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The Meaning of "Frenemies"

Lecture on the current state of US-China relations and prospects for the future

In Houston on Oct. 7, China expert Harry Harding told the audience that the US and China are neither friends nor foes but a little of both. (Jeff Fantich Photography)

In Houston on Oct. 7, China expert Harry Harding told the audience that the US and China are neither friends nor foes but a little of both. (Jeff Fantich Photography)

Lecture on the current state of US-China relations and prospects for the future

HOUSTON, October 7, 2010 - China expert Harry Harding apologized for appropriating the pop-culture tinged "frenemies" to describe something as serious as the US-China relationship, but said no other word will quite do.

"The United States and China are not friends, they're not foes," he told an audience of 100 at a luncheon hosted by Asia Society Texas Center.

"They're not partners, they're not rivals. In some sense they are all of the above. And unfortunately, we in the English language do not seem to have a single word that sums up this kind of complicated relationship."

Harding, author or editor of seven books on modern Chinese politics and dean of the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy at the University of Virginia, surveyed both the common interests that bind the two countries together and the stresses that could drive them into conflict, even military conflict. He ended on an up note, emphasizing the "resilient" nature of the relationship. Neither country sees any viable alternative to mutual engagement, he said.

The two countries share interests in continued economic prosperity, regional and global stability, counterterrorism, nonproliferation, energy security, and climate change. But they differ in the ways they pursue those common interests, which creates a constant tension in the relationship. He cited China's posture toward North Korea as an example.

"I have no doubt that the Chinese are as committed to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula as we are, because they share our concern with what North Korea might do with that nuclear capacity or what might happen to that nuclear capacity in the event that the North Korean regime collapsed," Harding said.

"But China gives equal priority to a second interest that is far less important to the United States, and that is the continued survival of the North Korean regime."

China is far less willing to impose sanctions that might precipitate state collapse and a descent into chaos in that impoverished country, he said.

Next: "We have an increasingly vocal Chinese challenge to the notion that America has the answers."