Dr. Allen Carlson


Recently, The United States concluded a Presidential election and China has now finished  its 18th Party Congress. In a recent New York Times article, Diplomat contributor Minxin Pei made the case for a “Reset” in U.S. – China relations. Do you think this would be possible? What could be done in your view to improve relations?

A “reset,” at least as Minxin Pei describes it, seems unlikely.

To begin with it is far from clear that anyone on the Chinese side would be strongly in favor of such a development, and more importantly, have the ability to gain consensus among the various factions and groups within the upper levels of the Chinese state about what it should look like.

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At the same time, it does not appear that the Obama administration will be inclined to forward another major initiative on China so soon after it has experimented with first the Asian ‘pivot’ and then ‘re-balancing’ in the region.

I think that Professor Pei is well aware of such constraints, and, was writing more along the lines of forwarding an aspiration, rather than a practical policy goal. On this score I do not disagree with him, but where I do differ is over his sense that the relationship is entering dire straits.  I think it is in rocky waters, but that a “reset” is not only unlikely, but also, for the most part, not especially needed.

Make no mistake, the U.S. and China are not friends on the world stage, but my sense is that there is an awareness at the top of both countries that our fates have become entwined, and even if we do have differences, the frictions produced by such contentions, are likely to be contained.

In short, neither side appears to have the motivation, nor will, to change the basic contours of the U.S.-China relationship, for better or worse.  What is possible, perhaps, would be an American led effort to seek out points of potential common interest and downplay those of obvious contention. It is in such a context that I recently wrote for The Diplomat that addressing climate change may be emerging as an issue of mutual concern, one that could lead to unexpected compromises and outcomes.

You recently moderated a debate between Aaron Friedberg and Mike Lampton entitled “Is China the Next Superpower?” Please tell our readers about the nature of the debate and what the general consensus was (if any). In your view, is China a “superpower?” What criteria would you use to define a superpower?

Aaron Friedberg is one of America’s leading scholars of great power politics, and Mike Lampton has long been a prominent figure in study of Chinese domestic politics and foreign relations.  Based on their writings one might anticipate that the two would be deeply divided over this issue. They did express contrasting assessments about what Washington should do in response to changes in China, but, they both largely agreed that China couldn’t, for the foreseeable future, be considered a superpower.  In making such a contention Friedberg focused more on the capabilities China lacked, while Lampton raised broader questions about the very applicability of the superpower concept within the current international order.

I concur with their assessments, and would only add that it may be most accurate to think of China as something of a paradoxical great power, in that it has accumulated rather impressive strengths abroad over the last decade, but at the same time has faced growing internal challenges within its own borders. Such a juxtaposition does not then make China a superpower, but has turned it into the world’s second most influential state, one that now has an extensive presence far from its own shores, but which is still quite unsure of itself, and its relationship to its own people, at home.  Moreover, while Susan Shirk first identified such a dynamic in 2009 in dubbing China a “fragile superpower,” I think the contrasts and contradictions between these two trends has only become more pronounced in the intervening years.

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