The basic assumptions and expectations that guided the development of U.S.-China relations over the past 40 years no longer hold, writes Ryan Hass, who offers his perspective on the future trajectory of the bilateral relationship. This piece was originally published by The Carter Center.
When Richard Nixon and Zhou Enlai signed the Shanghai Communique in February 1972, the national scars from the Korean War were still fresh, the Vietnam War was raging, and Chinese society was mired in the Cultural Revolution. There was virtually no two-way trade, and no American constituency promoting U.S.-China relations.
From those uncertain initial steps in 1972 to the present, relations have developed further and faster than anyone could have foretold. Now, the U.S.-China bilateral relationship is the most consequential in the world, and the United States and China are the two most significant actors on the international stage. In virtually every field – economics, business, academia, science, the environment, development, health – a dense web of connections has formed across the Pacific and pulled the two countries toward each other, making each more sensitive to the actions of the other. At the same time, China has transformed itself from a weak, poor, divided country into America’s most formidable strategic competitor.
The U.S.-China relationship has now reached what respected China scholar David M. Lampton describes as a “tipping point.” The basic assumptions and expectations that guided the development of U.S.-China relations over the past 40 years no longer hold and, so far, no consensus has formed in either country about what should replace them. This paper seeks to contribute a perspective on the future trajectory of U.S.-China relations by addressing how the relationship reached its current inflection point, why this moment may differ from previous periods of bilateral friction, and what key questions the United States needs to answer about the type of relationship it seeks with China going forward.
I suggest that the current turbulence in the bilateral relationship presents both risks and opportunities. If leaders in both capitals persist in treating the other as the source of their problems, they will invite risk of confrontation, and potentially conflict. On the other hand, if leaders use this period to question assumptions and reassess what type of relationship would serve both sides’ interests, they could steer the relationship from crisis toward opportunity.
President López Obrador's extension of the term of Supreme Court chief Arturo Zaldívar is part of his strong effort to recentralize power in the Mexican presidency and hollow out the independence and power of other Mexican institutions. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a reform that lowered the salary of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent selection of the attorney general, with López Obrador himself retaining the power of appointment. His latest move with the two-year extension of Zaldívar’s term is especially worrisome. Zaldívar is also the president of the powerful Federal Judiciary Council. The council appoints and dismisses judges, sets career advancement rules and disciplines judges. Zaldívar will be setting the council’s and, thus, the whole judiciary’s, agenda and priorities for two years. This allows López Obrador to influence how courts will rule in cases regarding the executive branch, what cases they take up and the legality of new policies. These moves are taking place when the effectiveness of the judiciary in Mexico remains limited and deeply concerning. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s security minister, Omar García Harfuch—an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in inadequately investigating the alleged complicity of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and dismissing the case, potentially the most significant case of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high-ranking Mexican official in two decades. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95 percent of federal cases still go unpunished. President López Obrador has scored some points, but the already precariously weak rule of law in Mexico, and thus the Mexican people, will suffer.