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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

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