Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Group of Two that could change the world

By Zbigniew Brzezinski
Published: January 13 2009 19:44

When President Jimmy Carter sent me to China in 1978 to initiate the secret negotiations that resulted in the normalisation of US-China relations, only 1,200 foreigners lived in Beijing; just the other day 1,100 American officials moved into the new US embassy – and it is estimated that 150,000 foreigners now live in the city. Our world is different, better and safer because of that normalisation.

It precipitated almost from the start security co-operation that has been of genuine benefit both to the US and China. The effect was to change the cold war’s global chessboard – to the disadvantage of the Soviet Union. Indirectly, the normalisation facilitated Chairman Deng Xiaoping’s decision to undertake a comprehensive economic reform. China’s growth would have been much harder without the expansion in US-Chinese trade and financial relations that followed normalisation.

What is the current geostrategic status of the US-China relationship?

An article in Liaowang magazine (July 14 2008) describes the relationship as one of “complex interdependence”, in which both sides evaluate each other in pragmatic and moderate terms and in which “the two sides can compete and consult within the existing international rules”. To be sure, a globally ascending China is a revisionist power in that it desires important changes in the international system but it seeks them in a patient, prudent and peaceful fashion. Americans who deal with foreign affairs especially appreciate the fact that Chinese strategic thinking has moved away from notions of a global class conflict and violent revolution, emphasising instead China’s “peaceful rising” in global influence while seeking a “harmonious world”.

Such common perspectives also make it easier for both sides to cope with residual or potential disagreements and to co-operate on such challenges as those posed by North Korea’s nuclear programme. If we at all times keep in mind the centrality of our interdependence, we will be able to cope with other contentious issues.

What should now be our shared grand goal? Our relationship cannot be static; it will either expand or narrow. The world will benefit, and so will our countries, if it expands. As a practical matter, we need to widen and deepen our geostrategic co-operation, beyond the immediate need for close collaboration in coping with the economic crisis.

China is needed as a direct participant in the dialogue with Iran, for China will also be affected if the effort to negotiate ends in failure. US-China consultations regarding India and Pakistan can perhaps lead to more effective even if informal mediation, for a conflict between the two would be a regional calamity. China should become actively involved in helping to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which increasingly poses the risk of a radicalised and unstable Middle East.

We need to develop a shared view on how to cope with the global risks posed by climate change. We should explore the possibility of creating a larger standby UN peacekeeping force for deployment in failed states. We should discuss how an international initiative towards a global adoption of the zero-nuclear weapons option might be helpful in stemming wider nuclear weapons proliferation. We certainly need to collaborate closely in expanding the current Group of Eight leading industrial nations to a G14 or G16, in order to widen the global circle of decision-makers and to develop a more inclusive response to the economic crisis.

But to promote all that we need an informal G2. The relationship between the US and China has to be a comprehensive partnership, paralleling our relations with Europe and Japan. Our top leaders should therefore meet informally on a regular schedule for personal in-depth discussions not just about our bilateral relations but about the world in general.

All this points in a politically as well as philosophically ambitious direction. The Chinese emphasis on “harmony” can serve as a useful point of departure for the US-Chinese summits. In an era in which the risks of a massively destructive “clash of civilisations” are rising, the deliberate promotion of a genuine conciliation of civilisations is urgently needed. It is a task that President-elect Barack Obama – who is a conciliator at heart – should find congenial, and which President Hu Jintao – who devised the concept of “a harmonious world” – should welcome. It is a mission worthy of the two countries with the most extraordinary potential for shaping our collective future.

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