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