Compete and Coexist: US, China could develop new concept of relationship between great nations, Graham Allison says

By Chen Qingqing and Bai Yunyi Source: Global Times Published: 2020/12/13 18:33:40 Last Updated: 2020/12/13 20:56:40

Editor's note: In recent days, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi suggested China and the US should open dialogue at all levels as any issue can be brought to the table for negotiations. As the bilateral relationship between the world's two largest economies has been spiraling down to the freezing point under the Trump administration, politicians, business leaders and academics are now looking into a major question of concern: whether it's time to reset the bilateral ties and whether China-US relations damage can be repaired? The Global Times reporter Chen Qingqing and Bai Yunyi (GT) interviewed Graham T. Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School, to look into where China-US relations are heading and if these two can find their way to a new form of great power relations. Allison is also the former director of Harvard's Belfer Center and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?

Graham T. Allison

GT: The Obama administration did not embrace the notion "new model of major power relationship" proposed by China. Do you think there is any chance Biden will reconsider it and why?

Allison: In 2012, China proposed to the US the concept of a "new form of great power relations" in which the US and China would respect one another's core interests. For China, "core interests" meant respecting each other's de facto sphere of influence. The US concluded that by this, China meant to include not only Taiwan and Tibet, but also China's claims in the South China Sea. Unwilling to accept these terms, the Obama Administration rejected this formulation, and President Trump did not even consider it.

If this is what China means by "new form of great power relations," there is no reason to expect that Biden's view will differ from Obama's. As Biden stated clearly in the campaign, he sees China as a serious rival and is determined that the US will not only compete, but win the races that matter most. As a number of his advisors have signaled, his administration will certainly not be "soft" on China, but instead "smart" in combatting Chinese initiatives that it opposes, competing successfully, and at the same time cooperating to preserve a world we can live in. 

On the other hand, as I wrote shortly after China made this proposal, if this is meant as a banner under which a joint effort by the US and China would work to define the content of a "new" form of relations, I applaud the concept. As someone who works directly for President Xi Jinping explained to me in a conversation in Beijing: why does China call for a "new" form of great power relations? Answering his own question, he said: because Xi understands that the old form of rivalry between great powers has so often led to war. He went on to note that the reason Xi talks so often about Thucydides's Trap - and specifically about the necessity to avoid it - is that he has studied the historical record. Indeed, China's leadership has made its own study of the cases I analyze in my book Destined for War: Can the U.S. and China Escape Thucydides's Trap? They understand what typically happens when a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power. That is, he said, precisely the reason China has called for a "new" type of relationship.

So my hope is that Biden and Xi, and their teams, will jointly develop a new concept of the relationship between these two great nations - a new strategic rationale that each can embrace. Today, competitive juices are flowing in both nations, overshadowing their cooperation. But both Biden and Xi are serious adults who recognize that both great nations live on a small planet in which technology (nuclear arsenals) and nature (climate disruption) have condemned them to co-exist - since the alternative is to co-destruct. As they develop such a concept, they could find inspiration in the suggestion President Reagan made to Soviet President Gorbachev in the final years of the Cold War. During a private walk with only Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev and their translators present, Reagan posed a question: If planet Earth were invaded by hostile Martians, how would the Soviet Union and the United States respond? Initially, the Russian interpreter misunderstood Reagan, and his translation raised eyebrows: Was Reagan telling Gorbachev that Martians had just invaded Earth? After the confusion was cleared up, Reagan pursued the question. His purpose was to underline the core interests that otherwise deadly adversaries shared. 

Ask Reagan's question today: do the US and China today face threats analogous to an alien invasion - challenges so severe that both sides are compelled to work together? One does not have to stretch too far to answer affirmatively. Five "mega-threats" loom above all: nuclear Armageddon, nuclear anarchy, global terrorism, climate disruption, and pandemics. In confronting each of these, the vital national interests the two powers share are much greater than the national interests that divide them. 

To meet these challenges, both governments will have to craft a strategy that passes what F. Scott Fitzgerald defined as the test of a first-class mind. In Fitzgerald's words, it is "to hold two contradictory ideas in one's head at the same time and still function." For the US, China is at one and the same time the fiercest rival the US has ever seen, and also a nation with which the US will have to find ways to survive together to avoid dying together.

Fortunately, in sharp contrast with his predecessor, Biden comes to this test well prepared. Seasoned by decades of experience as vice president, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and a legislator during the Cold War, he has wrestled with the hardest choices and developed considered views about how the world works.

US President-elect Joe Biden Photo: AFP

GT: Will the COVID-19 pandemic accelerate the political and economic rivalry between China and the US? Will this system competition intensify in coming years? Do you think the US political system may need some kind of reform?

Allison: We have to recognize that this coronavirus threat is layered on top of deep, inescapable structural realities. China is a meteoric rising power that really is threatening to displace the US from positions we have come to believe are our natural positions at the top of every pecking order. In short, this is a classic Thucydidean rivalry - with all that implies (including the genuine risk of a catastrophic war neither nation wants). 

To complicate the picture further, each country's successes and failures in its own "war" against coronavirus - including the race for a vaccine - will inescapably become a significant feature in this rivalry. Since this virus respects no borders, even if one nation succeeds in driving the rate of new domestic infections to zero, when its citizens return from abroad, they can bring this virus with them creating further waves of infections. Thus, victory for each will require an effective vaccine. At the same time, as China has succeeded in not just flattening, but bending the curve of new infections toward zero, while the US has floundered, no amount of rhetoric will be able to disguise this bottom line. The consequences for the overall competition, for judgments about the relative merits of democracy versus autocracy, and for America's standing in the world will be profound.  

Democracies are historically slow to awake to challenges, and slow to respond - none more so than the US. But once their mind is focused, their response is formidable. Had the great wars the US has fought over the centuries - from the 13 colonies' revolution to free themselves from British domination to World War II - ended after the first quarter, the US would have been declared the loser. So in the longer "war" against coronavirus, it would be premature to count the US out. As the world's most successful investor, Warren Buffett, repeatedly reminds investors: no one ever made money in the long run by selling America short.

GT: How should China and the US handle differences in areas such as human rights, freedom and ideology? From questions of Hong Kong to Xinjiang, the two countries have totally different mentalities. Can ideological differences possibly be managed? Or will they be more likely to intensify?

Allison: Intensify. Fundamental differences between the US and China about individual freedom, human rights, and democracy will become more visible in Biden's Democratic administration than they were under Trump. Human rights advocates are a more influential part of Democratic voters, and the Biden campaign signaled that it would be more vigorous in calling out Chinese violations. Moreover, all Americans subscribe to our Declaration of Independence's claim that all human beings are endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights including "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." This includes everyone: ordinary Chinese, residents of Hong Kong, Uyghur in Xinjiang - all 7.8 billion individuals on this planet today. Americans also believe that democracy is the best form of government for ensuring citizens' liberty. 

Of course, thoughtful Americans know that these are aspirations, not accomplishments, and that our democracy is, as we say, a "work in progress." In Destined for War, I state unambiguously my judgment that today, American democracy is dysfunctional - DC having become an acronym for "Dysfunctional Capital." President Biden has announced clearly that his first and most important challenge will be to reunify a deeply divided nation to show that our democracy can work for all our citizens. But our failures provide no excuse for others' shortcomings. Nor will our failures to realize our aspirations prevent us from criticizing others' failures. 

Yangshan Deep-Water Port in Shanghai Photo: IC

Nonetheless, if they really are condemned to co-exist, as noted in answer to an earlier question, the US and China have no choice but to find ways to manage these differences. As they explore ways to do that, I have suggested they might find inspiration in the insight President John F. Kennedy came to after surviving the most dangerous crisis in recorded history, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Kennedy and Khrushchev had stood eyeball to eyeball in a confrontation JFK believed had a one-in-three chance of ending in a nuclear war that would have killed hundreds of millions of people. Sobered by that experience, he began a serious search for a better way forward. Eight months later, just before he was assassinated, in one of the most significant speeches about international affairs of his career, he proposed that hereafter, the US goal in relations with the Soviet Union should be to build "a world safe for diversity." That would mean, he understood, transforming American thinking about what the US required of its "deadliest" adversary. Rather than demanding that the US bury the Soviet Union, the US should now live and let live - in a world of diverse political systems with diametrically opposed values and ideologies. In that future, the two rivals could compete vigorously - but only peacefully - to demonstrate whose values and system of governance could best meet the needs of its citizens.

GT: In Biden era, do you think the United States will continue to be "the world's cop"?

Allison: No. But expect Biden to formally bury "America First" and American unilateralism. On the campaign trail, Biden criticized Trump's "America First" for its producing "America alone." Responding to foreign leaders who called to congratulate him, he repeatedly said "America is back" - and noted his intention on day one to rejoin the Paris Accord and WHO as a down payment. As he said plainly last week in an interview with New York Times editorialist Tom Friedman: "The best China strategy, I think, is one which gets every one of our - or at least what used to be our - allies on the same page. It's going to be a major priority for me in the opening weeks of my presidency to try to get us back on the same page with our allies."

GT: What kind of era will it be as the world embraces the third decade in 21st century, and besides China-US relationship, what other challenges will the world face in the next 10 years?

The defining issue for the globe in the 2020s will be the rivalry between a rising China and a ruling US. China's rise is not only undermining US influence but threatening the international order of which the US has been the principal architect and guardian. And none of us should forget that this order has provided seven decades without great power war - an extraordinary exception from history as usual. This era of stability has enabled China, its Asian neighbors, and the world to produce greater increases in their citizens' well-being than in any equivalent period in recorded history. So as the US and China try to find their way to a new form of great power relations that combines fierce rivalry, on the one hand, and intense partnership, on the other, the rest of the world may be increasingly unsettled. 

For the US, the paramount challenge for American policy makers in 2021 and as far beyond as anyone can see will lie here at home. Abraham Lincoln captured a profound truth when he said: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Lincoln's proposition is being more severely tested today than at any time since the decade prior to the Civil War (in which more Americans died than in any other war).

After four years in which an American president has done everything possible to undo alliance relationships the US established over previous decades, a new administration will struggle to rebuild a "united front" to deal with the array of global challenges - including China. In a world in which, as Lee Kuan Yew explained, China is destined to be "the biggest player in the history of the world," the United States will work to assemble allied powers who together will constitute a correlation of forces to which China will have to adjust. As it tries to do so, however, because China has become the second backbone of the global economy and the major trading partner of most nations, the US will be unable to persuade allies and friends to choose between their military relationship with the US that makes them secure, and their economic relationship with China which is essential for their prosperity. 

US Capitol Building in Washington, DC Photo: AFP

Finally, though it continues to attract critics, globalization will remain a formidable force reshaping nation-based international relations as we know it. In almost every dimension, American-led globalization, built upon a foundation of an American-led order, has made possible constructive competition that has produced huge benefits. From the advancement of knowledge in science and medicine, to technology and products and ideas, human experiences, personal relationships, food, and indeed life, a framework that has allowed more individuals from more countries to add value has brought benefits beyond imagination. At the same time, policy makers will have to balance the gains of globalization with the reality that global competition disrupts normal conditions and life in all countries. Wonderful new technologies are also two-edged swords - as we saw when on 9/11 terrorists commandeered airplanes, converted them into guided missiles, and toppled the World Trade Center. Globalization has asymmetric consequences for states, each of whom can apply gains to strengthen its military and intelligence arsenal. Moreover, in empowering the "rise of the rest," globalization poses particular challenges for a nation that has become accustomed to an unchallenged position of supremacy for decades.


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