Summary of the breakout conversation “China – The Next Phase of the Strategic Partnership” at the 2009 Annual Members’ Conference.


Hon. J. Stapleton Roy, Former U.S. Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China
Mr. Ruan Zongze, Minister Counselor, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China to the United States
Mr. David Shear, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs
Moderated by Dr. Banning Garrett, Director, Asia Program, Atlantic Council


This session was held under Atlantic Council Rules, defined by President and CEO Frederick Kempe as “Chatham House Rules with military enforcement.”  Below is a general summary of the topics discussed.

Relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China are better now than at any previous time in the past.

This is in large part because, for the last seven of George W. Bush’s eight years in office, comprise the longest period of stability ever in U.S.-China relations. Bush’s success with China hinged on his administration’s firm China/Taiwan policy during a particularly sensitive time in cross-Strait relations between the Republic of China (Taiwan) and the PRC. Then R.O.C. President Chen Shui-bian made strong, public efforts to establish de jure independence from China for Taiwan, and Bush made clear statements carried out policy decisions throughout this period that the United States would support no unilateral change in the status quo in the Taiwan Strait. Bush also expanded the process of institutionalizing senior level U.S.-China official exchanges via the Strategic Economic Dialogue and the Senior Dialogue. These brought together cabinet-level leaders from both countries to discuss strategic and economic issues. This served the U.S. and China both exceedingly well during the global financial crisis because the top financial decision-makers in both countries shared close, direct dialogue coordinating their respective management of the crisis.

President Obama is making a concerted effort to continue the Bush legacy of stable, strong relations with China, but he also seeks to augment Bush’s strategy in significant ways.

First, Obama deliberately avoided the election cycle paradigm of U.S.-China relations into which Bush fell twice – that is, make U.S.-China affairs a partisan issue for debate, start off the presidency with tense relations, and later necessarily adjust and reduce tension. China was not a subject for debate at all for Obama during the election.

Second, Bush’s policy focused on shaping China’s behavior through policy formulations like expecting China to become a “responsible stakeholder,” meaning that China is a stakeholder in the existing world order and should act according to that order’s norms. China has never had a problem with the idea of being a global stakeholder, but who defines the responsibilities of such stakeholders? China expects that as its wealth and power increases it will have the chance to articulate those responsibilities. According to U.S. officials, Obama will not present China with a mold into which it must try to fit itself. Rather, Obama wants to define a new paradigm with China.

Third, Bush’s defense policy regarding China focused on hedging for the possibility of war with China in case the two sides antagonize each other in the future. Thus, Bush’s policy, though more successful than past Presidents, remained fundamentally ambivalent towards China. Obama instead seeks a framework for relations in which both states can respond to global challenges coordinately without impeding each other’s national interests. Obama seeks to increase cooperation with China and other global partners in four areas: response to the global financial crisis, global non-proliferation, climate change, and international security threats like piracy, terrorism, drug smuggling, and human trafficking.

The U.S.-China relationship is in part shaped by changes in the international order. In the past, the two governments could operate solely on the basis of bilateral and limited multilateral exchanges, but now it is at least more effective if not imperative to work through multilateral cooperation in order to address global strategic challenges. However, whether this new global paradigm will result in continued closer cooperation or increase the risks of competition between the two is a function of China’s growing wealth and power and America’s willingness to accommodate China’s rise. China feels that as it continues to increase its development and open further to the world, it shares more and more interests with the United States. Yet it remains clear that China’s rise means the relative diminishing of the clout of Western nations, particularly the U.S.

This implies that both the U.S. and China must remain sober about the limits of cooperation. Despite increased cooperation, both remain divided on climate change responses, if for no other reason than the relative disparities in their levels economic development. Cross-Strait relations between Taiwan and China require constant attention. A considerable amount of mutual distrust and suspicion also remains, particularly among military exchanges. Both states hope that expanding senior level official dialogues and working level exchanges between the two militaries and between the two civilian governments will help to reduce tensions. This in part forms the background of Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg’s recent dialogue with the Chinese on strategic reassurance.

Ultimately, the U.S. and China both need to recognize they are both threatened by each other’s potential failure to meet global challenges and need each other to succeed in their own responses to these challenges.

– Summary by Patrick deGategno, Associate Director of the Asia Program