In the inevitable frustrations and tensions that occur in bilateral relations, statements have been made and actions taken in recent months that suggest a series of conflicts between the United States and China.  For example, at the Copenhagen climate change conference in December 2009, China expressed strong opposition to the US president’s position that international verification of mandatory cuts was a must in fashioning a climate change regime; instead, China insisted that such international verification was a violation of China’s national sovereignty.  China expressed strong negative views following the announcement that the US was selling arms to Taiwan.  Harsh Chinese words followed President Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama. The public fight between Google and the Chinese government over the continuing censorship of Google’s Chinese search engine brought yet another conflict between the two countries to the fore.  Bilateral tensions have further been raised by insistent demands from the US administration and Congress that China revalue the renminbi upwards, with hints that the US Treasury Department might declare China a currency manipulator. Finally, the Chinese unwillingness to negotiate sanctions on Iran for its refusal to end uranium enrichment also rankled the US, though the Chinese position on this issue has since shifted.

These public scoldings have filled the airwaves since December 2009. In this charged atmosphere, some analysts suggested that these tensions reflected a change in China’s calculus that it was prepared to accommodate the US.  One expert received wide attention: Ian Bremer, president of the Eurasia Group, declared in The Financial Times on March 29, 2010, that “Beijing no longer believes American power is indispensable to Chinese economic expansion and the Communist Party’s political survival.”  Other experts suggested that China was flexing its muscles with an economically weakened US still seemingly mired in near-recession, while the Chinese had put their recession far behind and had resumed rapid growth.

A Shift to Collaborative Relations?

Then, as quickly as the storm had arisen, the skies began to clear and the prospect of an emerging collaboration, or at the least an improvement of relations, appeared.  President Hu announced that he would attend the Washington nuclear security summit hosted by President Obama in April.  The two leaders held an hour-long telephone call in which President Hu reportedly called for “healthy and stable” US–China relations.  It also appeared that China signalled that it was prepared to discuss sanctions against Iran, which it had apparently refused to do for several months. 

How could China’s growing frustration and assertiveness be transformed so swiftly into a willingness to engage in more collaborative behaviour with the US?  The answer lies largely in the rather “trigger-happy” reporters and analysts who insist on seeing the US-China global relationship as though it were a kind of horse race — now with one in front and the other racing to catch up.  Many experts also mistake Chinese tactical foreign policy moves as somehow reflecting Beijing’s strategic behaviour. In reality, there is little to suggest that China has rethought or altered its strategic stance toward the US and on international relations generally. 

Where Does China Stand and How Does This Play Out in Global Leadership?

For China — the government and the Communist Party — rapid economic growth remains an overwhelming goal and priority.  It not only defines a key objective of Chinese policy, but also conditions or limits collaboration with other nations on such key global governance challenges as climate change, energy security, financial reform and macroeconomic policy.  True, China may not be fully in accord with the architecture and policies of the current world order, and Beijing remains wary of what it calls US hegemonism; however, there is little to suggest that China aims to overthrow the global system or confront US leadership or even that it desires to dislodge the US from the Asian region.  While China accepts that the US is, for now, the only superpower, it insists that China be acknowledged as a great power and that others recognize its paramount concerns in such matters as Taiwan and Tibet.

For China, these understandings and priorities represent strategic interests. Unlike other historical rising powers, China is deeply integrated into the world economy and sees itself as part of the current international order.  Beijing has therefore welcomed the expansion of the G8 to include the rising powers through the G20. But participation in this widening leadership circle leaves Chinese leaders unclear about how things will unfold and where they will lead, and thus ambivalent about a leadership role.  With such lack of clarity, China will likely oscillate between being a passive receiver of global governance at times, and an active contributor to it in other instances.  With its deep economic integration, China may well find that its economy and continued prosperity is too dependent on the global economy to ignore the rest of the world; therefore, China may join in international financial reform and even engage directly in collaboration over global imbalances, though such engagement will inevitably lead to a G20 discussion on the renminbi-dollar exchange rate.

While many G20 countries will likely look to Beijing to act as a global leader — what the US has termed being a “responsible stakeholder”— it is likely that China will fall short of expectations in terms of both ideas and resources. China will step up to the mark on occasion, but not always, and the G20 leaders and others will have to accept that Chinese collaborative behaviour will be slow and, at times, frustratingly cautious. China may well be the part-time global leader.

Alan S. Alexandroff is a senior fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ontario and co-director of the G20 Research Group at the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto.