International Relations

What can the US and China learn from the “Special Relationship”?

Written by Xu Ruike.

Six British Tornado fighter jets have participated in US-led air strikes against the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq following the British Parliament gave its approval by a vote of 524 to 43 on September 26th. This is the latest example of Anglo-American solidarity in the face of a common threat. More importantly, it adds new momentum to the seven-decade-old Anglo-American Special Relationship (AASR). The UK and US arguably enjoy unparalleled military cooperation, intelligence and nuclear cooperation, intimate diplomatic links and sophisticated economic cooperation. What can the Sino-American relationship, the widely acknowledged most important bilateral relationship in the world, learn from Anglo-American relations, arguably the best bilateral relationship in the world?

It is probably odd to compare these two distinct sets of bilateral relations. After all, the UK and the USA are old allies while China and the US are rivals at best, enemies at worst. However, by stripping off all their apparent differences, in particular culture and values, these two sets of bilateral relations have one common feature: they both include sovereign states which are competitors, in the past or at present, for world primacy. Bilateral relations between sovereign states are inevitably fraught with disagreements. Even the UK and the US do not see eye to eye on every issue. Their national interests diverge once in a while. Contrary to the evangelical claim, the AASR did not emerge naturally out of shared culture and history. The formation and maintenance of the AASR involves a long process of rivalry and compromise. Similarly, Sino-American relations have also experienced rivalry and compromise over the past few decades. Without the willingness of the Nixon administration to be the first to show gesture of compromise, the Sino-American rapprochement in 1972 was impossible. The problem for the Sino-American relations in recent decades is that the rivalry aspect has become increasingly prominent. The gradual rise of China, in a seemingly unstoppable manner, unsettles America.

Rivalry is normal among competitors for world primacy, but the wisdom of making compromise is a rare virtue. Either the peaceful transition of hegemony from Britain to America or the eventual formation of the AASR could in part attribute to the Anglo-American wisdom to compromise. With regard to the wisdom of making compromises, the crux is that the superpower needs to be willing to share power and prestige with its competitor in a proper way. Power flows constantly. There is no permanent superpower in the world. The superpower cannot dominate every corner of the world. That is why the superpower needs to make concessions to its competitors in a way that does not only attain the aim of living in peace with the latter, but also avoids harming its own core interests in the meantime. Sometimes giving up something is the best way to avoid harmed in the long run.

Britain’s willingness to make concessions to America in the Venezuelan crisis of 1895 and acquiesce in the Monroe Doctrine paved the way for the Anglo-American rapprochement in 1898. After that, Britain and America have been locked in a path of accumulating cooperation which culminated with the formation of the special relationship in 1941. The increasing Sino-American rivalry in recent years is in a large part due to the American reluctance to live with a rising China which potentially challenges its primacy. That is why President Obama put forward the pivot, now rebalancing, to Asia. The purpose is evident: to contain China. No matter how American politicians argue that such an American strategy is for the wellbeing of the East Asia, China included, the thing is that the Chinese government deeply believes that the aim of the American pivot to Asia is to block the rise of China. Hence, deep mistrust which already exists is further deepened. In return, the deepened mistrust easily gives rise to clashes between China and America as an extension of China’s disputes with its neighbours (and American allies) in the South and East China Seas.

China did not start the dispute in the South and East China Seas. America’s allies, especially the Philippines and Japan, choose to confront China in these two disputes. Each party in these disputes has its own justified grievances. They are therefore stuck in a dilemma in which no party is willing to compromise. In this situation, America should be an honest broker, but it is not. It uncritically supports its allies. It automatically assumes China’s guilt and ignores China’s righteous claims. As a result, China’s grievances are hardened and the Sino-American relations are caught in a vicious circle. Unlike America in the 19th century, China never puts forward a doctrine similar to the Monroe Doctrine. China does not have the ambition to rule East Asia as its own sphere of influence like the US did in the past in the Americas. But the US is reluctant to admit this point. It arrogantly assumes that China would create disaster if it dominates East Asia while believing that the American dominance once brought peace and prosperity to the American continent. The US is reluctant to share influence with China in East Asia. This is an unwise policy. It will only worsen Sino-American relations.

America should notice from its relations with Britain that making concessions to its competitors brings benefits to itself in the long term. Britain lost an empire, but it gained a special relationship with America. Britain and America’s positions reversed, but their intimate relations are preserved. America should forego the mind-set of the zero-sum game. In fact, America and China can both benefit from cooperation in dealing with a host of issues, such as Islamic terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change and financial crisis. In addition, America’s overt challenger is Russia, as the recent Ukraine turmoil has already illustrated. By refusing to work out a compromise with China in islands disputes in the East Asia, America will push China to be closer to Russia. Moreover, America’s failure to be an honest broker in the island disputes in East Asia will create a disaster for itself. It should learn a hard lesson from the seemingly constant Middle East chaos.

Xu Ruike is a PhD student in the School of Politics, University of Nottingham. Image by President of the European Council/Flikr CC

7 replies »

  1. 1) America is a continent, the country is called United States (of America)/US/USA. You repeated America/American 39 times!

    2) “Evangelical claim”: what a horrible slang expression. Or a lazy way to avoid specifying who claims that?

    3) “American reluctance to live with a rising China which potentially challenges its primacy”. Ah, the good old envy/passive-aggressive argument! You know what? US business has started and fuelled and supported China’s rise. Just because some US media criticise Chinese leaders or the president pays lip service to the HR doctrine, it doesn’t mean that China and the US are not the biggest partners in the preservation of the “unstable stability” of the status quo, the integration of their capitals, and the marginalisation of models of development alternative to their turbo-capitalism.

    4) “Automatically assumes China’s guilt and ignores China’s righteous claims.” Shall we take it for granted, or would you be so kind to enlighten us about why China’s claims are so “righteous” and the US so “not honest”?

    5) The all article is structured so that the “allies of the US” in SE Asia are non-existent. It’s all about the ultimate China-US competition. How about the claims of Vietnam and other countries in those areas? Are those not “righteous” enough? Or are those countries too small and irrelevant for you and the great Chinese gov to take them into consideration — other than as pawns in the great superpower game?

    6) “It uncritically supports its allies”: Whereas China critically confronts its allies and business partners over matters of principle, right?

    7) “China does not have the ambition to rule East Asia as its own sphere of influence like the US did in the past”: Empty claim that echoes Chinese propaganda.

    This is sub-standard quality for this blog. Don’t use scholarship to vent your petty frustrations and great power nationalism.

  2. Two more things:

    8) “The purpose is evident: to contain China. […] The thing is that the Chinese government deeply believes that the aim of the American pivot to Asia is to block the rise of China”. I am confused. Is it a fact (first sentence)? Then we need evidence. Or is it something that Beijing believes (second sentence)? Isn’t it rather something that Beijing *claims*? Or perhaps something that *you* believe? It is not “evident”. Specify please. Contradictory sentences, and uncorroborated.

    9) “China did not start the dispute in the South and East China Seas. America’s allies…”: When and how? Unless you specify this is just a playground fight between 9 year olds (“He started it! No, she started it!”). Especially since the modern dispute over e.g. the Spratly Islands dates back at least to the ROC/China’s sovereignty claim of 1935. “… choose to confront China in these two disputes”: It takes two to tango, in a territorial dispute — You assume they should have they simply accepted any claim from China and avoid “choosing” to “confront” it.

    And finally the best and purest political wisdom:

    “The crux is that the superpower *needs to be willing* to share power and prestige with its competitor *in a proper way*.” (Emphasis added)

    Yes, that’s how it works.

  3. Oxford Dictionary: ” The United States of America is usually shortened to the USA, the US, the States or simply America”. So there is no problem for me to use “America” to refer to the United States. Also I use “the Americas” to refer to the American Continent. So there should be no confusion for readers to understand what I mean in the context. For example, in the sentence “either the peaceful transition of hegemony from Britain to America or the eventual formation of the AASR could in part attribute to the Anglo-American wisdom to compromise”, readers can have no problem to understand what “America” is.

  4. 2) In the literature of the Anglo-American relations, there are basically three school of arguments: the evangelical school, the functional school and the terminal school. I recommend you to read Alex Danchev’s paper “On Specialness”. After reading this paper, you can clearly understand what the evangelical claim is and who have had such claims.
    3) The prevailing American media wariness of China’s rise and American politicians’ worrying words reflects the true concern of the American government, that is, it feels threatened by China’s rise. Yes, I agree with you that the US business shows support to China’s rise, which demonstrates
    the Sino-American economic interdependence. Undeniably, China and the US are big partners on a host of economic issues. But the fact is that in terms of security, the US does not see China as a reliable partner. Instead, it wants to contain China by what means it has.
    4) If China does not have righteous claim to the Diaoyu Island, which country has? Japan? The Diaoyu Island was undeniably occupied by Japan when it invaded China? Do you think that Japan has righteous claim because of its invasion of China and occupation of this island by force? Could you enlighten us how Japan has righteous claim to Diaoyu Island? Suppose neither China or Japan has righteous claim, the USA should be an honest broker in helping resolve this conflict. But as far as the evidence has shown, America uncritically support Japan. This is not the supposed honest superpower should do.
    5) By using these two island disputes as examples, I want to show why the USA does not play fair in these two disputes. The American gov’s support of its allies such as Japan and the Philippines makes these two island disputes even harder to resolve. Don’t you think that the great American gov is using its little allies as pawns to confront China? Given the limited size of my writing, it is impossible for me to exhaust all the relevant countries’ claims.
    6) Do you think the USA critically supports its allies on matters of principle in the East Asia?
    7) In the 19th century, the USA ruled the American continent by upholding the Monroe Doctrine. It did such a thing in the past. Does the USA think that every country will do the same thing like itself? To make an analogy, it does not make sense for a man who once committed a crime in the past to assume that other people will inevitably follow his suit. Why cannot China behave differently from the US? My claim is not empty. Rather it is based on assessment of American history and Chinese history.
    I agree that I need to further improve my quality of writing. I take scholarship seriously. Why is the American or British great power nationalism a good thing and the Chinese great power nationalism a bad thing? At least, China does not colonize other countries.
    8) Of course, the American government cannot say that pivot to Asia is to contain China. American
    politicians need to pay lip service to justify the appropriateness of such a strategy to do good to the East Asia. However, because of the high distrust towards the US, the Chinese politicians regard
    this strategy as a way to block China’s rise. By looking at Chinese government paper and media reports, you can find ample evidence of China’s deep suspicion of America’s pivot to Asia.
    9) Of course, the islands disputes are very complicated. They make a claim on the Islands at first, why should China simply accepted their claim? China once agreed to cooperate with these countries to make use of the disputed islands in the South China Sea.

  5. Dear Ruike, in no particular order, i want to respond to some of your arguments.

    “China did not start the dispute in the South and East China Seas. America’s allies, especially the Philippines and Japan, choose to confront China in these two disputes. ”

    The argument that Japan or The Philippines (American allies) started the dispute in East and South China Seas does not hold a water even with great dose of wishful thinking. But if you insist on that argument, then I can only repeat what my predecessor said, WHEN and HOW?

    “If China does not have righteous claim to the Diaoyu Island, which country has? Japan? The Diaoyu Island was undeniably occupied by Japan when it invaded China? Do you think that Japan has righteous claim because of its invasion of China and occupation of this island by force?”

    Problem is that there is nothing undeniable about that. As you know, Japanese claim that their possession of Senkakus has nothing to do with Sino-Japanese war and concluding Shimonoseki Treaty of 1895. If you can find a reference in Shimonoseki Treaty that territories ceded to Japan included Diaoyutai/Senkaku islands, feel encouraged to present it. Sovereignty does not stem only from mere use of the land by fishing crews, claimant state need to prove it was actually administering that given territory (e.g. collecting taxes). Islands in South and East China Seas were indeed used by Chinese fishermen…and then also pretty much everyone else passing by.

    “the USA should be an honest broker in helping resolve this conflict. But as far as the evidence has shown, America uncritically support Japan. This is not the supposed honest superpower should do.”

    Says who? Alliance is expression of close partnership, why would any power (not only superpower) scold its allies in the open and thus damage the partnership? I can see why Beijing would like to see that, I do not quite understand why a scholar would make that case as if it is something indisputable.

    “China once agreed to cooperate with these countries to make use of the disputed islands in the South China Sea.”

    No, no, no, it did not. It always argues that the other side has to first agree that China holds the sovereignty. It is effectively no-negotiation stance. It also refuses to move beyond bilateral negotiations where it can deal from the position of force and not risking to face more claimants at once. The solution is easy, if Beijing’s claim is righteous, do what other nations do, go to court and abide the decision. But China consoistently refuses to do so, and so does refuse to acknowledge any related ruling. It has right to do so, but it does not speak volumes about China’s confidence about legitimacy and legality of its claim.

    Regards,

    Michal Thim, CPI, UoN

  6. Reflecting the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台) issue, the Diaoyutai Island is under Taiwan’s sovereignty based on historical documents and the international law.

    Historically, the Diaoyutai Islands first appeared in Chinese historical records as early as the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), in 1403. One of the earliest Ming records, “Shunfeng xiangsong” 順風相送 [Seeing off with a favorable tailwind], indicates that these islands were discovered, named, and used by China.

    In contrast, the first Japanese historical document was found in 1785, “Sangoku tsuran zusetsu” marked the Diaoyutai Islands and China in red, proving that the Diaoyutai Islands belonged to China and not to the Ryukyu Islands of Japan.

    In 1895, Japan won the victory in the First Sino-Japanese War; Japan secretly instructed Okinawa Prefecture to establish a national landmark on Diaoyutai Islands. However, this action was not disseminate by Japanese Imperial Decree or any official announcement. Therefore, the outside world knew nothing of the event. In fact, Okinawa Prefecture did not establish a national landmark until 1968, that’s the disputes over the territory began.

    Taiwan has two grounds to claim its territory over the Diaoyutai Islands in terms of the international law.

    Firstly, Japan claimed that “From 1895 till 1971, no objection from foreign powers had been made to Japan’s use of these islands.” Based on the historical circumstances, this claim is invalid. During the period between 1895 and 1945, not only the Diaoyutai Islands, but also the entire island of Taiwan, were subject to Japanese occupation, and were therefore part of Japan’s territory. As such, no other country challenged Japan’s use of either Taiwan or the Diaoyutai Islands.

    However, between 1945 and 1972, while under the trusteeship of the US government, the Diaoyutai Islands were not ruled by Japan nor controlled by any other country. Therefore, US trusteeship did not have any significance in terms of sovereignty. During this period, the people of Taiwan, particularly fishermen, continued to use these islands without interference.

    Secondly, Japan annexed the Diaoyutai Islands after defeating Qing China in the First Sino-Japanese However, in 1945, according to the Cairo Declaration, Potsdam Proclamation, Japanese Instrument of Surrender, and the ROC-Japan Peace Treaty, these islands were returned to the Republic of China, which has pulled back to Taiwan in 1949.

    The Treaty of Shimonoseki signed and said that the island of Formosa (Taiwan), together with all islands appertaining or belonging to it, had to be ceded to Japan. The Diaoyutai Islands were related to Formosa, and therefore the islands were ceded to Japan along with Formosa in accordance with the Treaty.

    Amid the end of the World War II, in 1943, the Republic of China, the US and the UK jointly issued the Cairo Declaration, saying that “all the territories Japan has stolen from the Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa, and the Pescadores (Penghu), shall be restored to the Republic of China. It should include Diaoyutai Islands.

    In 1945, the Potsdam Proclamation of the Allied countries also noted that “the terms of the Cairo Declaration shall be carried out, and Japanese sovereignty shall be limited to the islands of Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and such minor islands as we determine.” In 1945, given Japan’s unconditional surrender to the commanders of the Allied troops, the Japanese Emperor signed the Instrument of Surrender, which explicitly announced Japan’s acceptance of the Potsdam Proclamation.

    In the 1952 ROC-Japan Peace Treaty signed in Taipei, this treaty confirmed Japan’s renouncement of sovereignty over Taiwan (Formosa) and Penghu (the Pescadores), also noted that all treaties (including the Treaty of Shimonoseki) signed before 1941 between Japan and the Republic of China became null and void due to the war, also confirmed that the treaty is applicable to all the territories under the control of the government of the Republic of China.

    Thus, as the Diaoyutai Islands and Taiwan were Chinese territories lost to Japan following the First Sino-Japanese War, according to the Cairo Declaration, Potsdam Proclamation, Japanese Instrument of Surrender, and the ROC-Japan Peace Treaty, these islands were returned to the Republic of China.

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