On January 19, 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao issued a joint statement at the end of Hu’s visit to Washington. It proclaimed their shared commitment to a “positive, cooperative, and comprehensive U.S.-China relationship.” Each party reassured the other regarding his principal concern, announcing, “The United States reiterated that it welcomes a strong, prosperous, and successful China that plays a greater role in world affairs. China welcomes the United States as an Asia-Pacific nation that contributes to peace, stability and prosperity in the region.”
Since then, the two governments have set about implementing the stated objectives. Top American and Chinese officials have exchanged visits and institutionalized their exchanges on major strategic and economic issues. Military-to-military contacts have been restarted, opening an important channel of communication. And at the unofficial level, so-called track-two groups have explored possible evolutions of the U.S.-Chinese relationship.
Yet as cooperation has increased, so has controversy. Significant groups in both countries claim that a contest for supremacy between China and the United States is inevitable and perhaps already under way. In this perspective, appeals for U.S.-Chinese cooperation appear outmoded and even naive.
The mutual recriminations emerge from distinct yet parallel analyses in each country. Some American strategic thinkers argue that Chinese policy pursues two long-term objectives: displacing the United States as the preeminent power in the western Pacific and consolidating Asia into an exclusionary bloc deferring to Chinese economic and foreign policy interests. In this conception, even though China’s absolute military capacities are not formally equal to those of the United States, Beijing possesses the ability to pose unacceptable risks in a conflict with Washington and is developing increasingly sophisticated means to negate traditional U.S. advantages. Its invulnerable second-strike nuclear capability will eventually be paired with an expanding range of antiship ballistic missiles and asymmetric capabilities in new domains such as cyberspace and space. China could secure a dominant naval position through a series of island China’s neighbors, dependent as they are on Chinese trade and uncertain of the United States’ ability to react, might adjust their policies according to Chinese preferences. Eventually, this could lead to the creation of a Sinocentric Asian bloc dominating the western Pacific. The most recent U.S. defense strategy report reflects, at least implicitly, some of these apprehensions.
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