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Foreign Policy

A List Too Far

May 12, 2021
  • An Gang

    Adjunct Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

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The China-U.S. Anchorage dialogue in March tested each country’s bottom line. It is also a critical juncture at which the Biden administration should review its China policy, in the wake of which the two countries will prepare for competition.

But two issues remain in which Chinese and U.S. interests coincide as they make strategic adjustments. These were revealed during the meeting:

First, both agree that cooperation is necessary to address global challenges. Second, both are aware that they should avoid vicious contention and focus instead on healthy competition.

John Kerry, the U.S. special presidential envoy for climate, visited China shortly after the Anchorage dialogue and met China Special Envoy for Climate Change Xie Zhenhua. They issued a joint statement about China-U.S. cooperation on the climate crisis. Afterward, President Xi Jinping attended the Leaders Summit on Climate initiated by U.S. President Joe Biden via video link. The two sides have confirmed that the leaders reached a consensus as to attitude and approach.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken proposed assigning issues in bilateral relations to one of three categories — competition, confrontation and cooperation. China gave its response after research and analysis. On April 23, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke with the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations and said that the U.S. blurs the distinction between “mainstream” and “substream” relations and lacks a clear direction and goal. Cooperation is the only way forward that meets the common aspirations of both countries and the world, Wang said.

Blinken’s “tripartite taxonomy” is neither scientific nor feasible. Not all issues in China-U.S. relations are easily classified in this way. Economics and trade, for example, which once supported the development of bilateral relations, is currently full of competition and friction, whereas the military, a highly competitive and adversarial field, is better at risk control than others.

On the other hand, the U.S. claimed that its approach to China will be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be and adversarial when it must be.” In other words, the U.S. doesn’t want conflicts and disagreements to affect cooperation with China on issues that concern the U.S. This is fundamentally arrogant: The U.S. seeks to both suppress the development of China and restrict China’s reactions — and that’s never going to happen.

Yet Blinken’s taxonomy also shows that the Biden administration’s China policy is not entirely negative. China’s hopes seem focused on effective cooperation first. From its perspective, despite inevitable competition and confrontation in certain fields, the two countries should not take the initiative to categorize agendas as competitive or confrontational, nor define bilateral relations simply in terms of strategic competition.

The top priority now is to resume dialogue as soon as possible to clarify each other’s strategic intentions, reduce resentment, restore mutual trust and start cooperation in certain fields. If the resumption of overall cooperation is not possible for the time being, low-hanging fruit should be reached at least.

It must be admitted that cooperation in fields with shared interests is both the major channel to promote steady growth of the relationship and an effective tool to manage disputes, control conflicts and prevent a new cold war. When the two countries get along well, cooperation goes without saying; when competition and confrontation stand out, plans for cooperation should not be given up.

In the planning, the two sides must first answer the following question: If the joint strategic need to defend against threats from the Soviet Union was the cooperative basis in the early stage of normalization of China-U.S. relations, and if integration, mutual benefit and globalization have been the strategic driving forces for bilateral cooperation afterward, then in the new era, can China and the U.S. find a common strategic basis on which to cooperate?

A convincing answer is that developing cooperation to tackle global challenges, as well as shouldering global power responsibility, could and should serve as the new common strategic basis. However, this vision collapsed in the face of COVID-19. Can we expect a renewal of such a vision in the future? Can the stability and driving force brought by cooperation, which aims to meet global challenges, support such a complex system as China-U.S. relations?

The second problem is that China and the U.S. exchanged views during the Anchorage dialogue on a host of other topics, including economy and trade, military, law enforcement, culture, health, cybersecurity, climate change, the Iranian nuclear issue, Afghanistan, the Korean Peninsula and Myanmar, and they agreed to maintain and enhance communication and coordination.  The two sides do not lack tools when planning cooperative initiatives from such a list, but these issues may also cause massive conflicts of interest while providing room for cooperation. So what sorts of insights and efforts do China and the U.S. need to show when handling them?

Obviously, climate change has already been put into this category. The joint statement issued by the two special envoys not only raises this cooperation to the level of tackling a crisis but also displays the diplomatic wisdom of seeking common ground while resolving differences in things such as adjusting the timetable for realizing the goal of limiting temperature increases.

However, when meeting goals of reducing emissions, achieving peak carbon emissions and carbon neutrality, interests of various kinds, including economic growth, energy security, technological competition and beyond will certainly become deeply entangled. It is inevitable that complex domestic dynamics will be created, which could lead to a crisis of confidence and conflict at any moment. Thus, the two sides should be keenly alert to prevent the issue of climate change from moving out of the cooperation category.

Other transnational challenges, such as public health, nonproliferation and the fight against transnational crimes could also be categorized as areas of cooperation. COVID-19 prevention and control is the top priority now and is both necessary and urgent. Efforts to promote trade of protective supplies and medical facilities, enhancing communication and cooperation between professionals in laboratory R&D, vaccine development through bilateral and multilateral channels and starting intergovernmental negotiations on problems such as vaccine shortages and barriers in cross-border travel require resolution to prepare for the resumption and recovery of the global economy after the pandemic. This requires both countries to go beyond strategic and geopolitical competition, transcend ideology and values, embrace a global perspective and show political courage. Putting those into the cooperation category is no easy thing.

Trade cooperation between China and the U.S. is not likely to be welcomed in the court of public opinion before certain remaining issues in the trade war are resolved. At the same time, bilateral trade, under special needs amid the fight against the pandemic and the requirements of economic recovery, actually showed an upturn, with the business communities of both countries continuing to do their usual work. In the days to come, adjustments in economic policies after the pandemic, financial risk prevention and green finance will be placed on the agenda. Therefore, it is necessary to start preparing now to put new substantive issues into the basket of China-U.S. cooperation.

In terms of rules, the research and development and application of new technologies such as artificial intelligence have deeply influenced people’s lives. Reforms taking place in space and in digital security will also impact international relations. Admittedly, China and the U.S. cannot eliminate competition or even confrontation in certain fields, but there is still room for dialogue and cooperation to push for rules of conduct that are generally accepted by the international community.

Fields in which severe strategic distrust and disputes exist should not be overlooked when considering issues for cooperation, since these also have potential for cooperation. It is unwise to simply take certain issues as absolute and think only with emotion. For instance, speaking of the Belt and Road Initiative, though the U.S. is attempting to work out an offset plan with its allies and partners, it is possible that a “third-party cooperation” can be developed for countries along the Belt and Road, especially regarding helping less-developed countries build infrastructure and promote a low-carbon economy according to internationally recognized standards.

What’s more, for issues concerning the Indo-Pacific maritime order, there is still an obvious need to carry out cooperation in navigation safety, humanitarian rescue and marine ecosystems despite the increasingly fierce strategic games.

China and the U.S. have a tradition of cooperation on hot regional issues, but some of them, including the Iranian nuclear issue, the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, the Myanmar issue and Afghanistan, are experiencing changes in context or nature. For these issues, questions remain on whether China and the U.S. will join hands. Yet it is certain that these cannot be solved without the cooperation of both sides. If the situation spirals out of control, regional turmoil will surely hurt the fundamental interests of the two countries.

In this case, China and the U.S. must decide whether they could cooperate on these issues. If the answer is no, are they willing to sit on the sidelines while making these issues their wrestling arena?

It is challenging to draw up lists and categorize issues in light of new situations. Now that both sides are able to find some common ground, the opportunity must not be missed. Over the past several years, confrontations in China-U.S. relations have piled up quickly. This has placed great pressure on both countries and also on the international community. Under these circumstances, neither party will be a winner.

To stop this trend, both sides should resume their cooperative spirit reflecting a sense of responsibility and matching professional diplomatic wisdom as great powers. There is no doubt that mutual respect, equality, and win-win cooperation should be the basic principles. 

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