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China-US Ties at Critical Crossroads

Jan 07, 2019
  • Chen Yonglong

    Director of Center of American Studies, China Foundation for International Studies

China-US diplomatic relations brace for their 40th anniversary as the world experiences dramatic changes not seen in a century. Looking back on the four decades, what have we learnt? Dr. Henry Kissinger said China-US ties can never return to where they were. Political elites in both countries have come up with different interpretations of his judgment. We can't go back to the past, or rewrite it. But we can get ahold of the present, and formulate our future.

The 40th anniversary of China-US relations is an unforgettable historical occasion. The relatively steady development of the China-US relationship has made tremendous contribution to world peace and development. Despite all the ups and downs along the way, there has been plenty of cooperation and achievements. We joined hands to cope with the financial crisis originating from Wall Street, and jointly activated the G20; side by side we led negotiations on responding to climate change, resulting in the Paris Agreement; shoulder to shoulder we confronted Ebola in Africa; we worked hard together and overcame numerous conflicts and divergences on bilateral and multilateral levels, and we had so much to share.

The past is the past, the foreign relations of no country stay unchanged. Instead, they change in accordance with national and international conditions, comparative strengths. As the two largest economies of the world, China and the US not only always have to cope with new conditions emerging at home, but also need to adjust to new challenges from the outside world. Whilst we are unable to return to the past, we shouldn't refuse to learn from it and make sure bilateral ties proceed in a healthy and steady manner.

It is worth asking why the US is bent on reversing the course of China-US relations. What scholars call frustration and anxiety, and strategists term a sense of adversity, boils down to the following facts: first, the US feels uncomfortable with China's rapid development, and can't adapt to its own declining influence; second, it misread China's orientation, and lost confidence in its own future; third, it insists on zero-sum game theory and the Cold-War concept of traditional geopolitics, defining hostile and friendly relations with out-dated Western values; forth, instead of looking in the mirror at its own domestic problems, it resorts to unilateralism, protectionism, and bullying, breaks the rules-based international order, suppressing allies with sticks, coercing them into unfair treaties, threatening and blackmailing China, launching a trade war against it, conducting a technological blockade and containment, even employing such pathetic means as long-arm jurisdiction.

The US is falling behind the trend of history. The previous US-Soviet Union confrontation did lead to the latter's collapse, but the US itself was also hurt deeply. The US entered the uni-polar world with serious internal injury. Though the US has not declined, it is no longer able to afford the political, economic, and security cost of single-handedly leading the world. The world has entered an era of inclusive development, of win-win cooperation. Both China and the newly emerging economies as well as the US and Western nations that are still relatively strong are equal members of the international community, and legitimate members on the world industry chain, value chain, and interest chain. The new geopolitics of our time rests on the community of a shared future for humanity and a new type international relations featuring justice, equity, and cooperation against the backdrop of multi-lateralization and globalization.    

We should grasp the present and clarify the nature and precise position of the China-US relationship. China-US relations can't go back to the past, nor can geopolitics. What we need is to shape the future together. Politically, we should engage in dialogue rather than confrontation, seek partnership rather than alliance, and co-existence rather than containment. Economically, we should advocate pluralism, and a diverse biosphere for benign competition. Security wise, we should give due consideration to both traditional and non-traditional security concerns, take the fight against terrorism as a common goal for all countries whether big or small, insist that major powers refrain from competing for spheres of influence in international hot spots, and stop undermining the sovereignty and development interests of disadvantaged regions and nations. Major countries share the responsibility to stop hot wars, and transcend cold ones. Environmentally, no country can claim safety as resources are depleted, greenhouse effects worsen, and natural disasters increase. We must work together to implement the Paris Agreement.

A new paradigm for China-US relations may start with economics. We should respect each other's right to choose their development path, to independent innovation, and to participate in and benefit from global chains. This should be stipulated in explicit terms in bilateral dialogue. China and the US are not only the main variables that bring pressure to old systems that are increasingly out of sync with our time, but should at the same time preserve and build a rules-based new order. No one can easily change the nature of the China-US relationship. China's achievements in national development come from its own hard work through reform and opening up, not gifts from any other country. Similarly, the US can only stay great through its own endeavors. Anyone who intends to erect an economic iron curtain between China and the US will only end up isolating himself.

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