The Meaning of "Frenemies"

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)

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."

With regard to climate change, Harding continued, both countries worry about it but each wants the other to bear the pain of slowing it. On energy security, what most concerns the Chinese is that the United States or some other power might interrupt their lines of supply. Hence the Chinese naval buildup that the United States finds worrisome.

At a more fundamental level, both countries think they have the blueprint for the world's future, Harding said. The United States has long promoted the so-called American model that emphasizes free markets, private ownership of property, and pluralistic democracy. The Chinese deny the universal applicability of that model and say the recent financial crisis and fumbling Western response show the weaknesses of free-market, liberal democratic systems.

"We have an increasingly vocal Chinese challenge to the notion that America has the answers," Harding said. "That is a divergence that has all sorts of implications."

The good news is that because the two countries are so economically interdependent, the bilateral relationship is stable, Harding said. While relatively low, chances of a rupture do exist, however, and he concluded by discussing three things that could deliver dangerous shocks to the system: Military confrontation over Taiwan; another Tiananmen Square crisis; a competing, uncoordinated intervention into a collapsing North Korea.

"Those shocks would have to be very large, not manageable, unexpected," he said. "But I think we have to get out on the table what could cause this relationship to undergo more than just ups and downs but something more serious."

"Partners, Rivals, or ‘Frenemies'? The Prospects for U.S. China Relations" was the second lecture in the 2010-2011 BP Speaker Series, devoted to business and policy issues in Asia. Iranian-American journalist Hooman Majd concludes the series on November 30, 2010.

Reported by Fritz Lanham


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