By Arthur Kroeber
US Treasury secretary Timothy Geithner’s visit to Beijing this week is sure to reinvigorate debate about a new world order run by a “G2” condominium of the US and China.
Speaking at Peking University on Monday, Mr Geithner emphasised the importance of bilateral relations. “China and the United States individually, and together, are so important in the global economy and financial system that what we do has a direct impact on the stability and strength of the international economic system,” he said.
Now, it is perfectly accurate to note that the US and China have a uniquely symbiotic relationship, that they will soon be the two largest national economies, and that many important global problems such as climate change cannot be solved without the active participation of both.
Yet none of these facts, singly or collectively, implies that a Sino-American condominium is either a viable or a desirable outcome. Both logic and evidence, in fact, suggest the opposite.
Advocates of the G2 idea essentially argue that it would be much easier and simpler for the US and China to decide everything than for important global questions to get bogged down in a morass of multilateral mudslinging. But a quick reflection on national interests reveals the hollowness of this view.
Large but stagnant powers such as Europe and Japan may be resigned to a gradual diminution of their roles, but will do everything in their power to maintain their leverage. Europe is particularly well placed to do this because its economy collectively is larger than that of the US, and it runs the world’s second currency.
Analogously, big developing nations like India and Brazil have an urgent need to ensure they do not get shut out of global power structures, and their rapidly-growing economic heft will greatly enhance their ability to press their case.
The claims of all these actors are valid, and any effort to circumvent them will ultimately make global governance work worse, not better. The world is a complex place growing more complex; the G2 is an avoidance of, not a solution to, that complexity.
More important, a G2 construct does not obviously serve US or Chinese interests. Despite its growth, China remains far weaker than the US in economic, political and military power. Its interest lies not being a permanent junior partner in a global duumvirate but in working to build multilateral arrangements that will constrain American power.
On the American side, the reality remains that the US is the leader of global order grounded in the economic and political ideas of the European Enlightenment. China eagerly desires to participate in the benefits of that order, but its own polity is grounded in a totally different, indigenous set of ideas.
Bridging the gulf between European and Chinese notions of how national societies ought to be organised is an essential task for the creation of a peaceful global society. But the gulf remains, and the US and China remain on either side of it.
This does not preclude extensive cooperation, but it imposes major constraints on the cosiness of the relationship.
For a G2 to work, one or the other of these proud countries would need to leap across that gulf and plant itself firmly on the other side, or the gulf will have to be filled in. Neither is likely any time soon.