The Cook's Dilemma

posted on May 9, 2012 in Politics and Society

With America’s “pivot” toward the Asia-Pacific region, President Obama announced an outline for a trans-pacific partnership that excludes those countries that do not “follow the rules” and signaled U.S. intent to rotate Marines though Australia. These actions suggest that the U.S.-China relationship is trending toward a more confrontational balance of power dynamic. How did this relationship come to such a point of increased tension and friction? From 1972 to 1991, the two countries shared a common strategic objective –balancing the USSR. This shared objective led the U.S. to provide highly sensitive intelligence and advanced technology to the Chinese, enabling a robust and credible deterrent to Soviet activism in East Asia. The U.S. and China even cooperated in containing Soviet ambitions in Afghanistan. All seemed well in this most unlikely of relationships.

However, in 1989, the Tiananmen Square episode rocked the relationship, forcing America to reconcile its policy with its values. Today, Tiananmen Square is not driving increased tension. Ironically, any present stress in the U.S. – China relationship likely results from a new shared strategic interest – a stable international economic environment.

When the U.S and China sought to deal with the Soviet threat, the means employed really did not matter, so long as the threat remained balanced and deterred. In today’s globalized world, the means matter, and they matter a lot.

Achieving a stable international economic environment can be more complicated than thwarting an opposing nation-state because economics is traditionally a domestic issue. U.S. and Chinese leaders would be hesitant to support economic policies that advance a more stable global economic posture if those same policies undermined their own domestic economic agenda or stability. For example, one partner’s use of subsidies could infringe on the domestic success of the other’s economy even if the overall policy promotes global economic stability – at least from the initiating partner's perspective.

So what does this dynamic mean for the U.S. – China relationship? It suggests the relationship will continue, but it does not mean that the relationship is dangerous. Both parties will have to continue the not-too-thrilling task of using dialogue and dispute resolution mechanisms to address the nuances of each other’s economic policy. The U.S. and China are confronting the cooks’ dilemma, not the security dilemma: they both agree on what dish they want to make, they just cannot agree on how to make it.