Time magazine's cover
current package is the third of their annual “10 Ideas” issues; this
time it’s forward-oriented, focused on "10 Ideas That Will Shape the Next Ten Years." One of those is a piece on the U.S.-China relationship by yours truly: “The Indispensable Axis: Their
frenemy-ship will shape the decade.”
Every concept need some catchy jargon, right? A year ago we heard a lot in Washington about the "G-2," the notion that an expanded bilateral relationship between Washington and Beijing might steer the world. Well, there's certainly a lot less of that talk lately. Not only because heightened tensions between the two countries on myriad fronts have since taken the shine off the idea, but also because the notion of grand pooh-bahs from the U.S. and China hashing out the world order in grand summits was always a bit starry-eyed anyway. Last year, Elizabeth Economy and Adam Segal of the Council on Foreign Relations sliced and diced that notion in a very smart Foreign Affairs article, "The G-2 Mirage." (Summary: "A heightened bilateral relationship may not be possible for China and
the United States, as the two countries have mismatched interests and
values. Washington should embrace a more flexible and multilateral
It's telling that one of the strongest proponents of the "G-2" concept has been former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, whose vision of how two superpowers get along (or don't) was shaped by the Cold War. But we aren't really back to the U.S.S.R. Although Soviet-era memories and defensive reflexes are apparently never far from the thoughts of Washington and foreign-policy elites (in his New York Times column, Tom Friedman is lately fond of billing China's expanding green-tech manufacturing sector as the "New Sputnik," tapping into latent anxieties on Capitol Hill), we aren't headed for a new Cold War. The U.S. and China are far too mutually dependent and economically intertwined -- a notion that's been widely explored in recent books and already birthed its own jargon, from Niall Ferguson's "Chimerica" to Zachary Karabell's "Superfusion."
So if we aren't going to see future smoke-filled summits on par with Yalta or SALT negotiations in which the leaders of two superpowers decide the world's fate -- nor a cozy alliance resembling the United States' "special relationship" with Britain -- what will we see? With apologies to Madeleine Albright, who declared the United States as "the indispensable nation," here's how I frame the next decade of the U.S.-China indispensable axis:
There is no precedent for this unique evolving relationship, one in
which the two sides will both compete and cooperate, perhaps
simultaneously, as they shape and support a global system they can
In some ways, this axis might resemble the fluidity of
the G-8, the group of industrialized countries that cooperate on
economic issues where they share interests but go their separate ways
on issues where they don't. Washington and Beijing will increasingly be
the 800-lb. gorillas in multilateral architectures like the G-20 or
Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation while developing a shifting bilateral
relationship, working together closely on some issues and hampering
each other's unilateral actions on others.
The good folks at Time, bless 'em, shortened this in the headline to: "frenemy-ship."