The conclusion that one reaches is that friendship between China and the United States is difficult to maintain, and it likely will become even more difficult in the near future as each country better understands the interests and perceptions that separate the two nations. This is unfortunate, because the American and Chinese people generally like and respect each other. But the differences emerging between the two countries are deep and divisive. Both governments will have their hands full avoiding conflict over the next decade.
The management of Sino-American relations is one of the greatest challenges of international politics. Diplomats on both sides of the Pacific need to handle the relationship with care and to keep certain principles in mind; otherwise, the relationship will drift like a ship without engine or rudder. These principles must not only reflect the best intentions of the two countries, but also protect their enduring national interests. Some of these principles might be:
* Respect for each other's cultural achievements and status as a great power.
* Acknowledgement of each other's regional interests and global involvement.
* A pledge to avoid conflict except as a last resort, and a promise not to initiate war or use weapons of mass destruction.
* A pledge to limit war, should it occur, to local areas and not to escalate the conflict beyond the initial area of operations and its supporting infrastructure.
* A commitment to explore promising areas of cooperation, in all areas of mutual concern and interest.
* Avoidance of inflammatory rhetoric to fan the passions of one's citizens against the other country or its people.
* A commitment to dialogue whenever possible, with a goal towards managing or resolving outstanding issues.
* Avoidance of placing one's military forces deliberately in harm's way such that 'accidental' conflict is probable.
* The establishment of multiple "hot lines" of communication, at various levels of authority, so that incidents can be defused when they do occur.
* Mutual participation in regional relief and disaster recovery efforts, as well as related training exercises.
* Mutual participation in regional organizations and conferences to engage in the free exchange of ideas bilaterally as well as with other parties.
* Wherever possible, assumption of complementary roles and responsibilities on global and regional issues.
Many other principles could be developed, with the basic goal being non-threatening engagement between Chinese and American statesmen, military officers, scholars, businessmen, and citizens. The optimistic assumption is that, through these processes of information sharing and partnership building, the two countries and their peoples can come to a tacit acceptance of each other's role in the world. The other options are an extended period of high tension between the two nations or a military conflict to establish a new ordering of power. The first option seems in keeping with global interdependencies; the second option draws upon the experience of the Cold War; and the third rests on long-established lessons of history. None of these options can be excluded at this time.
What this means for Taiwan is that relations with the PRC and the United States will remain uncertain and somewhat tenuous: neither becoming part of a unified China nor an independent nation-state enjoying full diplomatic ties with Washington. Taiwan should not seek to precipitate an incident in Sino-American relations, but neither should it be passive or hesitant in the protection and advancement of its own interests. All three sides of the Taiwan issue need to remain flexible, cautious, yet cooperative with the others to the maximum extent possible. With statesmanship and a measure of good luck, Beijing, Washington, and Taipei should be able to weather the inevitable storms in their trilateral relationship and thereby benefit not only their own citizens but the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.
August 28, 2012