On September 21, the US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick delivered a speech, entitled "Whither China: From Membership to Responsibility," at the National Committee on US-China Relations in New York.
I think highly of this speech for three reasons.
First, it clearly demonstrates that President George W. Bush is in firm command of the US policy towards China, and would not hesitate to take the lead in steering the debate on US-China relations onto the right track. The content of Zoellick's speech indicates that President Bush, just as the previous six US presidents, simply does not buy into the conservative idea of confronting China and pursuing a more aggressive containment policy. The administration believes the national interests of the United States can be better served by integrating China so it is a full member of the international system.
Second, the Bush administration explicitly recognizes that the "China of today is simply not the Soviet Union of the late 1940s: it does not seek to spread radical, anti-American ideologies; it does not see itself in a twilight conflict against democracy around the globe. It does not see itself in a death struggle with capitalism; it does not seek to overturn the fundamental order of the international system." This judgment translates into prerequisites for the two great powers to develop a more co-operative relationship in order to successfully cope with the wide range of global challenges in the years ahead. I think this is one of the most important conclusions that the Bush administration has come to in the face of the "China threat" chorus.
Third, the United States has for the first time publicly treated China as a "stakeholder" in the international system, and invited China to play a more important role in strengthening the system. It is another way of recognizing China's enhanced status and sees it as a more valuable partner.
The tone of Zoellick's speech is essentially positive and will play a key role in making a more constructive relationship between the two countries in the years to come. With that prospect in mind, I believe the significance of Zoellick's speech has yet to be fully appreciated.
Having said that, I could not but comment on another concept that Zoellick brought into the US policy towards China the Hedging Strategy. He said, "For the United States and the world, the essential question is how will China use its influence?" "Uncertainties about how China will use its power will lead the United States and others as well to hedge relations with China."
I have a few thoughts on this hedging strategy:
To abandon the phrase "containment" and introduce instead the concept "hedging relations" in US policy towards China will direct the American people's attention more to the constructive side and less to the containment side. It should improve the general atmosphere in bilateral relations. But this "hedging Strategy" is in essence not much different from the "congagement" (containment-engagement) strategy. The United States will continue to employ all the available means economic, scientific, cultural, diplomatic and especially military instruments to prevent China from rising "too rapidly" and becoming a challenger of the US primacy. Therefore, I don't see Zoellic's speech as a significant shift of US China policy away from congagement strategy.
With the "hedging strategy" in place, the US policy towards China is a "paradoxical unity of opposites." The intensity of hedging decides the degree of sincerity in developing co-operative relations with China. The necessity of co-operation may have to give way to the necessity of containment. The "China threat" school will have their say now and then. The US-China relationship will most probably remain "neither too bad nor too good," full of ups and downs. Neither country will be able to reap the best results from restrained co-operation.
Hedging relations is definitely not in China's interests, and it is not in the United States' interests either. The hedging strategy has costs. It will take up enormous resources which could be used in a more productive way. Hedging will offset future risks but when it is found out there has been no such risk at all, much of the resources allocated to it will be wasted, and many opportunities missed. Therefore, US policy makers will have to negotiate among themselves the crucial question: Will China really become a threat or a challenge to the United States' primacy?
The evidences repudiating the notion of the "China threat" abound. I would just draw American policy-makers' attention to the following three basic facts which represent the prerequisites for any challenger to US primacy to emerge:
(1) China has no such strategic plan;
(2) China won't be able to gain such capabilities in the foreseeable future;
(3) There won't be such an international environment given the development of globalization and multi-polarization.
But if not China, then who? Sooner or later, the decline of US primacy is inevitable; history has taught us so. My advice is: Uncle Sam, watch the rapid development of globalization and multi-polarization. They will gradually bring to the world a new democratic international system which would welcome no primacy at all. Hence the United States might be the last primacy in human history and it really need not worry about the emergence of any potential challenger.
If policy-makers can overcome this "China threat syndrome," we will definitely see a new horizon for US-China relations in the years to come.
The author is a senior fellow at the China Reform Forum, carried on China Daily newspaper, November 21, 2005