The G-2 Mirage

Why the United States and China Are Not Ready to Upgrade Ties

It took just one month for U.S. President Barack Obama's foreign policy team to establish its line on China: more cooperation on more issues more often. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton enthusiastically declared during her brief visit to Beijing in late February, "The opportunities for us to work together are unmatched anywhere in the world."

Click here to listen to a podcast of this article.

The Obama team is in good company. Henry Kissinger has called for the U.S.-Chinese relationship to be "taken to a new level" and Zbigniew Brzezinski has advocated the development of a G-2, a group of two comprising China and the United States that could address the international financial crisis, tackle climate change, limit the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and maybe even help resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Early notes of potential discord -- Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner's description of China as a currency manipulator, Secretary Clinton's call for greater religious freedom in China, National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair's openness to potential future arms sales to Taiwan -- were muted in the interest of elevating the U.S.-Chinese relationship.

Calling on the United States and China to do more together has an undeniable logic. Both Washington and Beijing are destined to fail if they attempt to confront the world's problems alone, and the current bilateral relationship is not getting the job done. Real coordination on trade and currency reform remains stunted, both sides lag behind the rest of the world in addressing climate change, and meaningful partnership on global challenges -- from food safety to nuclear proliferation -- is limited.

But elevating the bilateral relationship is not the solution. It will raise expectations for a level of partnership that cannot be met and exacerbate the very real differences that still exist between Washington and Beijing. The current lack of U.S.-Chinese cooperation does not stem from a failure on Washington's part to recognize how much China matters, nor is it the result of leaders ignoring the bilateral relationship. It derives from mismatched interests, values, and capabilities.

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis