An explosive joint report by a top Chinese scholar and a leading American analyst argue the two countries are locked in a corrosive cycle of distrust that, if left unchecked, could lead to outright antagonism within 10-15 years. The idea behind the report was for each co-author to write candidly about how his country views the other.A grim narrative emerges from their conclusions. Both countries see the relationship as a zero-sum competition. China thinks America’s time has come and gone; that it is on a path of inexorable decline; and although it expects Washington to fight to retain its position in the world, Beijing is confident it will prevail in the long run. The American attitude is equally disturbing. Many senior policymakers and law enforcement officials believe China is seeking to overthrow America from its hegemonic perch and are convinced the Chinese government is designing both its cyber capabilities and its defense systems specifically for American targets.The report, published by the renowned Brookings Institution, is revealing as much for who said it as for what was said. The authors are among the most influential policymakers in their respective countries. Kenneth Lieberthal, the national security director for Asia during the Clinton administration, composed the American outlook. The Chinese perspective was written by American Interest board member Wang Jisi, whom the New York Times described as having “an insider’s view of Chinese foreign policy”:
The candid writing by Mr. Wang is striking because of his influence and access, in Washington as well as in Beijing. Mr. Wang, who is dean of Peking University’s School of International Studies and a guest professor at the National Defense University of the People’s Liberation Army, has wide access to senior American policy makers, making him an unusual repository of information about the thinking in both countries.
A zero-sum adversarial relationship between China and America serves neither country well. America’s national interest is achieved via an international system of stability and cooperation among powers great and small. If the opinions expressed in this report are an accurate reflection of what leaders on both sides of the Pacific are thinking then the coming decades will require a considerable commitment of American resources to preserve the global order.What this report does is set the stage for the next American venture in Asia policy. Last fall saw the U.S. respond to what China’s neighbors saw as a series of dangerously provocative moves by Beijing by renewing its commitment to the region. But as I wrote at the time, the U.S. goal in China isn’t and shouldn’t be the containment of China but the construction of a non-zero sum Asian order that works for everyone in the region—emphatically including China.The pivot to Asia won’t be complete until it is accompanied by a pivot to China: the administration needs to articulate and implement an approach to US-China relations that can minimize the chances of a spiral of distrust and competition setting the two powers at strategic odds. The Obama administration’s Asia policy gets most of the easy questions right; Wang Jisi and his compatriots are asking harder questions now, and America’s answers must be honest, compelling and smart.