Since China and the United States signed their phase-one trade agreement, the downward spiral in bilateral relations has not been effectively held in check but has instead accelerated under the influence of the two countries’ domestic politics, public opinion and the unexpected COVID-19 pandemic. The deal may be held hostage, and if mishandled it could make things worse.
China has proposed opening all dialogue channels, and the U.S. has agreed to a virtual dialogue. Both sides have indicated through their actions that there is a critical point of no return in this pivotal bilateral relationship. The dialogue is now a necessary arrangement to explore where that point is and to consider what next steps the two sides can or should take before it is reached.
Approaching a potential historic turning point, all we can do is to hold our breath, observe and think. There is a danger of forfeiting the dialogue opportunity if talk reverts to stereotypes.
It seems the two sides might spare themselves the effort of clarifying each other’s grand strategic objectives. At this juncture, there’s an urgent need for both to narrow the gaps of misunderstanding on urgent matters. Holistic narration and persuasion serve no purpose. The differences in ideology, political systems and social policies are matters of common understanding after four decades of contact and are no longer necessary or useful topics for the dialogue.
As long as the two sides are willing to accept the fundamental principles established in Westphalia three centuries ago, don’t insist on examining and resetting every aspect of international relations from a politically dominated mindset, are willing to rely on the established norms and principles of international relations and keep in mind the diplomatic practices and lessons to the international community before and after the two world wars, there will be sufficient principled guidelines for the dialogue.
Part of the reason that China-U.S. relations have reached a low point is that there has existed, unfortunately, plenty of room for biased interpretation on the strategic implications of actions taken by the other side. Framing the ambiguities constructively and refraining from overthinking (or deliberately misinterpreting) during substantive dialogues could create convergence and avoid unnecessary contradictions.
China claims to judge U.S. by its deeds, not by its words. Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, echoed this point in his speech at the Nixon Library. It seems both sides have reached consensus on this.
But we don’t have the luxury of spending additional years making judgments before putting U.S.-China relations in order. This is no time for scrutinizing every specific policy measure with a hostile attitude. We’ve all learned some lessons in the past. Wishful thinking is not helpful, only practical, concrete action matters. Maybe trial and error has worked at times for bilateral relations, with an acceptance of some strategic ambiguity. But at a time when the development gaps between the two countries are narrowing at a rapid pace and the U.S. is moving to redefine the boundaries of its dealings with China, there is less room left for such ambiguity.
One way to deal with this problem is to have discussions is specific stages. Both sides openly discuss the character and indicators of each perceived stage and their respective interest therein. Both sides in dialogue may use the opportunity to clarify the strategic implication of the particular policy involved, with a view to achieving understanding or, even better, a certain degree of consensus.
This should be accompanied by further arrangements for follow-up discussions clarifying the nature of far distant stages that don’t lend themselves to clarification at the moment. This step may be conducive to stopping the nightmare of misinterpreting each other’s every move. Otherwise, the pre-Westphalia practice — where ideological beliefs were the prime concerns in international relations — will surely replace all modern norms and principles. The consequences of such a detour would be irrecoverable if tried, regardless success or failure.
Hope for efficiency
It goes without saying that the two sides have different political ideologies. At present, Deng Xiaoping’s call for “socialism in stages” still fits well for China. It is groundless to assert that Deng’s singling out “the primary stage of socialism” was a smokescreen or deception.
What needs updating is the question whether the goal of the primary stage of socialism is still explicit after China marked a quadrupling of its economy at the turn of the century? Has the goal been moved? If possible, would China work out with a strategic competitor — the United States — certain codes of conduct for the sake of transparency? The usefulness of strategic ambiguity has limits and, in the present context, clarity is needed to address the problem of misinterpretation and misperception.
It was not easy that in the 40 years of cooperation between the two strikingly different countries that their respective strategic objectives were ambiguous. The recent intensification of the rivalry — aimed at protecting their own interests — should not be allowed to end up in a malicious fight, even though the gaming methods practiced may detract from ideal bilateral relations.
In dialogue, it would be fruitless to play down the fundamental conflict of interests between the two countries for purposes of mitigating contradictions. That would be illusory. For easing anxieties caused by strategic opposition, both sides should be realistic and logical, and try to define urgent agenda items for each of the stages separately — cooperation, competition or confrontation. These may be helpful conditions for resolving problems with a calm mind.
If China and the United States fail to clear up the ambiguities that plague their strategic judgment, if they leave matters open for interpretation without and common understanding, negative speculation will ensue. This situation may turn the colliding diplomacy required for the redefinition of relations into a head-on clash between the two giants. This would be irresponsible and foolish by any measure.
At the current stage, an achievable target for strategic dialogue is to identify common interests, which may serve as reassuring new building blocks in restoring mutual trust — something that is urgently needed.
The two sides need not spend time and energy in futile attempts to downplay the competitive aspects of their long-term strategic objectives. What can be done is to agree on whether it is in their common interest to define stages and strategic objectives.
One priority item is to work together on areas of common concern, such as preventing the phase-on trade deal from being held hostage by other conflicting interests. Rather, the two sides should try to increase mutual trust through cooperation on a new basis and expand the field of common interests. China and the United States have many common economic and trade interests.
Both have said they will honor the phase-one trade deal, which needs to be reconfirmed soon, but we have noticed new element in the U.S. tariff “reset.” Its chief trade negotiator, Robert E. Lighthizer, has been talking in public recently about raising the U.S. tariff level. The impact on the multilateral trading system would be significant. The U.S. raised tariffs on Chinese imports in the negotiations.
We need to know whether tariffs will fall back to original levels before or after the reset. This is one example of policies in the pipeline that need to be discussed to avoid destructive effects. Mistakes in the stimulus and response process can be avoided only if there is dialogue in advance.