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Q&A: New balance of power between US and China?

Professor of Political Science Suzanne Ogden, an expert on China, discusses its changing power relationships with United States and the need for greater subtlety in our approach to a range of “China” issues.

Thirty years ago, China and the United States were just beginning to establish trade and economic relations. Now the two countries are economically interdependent. What led to this dramatic shift?

Since 1979, the combination of policy reforms that moved China away from a socialist command economy toward a market economy, plus substantial foreign direct investment in China, laid the foundation for China’s rapid growth.

As the United States continued to import substantially more than it exported to China, and simultaneously developed a huge budget deficit, the Chinese bought U.S. treasury bills so we could underwrite our debt—and our Chinese imports. This dependency on China to buy our debt has been exacerbated by a need for the U.S. government to fund the stimulus package to address the severe recession.

What is the instant snapshot on President Obama’s visit to China? Will it be looked at as successful? Why or why not?

President Obama’s visit was a success; but it needs to be seen in the context of a relationship in which American presidents have been going to China since President Nixon first went in 1972. The major purpose of this trip was to reflect Obama’s effort to treat China as an equal partner in addressing the world’s problems, rather than as a country to be hectored about improving its human rights record or revaluating its currency.

I happened to be in Shanghai when Obama was there, and from students to taxi drivers to Communist Party officials, there seemed to be universal delight in his visit. You might say there is a bit of Obama-mania there, with his image worked into paintings, sculpture, T-shirts and teacups.

What are the most divisive issues between the United States and China at present?

Because of the economic interdependency of the two countries, the United States is in no position to fuss about most issues that roiled the relationship in the past. The Obama administration wants China to help as a respected partner in managing major economic and financial issues, as well as climate change challenges. Nevertheless, if there is one concern, it is China’s efforts to invest in and gain control over natural resources in various parts of the world; but there is little we can do to stop these investments, which really differ from our own only in that they are usually done by state-owned enterprises.

Given China’s current economic power and our debtor-nation status, what leverage does the United States have in getting them to change policies with which we disagree?

We have very little leverage at this point, except to the degree we can convince China that what we want it to do is in its own interests as well.

Are we witnessing an inexorable shift in world power, from the United States to China?

The history of the rise of powers has shown that the “energy” of civilizations has steadily moved over time. As recently as the 20th century, after all, power shifted from Europe to the United States. China is decidedly a rising power, but so far it has shown no interest in wasting resources by asserting military power that would challenge the American military predominance.

Like Japan after World War II, China knows it can get almost everything it wants through economic and financial instruments, as well as “soft power”—diplomacy, educational and cultural exchanges—without firing a single shot.

Regardless, we cannot say the shift in world power is “inexorable,” as we cannot predict any one single event or series of events that might trigger instability and/or economic decline in China.

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