In Beijing, experts examine China's rise and the changing global order

On the heels of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, scholars, members of think tanks and former U.S. and Chinese government officials came to Beijing to discuss what many participants considered “the most important bilateral relationship” in the world: the relationship between the United States and China. As former U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte described during his opening remarks, the relationship, “if properly managed,” can result in an enormous boon for the world; but if mismanaged, can bring great harm to global stability and prosperity.

Stanford and Peking University jointly hosted a forum titled “A Changing Global and Political Order: Perspectives from China-United States Cooperation” on June 6-7 in Beijing. All attendees, who participated in their capacity as private individuals, acknowledged that a level of uncertainty and tension clouds the bilateral relationship, exemplified most clearly in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Having participated in the restoration of Sino-U.S. relations in 1972, Negroponte and former Chinese Ambassador Wu Jianmin remarked upon the geopolitical rationale that first motivated this rapprochement: to counter the Soviet Union. They noted that the bilateral relationship has grown increasingly robust and multi-dimensional over time. For example, Wu cited that trade between the United States and China has increased exponentially, from a mere US$1 billion in 1978 to $550 billion in 2015. Investment, economic cooperation and competition have also grown. Despite disagreements on regional security matters, both countries have worked together on global challenges such as climate change, North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues, anti-piracy efforts and the Ebola outbreak.

However, with China’s rapid rise, both militarily and economically, and as the developing world has gained increasing clout on the world’s stage, many participants suggested that the current global order, originally envisaged in 1944 with the Bretton-Woods Agreement, needed an update. Many participants, especially on the Chinese side, stated that the “balance of power was shifting” with the G7/G8 yielding economic momentum to the G20. The American participants generally did not share Chinese views of a power transition, but conceded that reforms were necessary to the global order to take into account China’s meteoric rise.  Participants did not dispute the benefits that China has derived from the current international order and most agreed that some type of evolutionary change is needed to increase inclusivity. As one participant asked regarding China’s perception of the United States (and vice versa), “Are we foes, enemies or friends?” Despite such ambiguity, U.S.-China cooperation is essential to effecting any type of change.

Questions were rife and specificity was scant with respect to what the key changes were or the mechanisms by which those reforms should be effected, however. Which countries should partake in this decision-making body? Should other entities and institutions other than nation-states be included? What are the rules of participation and criteria for membership? How large should the governing body be? What key reforms need to be undertaken?

Both Negroponte and Wu disavowed the zero-sum mentality of the Cold War, which, Wu stated, continues to impact perceptions on both sides. They both highlighted the critical importance of frequent dialogue by the Chinese and American heads of state and by their militaries. Calling summit-level meetings between the two presidents “indispensable,” Negroponte emphasized that “[both] leaders have to understand [the] viewpoints and attitudes of each country” in order to formulate the right policies. Negroponte added, “[d]iplomacy at that level is probably more important than it has ever been.”

As this summary of the forum is posted, we note with sadness the untimely death of Ambassador Wu Jianmin on June 18, 2016, in a tragic car accident in Wuhan, China.

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Photo gallery from the conference