American and Chinese officials said all the right things during this summer's inaugural round of their Strategic and Economic Dialogue. President Barack Obama pledged to "forge a path to the future that we seek for our children." Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo wondered aloud whether America and China can "build better relations despite very different social systems, cultures and histories." He answered his own question, in English, with a "Yes we can."
They can, but they probably won't. Yes, Mr. Obama will visit China in November. But when it comes to international burden-sharing, Washington is focused on geopolitical headaches while China confines its heavy-lifting to geoeconomic challenges. The two sides have good reason to cooperate, but there's a growing gap between what Washington expects from Beijing and what the Chinese can deliver.
I couldn't have said it better myself. Indeed, despite the flowery rhetoric and displays of diplomacy, it is most unlikely that the United States and China will come to establish a strategic partnership anytime in the near future. This has less to do with Washington's efforts, and everything to do with Beijing's lack of desire.
In their WSJ piece, Bremmer and Roubini highlight several obvious and less obvious obstacles to partnership. Most important among them in my view (economic tensions aside) is the third, which stresses the divergence in geopolitical goals between China and the U.S. China currently has very little interest in assuming a broad global role: it has no desire to shoulder the responsibilities that come with involvement in Iraq or Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, etc. Beijing isn't interested in filling the shoes of the world's policeman, if for no other reason than its continued adherence to the 'non-interference policy' - its recent evolution notwithstanding. What's more, Beijing depends on many troublesome countries (Iran, for instance) for its energy imports, and thus isn't likely to take a stand against them in a way that would be pleasing to the United States (or the rest of the international community, for that matter) anytime soon.
The underlying motive for much - if not all - of China's overseas exploits is its own self-interest: its growth and security. Where these objectives line up with global and U.S. demands, great. Where they don't... well, tough beans. As Bremmer and Roubini aptly note, one of course shouldn't be too quick to dismiss the value of U.S.-China dialogues and the surrounding political symbolism. When it comes to concretes, however, both parties are pulling in opposite directions - and likely will be for some time to come.
PS: I doubt that Chinese propaganda blaming the swine flu virus on America does much to further anything resembling a strategic partnership. At least the propaganda cartoon is cute....