Peace, jobs, and prosperity in the 21st century may hinge partly on positive relations between the United States and China. And that raises a critical question: Will these countries get into a new cold war of dangerous tensions, harking back to U.S.-Soviet relations in the 20th century? And how can their cooperation be improved on issues ranging from Iran's nuclear proliferation to economic growth?
A cold war or really bad cooperation is quite possible. In fact, statements by American and especially Chinese leaders and generals underscore the threat of a new cold war. After he met President Obama in June 2013, President Xi Jinxing outright stressed the need to avoid a "new cold war" and that has been a theme in the past several months. Xi was reflecting Chinese concern about America's pivot-to-Asia strategy, which is aimed at shoring up American military and political power in Asia to counter China's rising profile.
Beijing has also been strident about the ongoing American budget showdown, and has suggested that it is indicative of American decline. If Washington does not find a "grand bargain" to put it on a path to fiscal sustainability, Beijing will raise the noise level about selling American treasuries and further question America's global credibility.
We can already see that China is challenging the dollar as the main global currency. In a little noticed event, Beijing even started buying oil in Yuan instead of dollars last year, helping it evade U.S.-led sanctions against Iran, which infuriates Washington at least as much as China's cyber-penetration of American business and government. And Beijing has also undermined Washington's positions on Syria by refusing to ratchet up the pressure on Syrian dictator Bashar Assad. Certainly, the two countries sit atop a farrago of political, economic, and strategic fault-lines--any of which could trip them into higher-level tensions, including ongoing gridlock in Washington over how to handle the deficit.
Clearly, we need to think harder about strategies to avoid a new cold war and enhance cooperation? But how? What U.S. strategies can work other than the current approaches of diplomacy, balancing Chinese power, and maintaining a trade relationship from which Beijing benefits disproportionately? Let's consider the issue area of global energy as one approach. Why?
First, China and America have very similar interests in going green. They both seek to cut dirty coal use (even though China needs it now to meet rising demand), boost vehicle fleet efficiency, address climate change and pollution, and get their publics to support such measures. In his major energy speech in June, Obama encouraged Americans to debate climate change strategies. Working with China is one strategy that hardly anyone talks about.
Second, they need each other. Since key energy problems cross regions and affect the commons, like either signature transnational problems of our age, they require multilateral cooperation to ameliorate. As my work has demonstrated, China and the United States can't seriously decrease global oil consumption and address climate change alone. They lead in consumption and pollution, and must work together. Doing so will also help quiet some domestic opponents who argue that the other country is not doing its fair share to address these issues, so why should we-the type of logic that undermined the Kyoto Protocol.
Third, both countries share energy security interests. They want to ensure the free flow of oil and to manage conflicts that could spike energy prices. And both want China to be able to meet its energy demand, lest it become insecure.
The two countries signed important energy initiatives in 2009, but energy cooperation needs to be enhanced much more intensely and consistently at higher levels of government. Many areas of collaboration could be pursued piecemeal or in a grand bargain on energy. Such cooperation can then be promoted to military and political elites and to the publics to underscore widely its mutual benefits. Such steps can then boost mutual trust and help set an example and tone for other areas of bilateral interaction.
Greater collaboration may also make China less aggressive in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and elsewhere in chasing down energy assets--something that concerns Washington.
We often see energy as divisive--think oil wars and resource rivalry--but it may also work to bring countries like China and the United States closer together in the 21st century. Whether one sees a new cold war in the offing or just bad cooperation, energy can be one anti-dote in a win-win game for Beijing, Washington, and the planet.