In the latest round of engagement with China, the U.S. side has frequently used the word “guardrails” in reference to managing relations. President Joe Biden in his virtual meeting with President Xi Jinping on Nov. 16 and U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, in a speech on Nov. 11 at the Lowy Institute of Australia both used the term. They mean there should be guardrails to ensure that U.S.-China competition does not veer into conflict.
The use of the word in some way has injected a bit of confidence into the international community about positive interaction between the U.S. and China, signaling as it does that the U.S. side is clear about the disaster a conflict would create. But guardrails are far from what is needed to prevent a real conflict between the two. Certainly there should be some, but the fundamental guardrail should be the principle of sovereignty.
Sovereignty is not a creation of China but of Western countries. Shortly after the Thirty-Year War, European powers codified the concept of sovereignty in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. European powers believed that they could maintain peace so long as powers do not interfere in the domestic affairs of other nation states. The principle has guided the interactions of European nation states for centuries. Though created by the West, the concept later came to be widely accepted around the world.
Despite questions from the beginning, the concept of sovereignty has long been regarded as critical in maintaining peace and avoiding conflicts among nations. In particular, the newly independent nation states in Asia and Africa regarded it as a kind of instrument to maintain independence and freedom from invasion by external powers. The organization of the United Nations, at the foundation of international order, is also based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its members. And the U.S. was one of the most important actors in the creation of the UN.
Old and conventional as it is, sovereignty should be the fundamental principle guiding contemporary international relations — including those between China and the U.S. As two of the most important actors, the two countries should set good examples of upholding sovereignty in principle, in addition to respecting the sovereignty of the other party. In short, if there is one final guardrail in China-U.S. relations, it should be the principle of sovereignty.
China is not only a strong defender of the sovereignty principle but also a country that puts words into action. China has never had its army step on the territory of any other country either as a colonizer or military invader, and it has strongly opposed interference in the domestic affairs of other countries.
Unfortunately, in recent decades the U.S. has set very bad example when it comes to observing sovereignty. It launched the Iraq war in 2003 without a UN Security Council resolution, openly challenging the principle of sovereignty. And it has conducted numerous military operations at various scale in countries across the globe.
The U.S. for many years has made a regular practice of criticizing China on human rights issues, using its own standards and disregarding China’s huge and widely acknowledged achievements in poverty reduction and development. Meanwhile, it has turned a blind eye to its own human rights issues. Instead, it avails itself of every opportunity to deliver irresponsible and groundless criticisms of China’s domestic policies and for many years has come to spy China near its coastal borders.
The Taiwan issue is pointedly relevant to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and has become a sensitive issue because of U.S. disrespect of the one-China principle. It is crystal clear that Taiwan is part of China and China’s sovereignty cannot be divided. This is recognized by the UN, of which the U.S. is a member. Three communiques between China and the U.S. provided guidance to both China and the U.S. in dealing with the Taiwan issue. But the U.S. has failed to practice the principle and has never seriously honored the communiques issued by the legal government.
As with any other member of the United Nations, China takes its sovereignty and territorial integrity seriously. As a nation humiliated by the West in modern times, China may value national sovereignty and territorial integrity more than most, and regards these as core national interests that cannot be sacrificed. That is why China will always have a strong, resolute and legitimate reaction to any U.S. behavior that undermines them — especially regarding Taiwan. The Taiwan issue, therefore, is often regarded as a potential flash point that could spark a serious military confrontation between China and the U.S.
All in all, there might be different ways to define guardrails, but the sovereignty principle should be at the center to keep China-U.S. relations moving forward on a non-confrontational track.
Finally, it is true that there should be guardrails in China-U.S. relations, and for good reason. Theories of international relations always argue that nations should create mechanisms to manage inevitable crises — for example, accidents between nations can easily happen, and decision-makers could have misperceptions.
But the potential conflicts between China and the U.S. do not start with accidents. Most of the problems actually take place as a result of intentional efforts by the U.S. to undermine China’s sovereignty. Its behavior on Taiwan, the South China Sea and other issues is designed to sabotage China’s sovereignty, regardless of principles. How, then, can guardrails provide safety?
China has rightfully objected, and it’s time for the U.S. side to stop pretending to be deaf.