A Gift (in Disguise) to Europe and Japan: the G2
For a supposedly stillborn concept, talk of a G2 - actual or potential - has proved remarkably durable. Why, despite the implausibility of the notion, does it continue?
Anyone looking for signs of an emerging Sino-American global condominium in Tuesday's comprehensive joint declaration would indeed have had slim pickings. President Obama's visit has been conducted during probably the warmest first year of U.S.-China relations for an incoming American president. Yet on almost any issue of mutual concern - economic rebalancing, Copenhagen, Iran, North Korea, or Afghanistan - this week's meetings in Beijing, as expected, have delivered little real progress. For skeptics of the notion, the reasons are blindingly obvious: substantial differences between the two sides make U.S.-China accord on most global challenges difficult to reach.
More modest formulations for the G2 seem no less questionable. One Chinese diplomat based in Europe who is partial to the idea suggested an interpretation: U.S.-China agreement may not be a sufficient condition for progress on major issues but nowadays it is a necessary one. Yet except in a narrow sense - China's acquiescence is needed on the UN Security Council, as it always was - that's not quite true either. There is still a sizeable list of topics where Sino-U.S. accord is desirable but certainly not required. Chinese disagreement with the United States over the Middle East peace process, Iraq, NATO expansion - or even the situation in neighboring Afghanistan - barely registers. However appealing the "veto on everything" principle might be to some in Beijing, China remains some distance yet from being a genuinely global power whose consent is always vital.
So why does the G2 idea survive? Partly just because it is a new and neat coinage. Partly because it is flattering to China - and therefore elicits plenty of coy denials from Beijing. But some of the loudest G2 references have come from U.S. allies. While it may not be an accurate description of a current or likely state of affairs, it is an accurate encapsulation of the fears of those who stand to lose most from it - Europe and Japan.
In barely a year, the economic crisis has hastened China's ascent to the number two slot in the global GDP pecking order, displacing Japan from its long-held perch. The G8 has effectively been retired. The pressure to give up the disproportionately large European grip on other institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank keeps growing. U.S. pre-eminence remains assured, but the position of traditional allies is being squeezed. The process of power transition goes well beyond China. But for those seeking clear manifestations of the threat to their privileged position in global decision-making - and ways to galvanize action - the G2 notion is a gift, albeit one in disguise.
Japanese anxiety about Washington-Beijing flyovers has a longer standing, but for Europeans this is genuinely new. A slew of "G2-threat" think-tank reports and commentary has been emerging as decisions loom for the allocation of top EU jobs after the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. François Godement, a French China specialist at the European Council on Foreign Relations, wrote on Tuesday that "the specter of the G2...is haunting European governments as much as the specter of revolution haunted its courts in the days of Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto." For those who believe in a stronger, more globally active Europe, the simple clarity of the concept makes the case almost obvious. The most succinct summary comes from the man who might himself have been (had he wanted) a top candidate for running European foreign policy, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband: "The choice for Europe is simple - get our act together and make the European Union a leader on the world stage or become spectators in a G2 world shaped by the U.S. and China."
If all this puts helpful pressure on allies, it is doing the same thing to China. Chinese officials, far from comfortable with the responsibilities implied, fear the new burden of expectation that comes from being number two. They also worry about what happens if, as seems likely, they fail to deliver on it. How long can China, population 1.3 billion, justify contributing fewer international peacekeepers than Rwanda, population 9 million? How long can China hold off deciding between its energy relationship with Iran and the threat of proliferation? Beijing is better able to resist pressure than it was before, but perceptions of China as a free-rider can still prove costly - and the G2 notion ups the ante.
There are few concepts whose very mention serves to support the globally-minded constituency among America's friends while raising the bar for China at the same time. Politeness may dictate its disavowal; it may be more ghost story than genuine threat. By all means keep rubbishing the G2, but just don't stop talking about it.