, energy security, and the war on terror. As a result, despite the predictable increase in the volume of “China-bashing” on Capitol Hill in the following two years, it is rather unlikely that there will be any substantial changes to existing US policy toward China.

Nonetheless, in the long run, a Democrats-controlled Congress may also present certain challenges to the relations. During the Republican domination of Capitol Hill, Republican members of Congress tended to exercise some self-restraint in criticizing the Bush administration’s approach toward China, to avoid embarrassing their own president.

Now, with their majority status gone and in anticipation of an enduring Democrats stronghold in Congress, the Republicans are therefore likely not only to voice their criticisms, but even to join forces with those Democrats who have been critical of China in a more stalwart defence of the perceived US “interest and values” as inherent in such sensitive issues as abortion, religious freedom and trade imbalances.

Should this scenario come true, given the traditional role of Congress to both reflect and shape public opinion, it is thus not unlikely that China, with its different political and value systems, would once again become a free-for-all “punching bag” in US domestic politics.

Furthermore, with this renewed phenomenon of “divided government,” the Bush administration (and more likely than not, the administration after 2008) may also prove increasingly hesitant to tackle head-on congressional criticisms against China. Rather, as China policy becomes politicized as such, the White House may even try to accommodate this change of congressional mood by adopting an approach toward China that is at least rhetorically harsher.

Under these circumstances, especially when Congress is split on the China issue, the US China policy could be compromised between the White House and the Congress, and between the two parties in their political bargaining.

This is not to say, however, that Sino-US relations are fatalistically bound to slip into a downward spiral. On the contrary, a number of positive developments in recent years have grounded Sino-US relations on a more solid and favourable foundation, thereby providing certain new “safety valves” for the bilateral relationship.

Of these positive developments, the first and foremost is that China has “risen” on the international stage not through aggressive expansion, but through constructive integration into the existing international system. As a result, it is no longer a mere developing “outsider,” but an established and accepted “stakeholder” whose burgeoning economy has developed a high degree of interdependence with the global as well as US economies.

Against this backdrop, it has become a virtual strategic imperative for both Beijing and Washington to manage their bilateral relationship with more care, prudence and realism, now that they must reconsider their interests from a bilateral as well as global perspective.

For Beijing, this means it should continue to adhere to the well-acclaimed “peaceful development” strategy, pursue policies that promote regional peace, stability and prosperity, and take its due responsibility in managing issues with global repercussions such as Iran and the DPRK. For Washington, this means that it should continue to assist positively and constructively in China’s further integration into the international system, rather than upsetting the applecart and allowing short-term domestic political considerations to overrule long-term strategic interests.

Second, Beijing’s efforts to construct a “harmonious society” in recent years have been looked upon favourably abroad. The question of how to manage the growing conflicts of interest among different groups has proved a major test of the Chinese leadership’s political wisdom. Apparently, with President Hu Jintao at the helm, Beijing has determined to address this issue not through suppression of interests, but through balancing interests so as to keep socioeconomic frictions at a manageable level.

Politically, the Chinese leadership has been carrying out concrete but low-profile reforms of outdated political institutions and mechanisms with an eye to deepening “socialist democracy and the rule of law.” Should these reforms be carried out effectively, it will for sure win support in the United States and therefore exert a positive impact on US-China relations. Meanwhile, economically, Beijing has shifted the focus of its development strategy on a number of pivotal counts from quantity to quality, from GDP-in-command growth to well-balanced growth, from all-out creation of wealth to distributional justice, from coastal areas to the hinterland, and from foreign trade to the promotion of the domestic market.

Third, as is well observed, China has continually placed a high value on the “3 Cs” communication, consultation and co-operation in international relations. Forming a sharp contrast to the unilateralism-tinged foreign policy of the Bush administration, this “multilateral” approach toward world affairs has helped enhance China’s international image as a responsible power, leading to foreign policy achievements such as the deepening “good neighbour” relations between China and other Asian countries.

Author

J

Jing Huang

Senior Fellow, John L. Thornton China Center

Ultimately, there is no stronger driving force for sustaining and propelling forward the positive momentum of US-China relations than a rising China that measures up to the anticipated “rules of conduct” befitting a “responsible stakeholder.”

More

Get daily updates from Brookings