March 11, 2010

Zhiqun Zhu, associate professor of political science and international relations.

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Welcome again to "Ask the Experts," a regular web feature that highlights the expertise of various Bucknellians in a range of topics related to current news events and other timely subjects. || Ask the Experts archive

This week, Zhiqun Zhu, an associate professor of political science and international relations and the MacArthur Chair of East Asian Politics, is asked about U.S.-China relations.

Q: Why have U.S.-China relations taken a turn for the worse lately?

A: After a few smooth years, a spate of recent events — from Google's dispute with China to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and President Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama — led to a downward spiral of the bilateral relationship.

Google complained that its search engine had been hacked and the e-mail accounts of some human rights activists had been compromised. The U.S. government intervened and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded a full explanation from China. The Chinese consider the Google case a business dispute and oppose the U.S. government's involvement.

The Google issue is minor compared to Taiwan and Tibet, which China considers its "core interests." The U.S. does not support independence for Taiwan or Tibet, but it has huge stakes in the two regions. President Obama announced the sale of $6.4 billion worth of weapons to Taiwan, which had been approved earlier by President George W. Bush, and met with the Dalai Lama in the White House despite stern warnings from Beijing. By doing so, China feels that its sovereignty is not respected and U.S. actions may be sending a wrong message to supporters of Taiwanese and Tibetan independence.  Many Chinese thought President Obama was pro-China - after all, he was the first U.S. president to have traveled to China during his first year in office. They felt frustrated and betrayed by recent U.S. moves on Taiwan and Tibet.

In addition, the U.S. has renewed calls for China to appreciate its currency so as to reduce America's trade deficit with China. President Obama unveiled an ambitious plan in his State of the Union address to double U.S. exports in the next five years. The U.S. will put more pressure on China to revalue the yuan so that the U.S. can export more to China.

In a matter of weeks, all the red lights in U.S.-China relations have been turned on. No wonder the relationship is experiencing a very difficult period now. In the short term, the relationship will remain strained.

Q: The three T's — Taiwan, Tibet and trade — have been among the thorniest issues, but is there more to the situation?

A: Taiwan, Tibet and trade are traditional stumbling blocks, but the root of the conflict is structural. China's rapid re-emergence as a great power is not a prediction anymore; it is a reality. Even during the current global economic downturn, China's growth continued to impress the world. China has become an increasingly proud, nationalistic and confident nation. This growing confidence is reflected in its foreign policy. It expects its core national interests such as Taiwan and Tibet to be respected.

What the U.S. faces today is a more powerful and more assertive China. Washington can no longer dictate this relationship. China may still be decades away from the U.S.in economic and military strength, but it is quickly narrowing the gap. The unprecedented challenge for the two countries is how to adjust to, and cope with, the global power restructuring peacefully.

Q: China is a major holder of U.S. debt. How does that figure into the relationship?

A: China is the first major economy to have rebounded from the global economic crisis. Though it attempts to diversify investments, China still holds more than $750 billion in U.S. Treasury bonds. The U.S. continues to borrow money from China, Japan and others to keep its economy running.

Many in China are aware of the U.S.'s reliance on China and feel very proud that even Uncle Sam has to borrow from China. Some Chinese have become extremely confident, assertive and even overbearing. As a result, China demands more respect from others, especially the U.S.

On many occasions, the U.S. has been deferential to China. For example, the Chinese government stage-managed President Obama's visit to China last year without much complaint from Washington. While some are disappointed that the Obama-Dalai Lama meeting was low-key — the meeting took place with no media access in the Map Room and not the Oval Office in accordance with the Dalai Lama's status as a religious and cultural leader and not a political leader — President Obama did this ostensibly to downplay the significance of the meeting and to avoid further offending the Chinese.

In addition to seeking China's help to prop up its economy, the U.S. needs China's cooperation on key international issues such as imposing tougher sanctions on Iran, resolving the North Korean nuclear standoff and forging a new global accord on climate change. The U.S. is simply not in the position to dismiss China's views on bilateral disputes. While the U.S. will not kowtow to China, it certainly does not want to jeopardize the relationship with one of its largest creditors.

Q: Is China here to stay as a major world power?

A: China is one of the great powers today, but it is premature to claim that the 21st century will be the Chinese century. China faces tremendous domestic challenges such as a growing income gap, a deteriorating environment and a graying population. These daunting challenges will keep China from developing its full potential as a great power. 

China is a country full of contradictions and contrasts. There are, in fact, two Chinas today: coastal, or capitalist, China, represented by modern cities on the east coast and where the nation's wealth is concentrated, and western, or socialist, China, where tens of millions of Chinese still live below the poverty line. These two worlds reflect the country's paradoxes as it moves up the ladder to prosperity: rising living standards and uneven development, luxury apartments and filthy shantytowns, shining futuristic infrastructure and serious environmental degradation, and, most glaringly, increasing economic choices and limited political freedom.

While the outside world considers China to be already a major global power, China itself seems more cool-headed and regards itself as a developing country.  It is ambitious to become a global power, but it is not willing to pick a fight with the U.S. China will selectively be more active in international affairs and even play a leadership role on certain issues, but it is reluctant to take up too many global responsibilities. There is a long way to go before China will become a truly respected and responsible global power.

Q: Where does the relationship go from here?

A: The relationship has entered a cooling period for the time being, but its foundation remains solid. The two powers will weather this storm like they did in the past.

U.S.-China relations have never been smooth due to vast differences in history, culture, political values, national interests and levels of development. In fact, it is normal that the two countries disagree on many issues.  As the two countries become more interdependent and interactive, more frictions are expected. 

Foreign policy is the extension of domestic politics. President Obama needs to appease domestic critics, jump-start the economy and prepare for the mid-term elections. He cannot afford to appear weak in foreign affairs even if he needs help from China. On the other hand, the Chinese public has become increasingly nationalistic and vocal. To maintain social stability and political legitimacy, the Communist Party has to answer the public call to stand firm when China's national interests are challenged. Domestic politics has made the U.S.-China relationship more complicated and has become the most difficult factor to manage. In addition, the media on both sides have produced more heat than light in reporting the latest developments in the relationship.

The U.S. and China are joined at the hip now. They have to focus on the broad picture and put differences aside. Whether they like it or not, they will coexist in the 21st century as two leading powers. They have a vested interest in a constructive, stable and mutually beneficial relationship.


New editions of "Ask the Experts" will appear on the Bucknell website on most Thursdays during the fall and spring semesters and on occasion throughout the summer. If you have ideas for future questions or are a faculty or staff member who would like to participate, please contact Sam Alcorn

To learn more about faculty and staff experts who can speak on a variety of news topics, visit Bucknell's searchable Experts Guide.

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