This year began with some Chinese and American foreign-policy analysts looking back a century to World War I and wondering if confrontation was inevitable between a rising power and a dominant one. But now there has been progress on climate, trade and security issues and what seems a modest “reset” of the Sino-American relationship.
Future disagreements between the United States and China are inevitable. But the surprise of a high-level dialogue here last weekend was the interest by both sides in exploring what the Chinese like to call “win-win” cooperation.
“I don’t believe there will be a military confrontation between the two countries,” insisted one of China’s top American experts, who not long ago was warning about strains in the relationship. Recent disputes over maritime boundaries in the East and South China seas are “not particularly dangerous,” said another prominent Chinese scholar.
The positive tone was partly an afterglow of the successful summit meeting here last month between President Xi Jinping and President Obama, which produced agreements to reduce carbon emissions, expand military confidence-building measures and negotiate a bilateral investment treaty. Xi is an unusually confident leader. He has dropped China’s usual talk about being too poor and weak to partner with the United States — and speaks instead of forging a “community of common destiny.”
The Chinese are nothing if not pragmatic about their interests, and the less confrontational stance may reflect Beijing’s recognition that China is a little weaker economically and America a bit stronger than might have been predicted a year ago. The American century isn’t over yet, as Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor who helped organize the conference, points out in a forthcoming book.
Chinese experts noted that the U.S. economy has rebounded from the 2008 crash more strongly than some analysts here had expected, while China’s own growth is slowing after several decades of rocket-ship acceleration. Russia is weak and volatile and not a reliable partner for Beijing. And China’s regional ambitions have been complicated by its aggressive claims of maritime rights that frightened Japan, the Philippines and other neighbors, pushing them toward the United States. All these factors argue for greater cooperation with Washington.
The dialogue was organized by the Aspen Strategy Group, co-chaired by Nye and Brent Scowcroft, the former U.S. national security adviser, and the Central Party School, which trains senior members of the ruling Chinese Communist Party. I attended as a member of the Aspen group; the ground rules prevent me from quoting the participants by name.
Such Sino-American exchanges are sometimes rote, wooden events, with participants speaking as if from a prearranged script, but these discussions were livelier. All the Chinese participants embraced the basic line of “win-win” cooperation (a phrase repeated so often it developed the dull whir of a dentist’s drill). But there were some disagreements among the Chinese participants: One analyst said black markets in North Korea were a sign of future market reform, but another insisted that North Korea was suffering from “instability” and internal purges. One stressed China’s plans to develop its own trade bloc, while others said China was interested in eventually joining the free-trade group known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, now being negotiated by the United States.
The tidy campus of the Central Party School is one of the institutions through which the ruling elite maintain power. It’s the most senior of a network of about 2,800 party schools around the country that provide midcareer training and evaluation of aspiring members. Party discipline frayed badly during the last few decades of explosive growth, when some members grew rich taking bribes, but Xi has led an anti-corruption crackdown that aims to restore control.
We were lavishly feted during our visit, but I was told that such banquets are much rarer these days. American experts note an insecurity just beneath the surface among the Chinese elite. One confided to an American guest that as many as 60 ministerial-level officials have been investigated. Xi seems to have concluded that unless he can reform the party, it risks losing its legitimacy. One Chinese attendee told me that, to link the party with China’s traditional culture and values, the school instructs students about the teachings of Confucius as well as those of Marx and Lenin.
I’d guess that most Americans and Chinese who attended the gathering still wonder whether the two countries will collide as they seek to project power in the Asia-Pacific region. But after the Xi-Obama summit, there seems a renewed effort to explore ways for a rising China and a still-powerful America to avoid open confrontation.