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Foreign Policy

A Necessary Strategic Framework for China-U.S. Relations

Nov 18, 2022
  • Sun Chenghao

    Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University
  • Su Liuqiang

    Research Fellow, SIIS


On the afternoon of Nov, 14, President Xi Jinping met with U.S. President Joe Biden in Bali, Indonesia. The two leaders agreed to work together to develop the guiding principles, or strategic framework, for China-U.S. relations, and they tasked their staff to continue discussions on the subject following the meeting with the goal of quickly achieving an understanding. This became one of the meeting’s highlights and is crucial for the future development of the bilateral relationship. 

Need for strategic framework 

China and the U.S., as two major countries, ought to have some significant common ground on principles, as President Xi noted. Principles provide direction, and with direction disagreements may be effectively resolved and collaboration can be increased.

First, the previous strategic framework for China-U.S. relations has been shaken. After the two countries established diplomatic ties in the 1970s, they were able to develop, after many adjustments, a strategic framework of collaboration plus competition — with cooperation as the main focus. Because of this framework, stability and growth have generally been guaranteed despite the periodic ups and downs in relations. Unfortunately, the U.S. revised its China policy during the Donald Trump administration, diverging from the original strategic framework. The change seriously harmed the bilateral relationship.

Second, China-U.S. ties have drifted as a result of the lack of strategic consensus. In the past, the fluctuations have always had an upper limit because of the presence of a engagement-oriented strategic consensus. Without such a consensus, the relationship between the two countries may continue to worsen and potentially veer into a new cold war and hostile conflict. This is not in line with the two countries’ fundamental interests.

Third, the prerequisites for a preliminary consensus between China and the U.S. are currently in place. The two countries have identified each other’s vital interests and acknowledged each other’s views after rounds of interaction. The U.S. side has progressively come to the realization that pressuring China will not only fail to bring about China’s submission but will also be destructive for both countries and the entire globe. As a result, it must responsibly handle disputes. China, on the other hand, has been very patient with the American side and is certain that the interactions will help to put the bilateral relationship back on track in the future. 

Building on consensus 

Both presidents agreed that the two sides will engage in constructive consultations and work to reach an agreement as soon as possible using the consensus achieved so far. As a result, the principles guiding China-U.S. relations represent the broadest consensus between the perspectives of the two countries.

China has offered “mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, cooperation and win-win cooperation,” as well as “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation as the basic principles for China-U.S. relations. A “competition, cooperation, and conflict” approach, as well as the “four nos” (and then “five nos”) to China, have also been suggested by the Biden administration. The future strategic framework of China-U.S. relations may have the following implications based on a comparison of China’s and America’s respective pronouncements;

First, the framework’s central tenet is “non-conflict, non-confrontation and peaceful coexistence.” This is a bipartisan agreement on U.S. policy toward China. The core spirit of the bilateral relationship is the same despite the fact that China and the U.S. have slightly different expectations and the U.S. frequently uses terminology such as “managing competition,” “setting guardrails” and “building a floor for China relations.” In other words, the relationship between the two countries should not involve confrontation, military conflict or attempts to alter the political or social systems of the other side.

Second, the framework should include “win-win cooperation,” as well. The goal of “non-conflict, non-confrontation, and peaceful coexistence” is to establish the minimum threshold for any future bilateral ties. So the idea of win-win cooperation must be given a strong thrust in order for China-U.S. ties to remain stable. On one hand, maintaining strong economic, trade and people-to-people ties and opposing widespread decoupling are examples of win-win cooperation; on the other, constructive cooperation on significant international and regional issues of shared interest, as well as assuming the roles of great powers and taking the initiative, are also important.

Third, the format of joint communiques between China and the U.S. might be viewed as a framework carrier. Three joint communiques served as guides for the long-term stability of China-U.S. ties after the establishment of diplomatic relations. Given the unique political significance of those joint communiques in bilateral relations, a fourth joint communique, along with the first three, might serve as a long-term guiding text for China-U.S. relations once the new guiding principles have been established. 

Opportunities and challenges 

Establishing guiding principles or a strategic framework for China-U.S. relations faces both opportunities and obstacles.

First, opportunities are consistent with both countries’ shared interests. The genuine needs of China and the U.S. to manage competition, prevent tensions from rising and maintain regional stability have increased.

Second, the two countries’ resolve has grown. China has taken a leading role in directing bilateral relations, urging the American side to proceed in the same direction. After the U.S. midterm elections, the Republican Party took control the House of Representatives in Congress, and so Biden may be more motivated to seek a breakthrough at the diplomatic level as his domestic agenda is obstructed. Stabilizing China-U.S. relations may become a major achievement during his tenure.

Third, China and the U.S. are expected to work together. The bilateral relationship is important on a global scale, and the international community generally does not want disputes between China and the U.S. to worsen. They are also less willing to choose sides, and they anticipate that China and the U.S. will uphold their obligations as major countries and cooperate to resolve regional and global issues.

Three aspects are also among the primary challenges. First, there is a limited amount of time for consultations between the two sides. China and U.S. need to move quickly if they want to make the most of the remaining two years of Biden’s term. As more time passes, more opposition may be encountered.

Second, it remains unclear whether the U.S. can implement its policies. On several China matters there have previously been discrepancies between the U.S. side’s words and its deeds. Additionally, the characteristics of strategic thinking differ between the two countries, with the American side favoring a micro, bottom-up method of thinking and the Chinese side favoring a macro, top-down method. It remains to be seen whether or not the two sides can overcome these obstacles and quickly and successfully build guiding principles, or a strategic framework, for China-U.S. relations.

Finally, it is impossible to disregard the Republicans’ potential influence. Now that the Republicans have gained control of the House, they may intensify their criticism of the Biden administration’s stance toward China, undercut its China policy agenda through the legislative and appropriation powers at their disposal and even pressure the Biden administration to backtrack.

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