Confucius could help relations between US, China
His concept of the "middle way" could help both countries recognize the mutual interests that bond them.
Since President Obama took office, Chinese-US relations have enjoyed a honeymoon period. This has led many to assert that the US and China will be able to shoulder the troubled world together, perhaps even forming their own Group of Two (G-2).Skip to next paragraph
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While such an arrangement would bring economic and strategic benefits, we should not view the relationship through a relatively simplistic and overly ambitious "G-2" prism, where we are perceived as allied saviors. The more realistic approach to handling the Chinese-US relationship is using the Confucian "middle way."
To use the middle way essentially means that Washington and Beijing should not be too optimistic, or even too pessimistic, about their relations. Nor should they overestimate their joint capacity in shaping the world order. Instead, they should value collaboration, but also prepare for deviations. The guiding principle of this middle way is to always solve problems in a peaceful, mutually respectful, and pragmatic manner.
China learned about the wisdom of letting go of an egocentric world view a long time ago: The Chinese character for the word "China" literally means middle kingdom. Ancient Chinese believed China to be the center of the world and their emperor to be the highest authority on earth, until the arrival of the Western civilization at the beginning of the 18th century made them realize that they shared the responsibilities of the world.
Today, both the US and China better understand that the environment in which they operate is in many ways determined by the conditions created by numerous other players.
Putting the old wine of unipolar politics into a new bottle and calling it G-2 is not a practical solution for building a multipolar world. Even if a G-2 model were possible, there remains such a huge gap between China and the US that it would require an uneven sharing of responsibilities by the two countries.
For instance, China's per capita gross domestic product is currently just one-eighth that of the US. Thus, some argue that China's biggest responsibility to the world is to simply remain stable and feed its 1.3 billion people, one-fifth of the world.
Also, some see Washington's demands on Beijing as attempts to use China as a means to an end, rather than as an equal partner. For example, following the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue, a top newspaper in Singapore claimed that "China has been G2'ed," and a Japanese daily commented that the US pledge to pass along the engine of the global economy to China "was simply a tactic of expediency."
G-2 or not, two heads are better than one. China and the US will continue dialogue on key issues of common concern such as trade, economic recovery, climate change, the Korean peninsula, Iran, human rights, and democracy.
There will be disagreement, and the results will affect bilateral relations and the world. Given this inherently volatile dynamic, only the middle way can lead to a balanced relationship and realistic expectations from the rest of the world.
Both countries must realize that they will not be permanent friends, nor permanent enemies, but permanent interests will bond them for their benefit and the world's.
Anne Wu is an associate of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.