The UK Wants to Be China’s Best Friend, Why Not the US?

In a recent Commonwealth Club event in Silicon Valley, two prominent China experts, Martin Jacques, author of When China Rules the World, and Susan Shirk, author of China: Fragile Superpower, had a fascinating exchange of opinions about China’s relationship with the West.

Photo Credit: Frank Jang of the Committee 100.

Photo Credit: Frank Jang of the Committee 100.

The premise of the discussion was that the United Kingdom is the U.S.’s closest ally, but it has adopted a very different policy toward China. As I wrote here, the British now call themselves “China’s best partner in the West.” Last March, the U.K. decided to join China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) despite the strong opposition from the U.S. When the Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the U.K. in November, the British government showered him with an extraordinary pageantry – a startling contrast to his treatment from the U.S. where President Obama threatened to sanction China.

“This is a symptom of the rise of China,” Mr. Jacques said. “It represents a shift in [global] geopolitics.”

Susan Shirk, who is also a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State during the Clinton administration, said the United States has a consistent policy toward China. Since Nixon’s time, the U.S. has attempted to engage with China and to build a foundation of cooperation despite the differences between the two countries. “If this engagement is not working out,” she said, “we will fall back to ‘hedge’ military alliances in Asia. But our first choice is engagement.”

For many years, the US-China relationship seemed to be going well as the leaders in both countries worked hard to make this relationship a success. That was when China was more submissive to US dominance.

However, things started to go south around 2008-2009 during the global financial crisis. From the American perspective, China was under the misperception that the United States was in decline. Therefore, it adopted a much more assertive policy, focusing on maritime territory disputes. “This raises great doubt about what kind of rising power we are dealing with,” Shirk said. “Yes, our system took a hit [during the financial crisis]. But the Chinese had a pre-triumphalism about their own system. Now the shoe is on the other foot. The global economy is a mess because of China.”

Mr. Jacques argued, however, that tension in the South China Sea is caused by the American “pivot to Asia” strategy, which “is clearly to some degree a containment to China’s rise,” as the U.S. is expanding its military presence throughout the Asia Pacific. And the American proposal of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a 12-nation free trade deal that excludes China, is another attempt by the U.S. to contain China.

The discussion became heated when Shirk tried to rebut that the U.S. “pivot,” or rebalance to Asia strategy, is not about containing China, but that the U.S. wants to be active in the region across the board in all aspects – diplomatically and economically. But she did admit that the U.S. mishandled the AIIB. “Our position was to view it as a geopolitical contest,” Shirk said, “while it is supposed to be an economic development issue. We made ourselves look very insecure in the process, and that is one issue that the U.S. and the U.K. diverged.”

When asked about the different attitudes between the U.S. and the U.K. on cybersecurity and technology issues, Shirk said that the U.S. has to think of China as a potential national security threat, while Europeans don’t have to worry about it. In addition, the U.S. has a commitment to its allies, a responsibility that Europeans don’t have. Shirk referred to Japan and ASEAN countries, and said the U.S. is creating a condition in which China can rise peacefully.

But Jacques sharply pointed out that the U.S. is doing this for its own good. The alliance system is the American approach to the world order after WWII. The U.S. is a global hegemon, he said, and it wants to remain so to continue enjoying proxies in major regions of the world. That’s why it is very anxious to not let China gain advantages in trade, investment, and technology. Countries like the U.K., Germany, and France don’t regard themselves as hegemonies of any sort. When it comes to China, their only concern is whether they will offend the U.S. As we see in the U.K.’s case, that concern is overridden by their interest in their own economic future.

For example, two considerations went into the U.K.’s decision to shift its attitude toward China, and they are practical. First, like all European countries, the U.K. is short of capital, and is in urgent need of upgrading its infrastructure. George Osborn, U.K. Chancellor, wanted the Chinese investments to finance its infrastructure projects, including a nuclear power plant. Second, London wants to be a major financial center of the 21st century. It is keen to facilitate the internationalization of the Chinese currency, the yuan, so London can remain a major financial hub, rivaling New York (the British have figured out that the U.S. is not going to help internationalize the yuan).

“All these indicate that the British think China is going to be extremely important,” said Jacques, who is British. “Its economy will likely be bigger than the U.S.’s. That means our [the U.K.’s] future is more bound with China. So we have to engage with China.”

On the question of what can be done to avoid conflicts between the United States and China, Shirk was not all that pessimistic. She pointed out that with good statesmanship and the right policy, the U.S. and China can work together on many global issues, such as non-proliferation of nuclear weapons and climate change. “We have created the G20 to encourage China to play a bigger role in the world… So long as nations are interdependent, there will be caution on both sides to value the relationship and to take great care of it.”

Jacques also believed that there is room for continued US-China cooperation. “The big problem,” he said, “is that there is deep misunderstanding in America about the nature of China’s rise, or even the nature of China itself. China is not going to be simply an economic power, existing in American terms of the world. It was never meant to be that way.” He referred to Paul Kennedy’s book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, that when a nation advances economically, it will inevitably project its political, cultural, military, and moral powers over others.

That is a far-reaching point. Aren’t we living in a world where our sense of right and wrong, or good and bad, is very much shaped by Western values? If so, what kind of power and values will China project to the world?

Moving forward, Shirk believes that the U.S. will adopt a tougher policy toward China. “There are tremendous concerns over the South China Sea and the domestic situation in China,” she said. “The level of repression in China appears to have reached a new high.” Shirk noted that these issues are serious as they indicate what kind of power China is.

Although Shirk said that US policy makers are working very hard to not create a Cold War situation, it seems to me that’s exactly where we are heading. The Pentagon has recently unveiled a proposal to increase military spending to counter Russia and China. This deeply concerns me.

As Martin Jacques pointed out, now that the U.S. views China not as a benign power, but as a potential threat, the relationship is entering a new phase that will require a new level of reconciliation on both sides.

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