We live in exciting times where the Dragon of the East has risen from its slumber and clashes with the other powers in the world. In this book, Nina Hachigian, who is now heading the US mission to ASEAN, pairs American and Chinese experts to engage in a series of letter exchanges. Academics and former government officials ardently provide insights on crucial issues such as human rights, media freedom, climate change and military development. It highlights the vitreous nature of the US-China relations, where one misstep could be catastrophic.
As China comprehensive national power grows, so does its role in regional roles. Over the last decade, Beijing has developed a clearer view of its regional role as:
From a Chinese perspective, the US interests in the Asia-Pacific also cover security, economic and political areas. Taking into account the importance of the region to US national interests, China welcomes the US as “an Asia-Pacific nation that contributes to the peace, stability and prosperity in the region.” But US self-proclaimed leadership, which undermines aspirations of other regional members is not well-received by the Chinese. Wu Xinbo (of Center for American Studies, Fudan University) is of the opinion that Washington’s role of intended balancer serves to monitor China.
Michael Green (Georgetown University) zealously disputes this notion and expressed concern about the description of the US as a “lonely” power and China as the “rising” one. He also described the Asian architecture as “fluid and confused”, where a hodgepodge of institutions emerged to seek economic ties. Eventually, both parties agree there is a pressing need for “strategic reassurance”—solid steps that explicitly address each other’s sources of misgiving, especially, but not limited, to matters of security.
Something closer to home is the importance of ASEAN and its centrality in stabling international relations in the region. Each should respect ASEAN efforts to address issues like those concerning the South China Sea. Wu and Green agree that the two superpowers have an interest in making certain that ASEAN is a cohesive group that builds greater integration and confidence in the region. It is also important to put the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in context. Malaysians are generally sceptical towards the agreement because its content remained shrouded in secrecy. Green calls for a more discrete bilateral strategic dialogue and welcomed common approaches to problems.
In one chapter Zhou Qi (Institute of American Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) and Andrew J Nathan (Columbia University) portray expeditious exchange on political systems, rights and values. As we turn to the fundamental issue of human rights, it is important to understand the main differences in Chinese and American conceptions of human rights. The Western human rights principles are founded on the idea that an individual possess certain basic rights in relation to the state. But the Chinese have never understood human rights in this way.
In Confucianism, rites play an integral role in a person’s life. Such behavioural codes facilitate stability and social harmony at all levels, rather than to protect individuals from the tyranny of the rulers. As a whole, the emphasis of the Chinese society is not placed on the individual, but rather on their duties. This concept is “incompatible with the vision of equal and autonomous individuals that underlines international human rights norms.”
The US has been criticized for maintaining double standards in the application of human rights principles in its foreign policies. Zhou firmly stands by the principle that China should not “live under any Western country’s system”. Both Zhou and Nathan, however, concur that they have human rights problems and suggested a robust two-way dialogue on human rights.
The world is now at a tumultuous, yet exciting age of globalization. We are facing cross-border challenges such as terrorism, climate change, humanitarian crises, and disease outbreaks. The US, as the world’s dominant power, together with China, the fastest growing developing nation, share an interest in meeting those dangers. However, disappointments in both countries have been observed that the relationship has yet to progress to the level expected by many. Despite the extraordinary intensity of the engagement between the two sides, any potential setback, if left unattended, could lead to deterioration in the relationship or even an international conflict.
There are many other interesting issues like cyber-security and conflict in space discussed in this book, making it an intriguing read. Readers may also be interested to find how the US and Chinese approach to development and foreign investment.
Debating China: The US-China Relationship in Ten Conversations edited by Nina Hachigian is available at MCCHR Resource Centre.
Pauline Ting is a law student and former intern at the MCCHR. She is also actively involved in Malaysian Law Students Union (KPUM) and other student groups in Malaysia. She tweets as @paulinetyz.