Home > Essays in Diplomacy, Peace and Conflict Resolution > Challenges for American diplomacy in the current U.S.-China relations

Challenges for American diplomacy in the current U.S.-China relations

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (L) meets with U.S. President Barack Obama in New York, the United States, Sept. 23, 2010. (Xinhua/Huang Jinwen)

by Juan “Jed” E. Dayang, Jr.

The relationship of China and the United States (U.S.) will shape the 21st century.

For nearly two decades since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. has enjoyed unparalleled leadership in shaping the new world order.  However, the rise of China as an emerging major power  is a threat to the pre-eminence of the U.S. in the region.  For instance, China’s deepening socio-economic relationship with ASEAN has raised worldwide concerns over its strategic consequences and raised new areas for U.S. diplomatic engagement with China.  Sino’s economic integration with Southeast Asia has raised questions in Washington whether it is China’s pretext to eventual regional hegemony.

Compared with its predecessor, U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration seemed to have shifted from unilateralism to multilateralism.  For instance, Obama’s visit to China last year was an effort of the U.S. to strengthen ties beyond Bush’s economic cooperation. The U.S. sought to expand bilateral relations including issues related to regional security, energy use, climate change and cultural exchanges. Obama also acknowledged that U.S.-China relationship is huge and complex.  He invoked the need for both countries to work on areas of common interest and to have open dialogue on areas of disagreements.

The security challenges for U.S. diplomacy in the current U.S.-China relations could be illuminated by three International Relations perspective. From the U.S. realist perspective, China’s rise is a threat to Pax Americana. This view supports the idea that China’s military build-up  should be viewed with suspicion and therefore must be controlled and  pre-empted through coercive diplomacy.    The liberal approach, however,  lends support to Obama’s multilateral engagement with China in fostering political, economic, and cultural cooperation.  The liberal perspective views economic interdependence as crucial to the peace in the region.    And beyond economic issues,  collective action is required in other areas such as resolving the recent financial crisis, climate change, and nuclear disarmament.  According to the liberal perspective, China’s authoritarian regime may evolve into a more open political system by its integration in the world economy.  For the constructivists, who view ideas and identities as forces that shape interests, the challenge for U.S. diplomacy is how to promote democratic reforms in China, persuade China’s emerging leaders to adopt moderation on Taiwan Straits issues, and promote modern western cultures  and norms in China  through “soft power” approaches.

The challenge for U.S. diplomacy under the Obama administration is how to maintain and strengthen U.S. position of global leadership. In the Asian region, particularly in Southeast Asia, China  could be classified as both as a regional and an emerging global power.   Although China’s diplomacy has made inroads in regional economic integration, security structure in the region remains dominated by the U.S. and its bilateral alliance.  The strength of the U.S. is its perceived moral leadership and its readiness to assume a social and political burden that leadership entails; virtues that are yet to emerge from China as it faces scrutiny over human rights concerns and suspicions over its real intentions.

On the other hand, the U.S. has to realize that it could no longer remain complacent in the status quo it has enjoyed for the past few decades as a global leader. The future of the region is inextricably linked with U.S.-China relation.  One way for the U.S. to keep its leadership role in the region is  to strategically engage China in a shared leadership role within Southeast Asia in the future.

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