Crisis Management and U.S.-China Relations
Jiemian Yang, vice president of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, analyzes crises in U.S.-China relations: why they arise, how they are managed, and what can be done to forestall them.
[For more than a decade, a fact of life in Asia has been recurrent crises between the United States and China. Most of the time in most ways U.S.-China relations are “normal”: stable, positive, and mutually beneficial. But from time to time unanticipated and often unforeseeable crises explode on the scene, threatening to mushroom into dangerous confrontations.
[A key to peace and stability in Asia is how the United States and China manage crises, both those that arise between these two states and those that involve more than these two. In the following article, Jiemian Yang, vice president to the Chinese think tank Shanghai Institute of International Studies, explores why confrontations between China and the United States have been so prevalent since the end of the Cold War, what factors shape the attitudes and policies of crisis management in both countries, and how crisis management can be improved.]
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In international relations and foreign policy decision-making, crises and crisis management are not new. In international relations, a crisis usually refers to an urgent and unexpected exigency that is vital to the core values of the countries concerned. While these features continue to hold true in crises involving China and the United States in the post-Cold War era, there is something noteworthy in how China and the United States “manage” those crises. This short essay examines, first, how the mutual perceptions within these two countries affect decision-making in crisis management, and, second, what are the new developments in their dealing with each other in a crisis situation.
Bilateral and Multilateral Crises
There have been quite a few crises in or related to Sino-U.S. relations since the end of the Cold War. These crises can roughly be divided into two categories. One consists of those mainly concerning the two countries per se (bilateral crises) and the other is related to other parties also (multilateral crises). The first category—bilateral crises—encompasses the political turmoil in 1989, the Yinhe Incident in 1993, Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the U.S. in 1995, the bombing of Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, and the mid-air collision between a Chinese and an American military aircraft in 2001. The second category—multilateral crises—encompasses the Gulf War in 1990-1991, Asian financial crisis in 1997, the South Asian nuclear crisis in 1998, the 9/11 incidents in 2001, the Korean nuclear issue, and Iraqi War in 2002-2003. Analysis of these crises leads to some interesting findings.
First, both external and internal factors play a big role in the attitudes and policies of crisis management in China and in the United States. Both China and the United States are major powers. China is an emerging power and its regional and global interests are growing. The United States is the sole superpower and it has immense interests, which extend the world over, to protect. There is a close linkage between the international situation and the countries concerned, or there is a structure-and-agent interaction, to use terminology of scholars of international relations who are known as “constructivists.” This partially explains why there are frequent crises between and/or related to these two countries.
The two governments also have to be responsive to domestic considerations. As a result of the reform and opening-up in the past two decades and more, China has increasingly become diverse and pluralistic. The Chinese government has to pay growing attention to domestic public opinion in its foreign relations. In the past dozen years or so there has been an accumulation of resentment among the Chinese people, especially the educated and young, against American arrogance and assertiveness. More often than not, to be soft or hard, that is the question. In the United States, accompanying the upsurge of so-called neo-conservatism, there has emerged a China-bashing alliance ranging from the far right to the far left. Capitol Hill and various single-issue interest groups often exert strong pressure on the administration to be tougher and harder toward the “Chinese communists.” Therefore, when a crisis comes, the two governments tend to be firmer rather than softer in dealing with each other.
Understandably, the two countries are more confrontational in bilateral crises than in multilateral crises because their interests are more directly involved in the former and less so in the latter. Moreover, bilateral crises often arise when Sino-U.S. relations are at their low point. In the so-called honeymoon decade between 1979 and 1988 there was virtually no crisis at all in Sino-U.S. relations. But in the wake of the end of the Cold War, we have had one crisis after another. On the surface, communication had always been a problem contributing to crises, but in essence mutual suspicion and lack of trust have also played an important role.
Compared to their management of bilateral crisis, China and the United States seem to have more success in managing multilateral crises. Both countries have increasingly seen eye to eye on some of these multilateral crises. Whether the issue is non-proliferation or the Asian financial crisis or the Gulf crisis or anti-terrorism, the two countries understand clearly their common interests and take a similar stand. One of the very important reasons is that China and the United States have enhanced their strategic common interests in global and regional affairs. This explains why China has adopted a proactive attitude towards the North Korean nuclear issue and helped convening a tripartite meeting in Beijing in late April 2003.
Confronting Global Problems Together
The SARS outbreak in 2003 revealed another aspect of Sino-U.S. crisis management. SARS demonstrated that the two countries, and indeed the whole world, have common interests as well as common tasks in resolving global issues and combating global problems. President Bush expressed his sympathy and best wishes for China’s effort to conquer SARS. The United States also supplied assistance in kind. Both countries are making joint efforts together with the international community to find an effective way to solve this issue and protect world health.
In recent years the two sides have been trying to match up better in crisis management. The two countries have learned a lesson in the past two decades of crises and have decided to strive for better crisis management. The two governments are working at better communication and more frequent interaction between the two governments during crises. Moreover, they are increasingly stressing their mutual and common interests, especially in strategic areas like anti-terrorism and non-proliferation. Besides, both China and the United States have become more careful and have adopted preventive measures in sensitive situations that might lead to a crisis. In addition to official communication, there has been an increase in semi-official and non-official efforts. Various kinds of second and third track talks are indeed contributing to preventing and controlling crises. And some farsighted experts and scholars are studying how to gear up the crisis management systems in the two countries.
Although crisis management is an important part of Sino-U.S. relations, relations between these two countries consist of more than crises. Relations between China and the United States call for more cooperation. Both China and the United States have great stakes in maintaining and advancing their bilateral relations. Only if their overall relations improve can the two countries avoid bilateral crises and achieve still more cooperation in multilateral crises.
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Jiemian Yang received an MA from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. Professor Yang has widely published academic works on international relations and American foreign policy, as well as countless interpretive articles and editorials in the press, both in China and in the United States. He was a Visiting Fellow with the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies in spring 2003.
Published: Friday, January 09, 2004