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Foreign Policy

A Path to a New Paradigm of China-US Relations

Apr 29, 2019
  • An Gang

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

From my observations, the Chinese people are more interested than Americans in the current changes in American policies regarding China and China-US relations. It is obvious that these changes will influence China’s decisions about its own future course of action.

Last November when Dr. Henry Kissinger visited Beijing, he quickly answered former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Fu Ying’s short question, saying: “China-US relations will never return to what they were.” In some way this pronouncement was the final word on the matter, and has greatly influenced opinions from the Chinese perspective concerning China-US relations.

For the Chinese, his words confirmed one truth that we are unwilling to accept: the US strategy towards China is undergoing a fundamental change, and the US has reached an internal consensus to expand the containment of China. China has to respond to these adjustments in US policy. What kind of reciprocal cycle — “act-respond-react” — will take shape from now on? This is the question facing the two countries.

My interpretation of Dr. Kissinger’s words is as follows: on the one hand, the good old days of China-US relations are gone; on the other hand, relations won’t be worse than they were during the era of hostile confrontation and even open military conflict shortly after the establishment of the People’s Republic in 1949.

Dr. Kissinger added that the key to fixing current China-US relations was more about seeking coexistence against an increasingly complex international political backdrop than about settling the trade dispute. In addition, he believed that China-US relations would move towards a “new paradigm.”

Dr. Kissinger didn’t explain what he meant by this term. But according to some Chinese scholars, the new paradigm was interpreted as new pattern. China-US relations have grown from simple, strategic relations to more complicated and comprehensive ties. As the interests of both sides interweave, no political motive could pull them apart completely. Strategic competition between the two countries has started and will play out across bilateral, regional and global levels simultaneously.

This January, when interviewed by Phoenix TV, Mr. Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the US, said that “China-US relations should step forward to blaze a new trail rather than backward…I agree with Dr. Kissinger on this point.”

On December 2, 2018, President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump reached an agreement in their meeting in Buenos Aires. The two heads of state agreed, according to the press release of the Chinese delegation, to promote a coordinated, cooperative and stable relationship. Most likely, these are signals from the each side’s leadership in order to explore the new paradigm.

Before forming this new paradigm, we need to understand what a paradigm is. In brief, it is a concept from the philosophy of science. In the context of international relations, a paradigm refers to a steady and promising interactive mode based on the concept and way of conduct that is shared by sovereign actors in their communication.

In fact, China and the US have started exploring the new paradigm through several approaches, such as the ongoing trade negotiations, two rounds of diplomatic security dialogue, and the encounter between Chinese and American warships in the South China Sea. A new dynamic balance is going to be shaped through direct and close interactions. These interactions breed both opportunities for compromise and agreement, as well as great risks of conflict.

There are two principles we should bear in mind when forging the new paradigm. First, the new paradigm should be established in accord with current realities. At present, there are two basic global trends. One trend consists of ongoing and expanding economic globalization. Even if the global economy has to develop into two separate systems led by China and the US according to their own rules, economies in both systems would interconnect and share similarities with each other. And the two countries would have to bear great costs strategically, politically and economically to maintain the functioning of these distinct systems for any long period of time. The other trend is of gradual multi-polarization. Before multipolarity is firmly established, the world is quite likely to undergo a transition period where the world’s two superpowers confront each other. As these two trends develop, China and the US should concentrate more on regulation, negotiation, and coordination.

Secondly, in establishing the new paradigm, we must emphasize a change in mindset. The established power should overcome “Sparta’s fear” while the rising power should contain its “Athenian ego trip” brought by its rapid development. American strategy has long been trapped into a pattern of structural confrontation through a long era marked by cold war and shooting wars — Anglo-Saxon culture, Christian faith, and American exceptionalism have all been supported by America’s superior strength. Nevertheless, due to the great decline in its strength, the US today has to adjust its internal structure and constrain external expansion. It’s hard for it to reach a balance between its strategic means and strategic goals. In contrast, China has stepped onto the stage as a great power. On the one hand, the current situation enables China to protect its interests and shape the international order more actively. On the other hand, being a great power gives rise to chauvinism, and nationalist sentiments propagate easily during such a period. Now that mutual trials are unavoidable in the future, China and the US should manage their respective sentiments through self-reflection and self-constraint.

At present, the priority in forging the new paradigm should be to avoid a model of coexistence based on threats and Mutual Assured Destruction, and to establish cooperative coexistence based instead on “Mutual Assured Dignity.” This particular dignity must include an objective perspective on each side’s differences in strength, adherence to military restraint and the baseline principle of no warfare and no conflict, rejection of overkill in negotiations, and maintaining available channels for negotiation and emergency communication.

The competition in the West Pacific, especially in the South China Sea, is going to be the main field for the strategic game between China and the US. Both sides should strengthen their professional communication capacity within established mechanisms, settle the rules of conduct for coexistence in the West Pacific region, reach an agreement on the structure of power in the West Pacific and prepare a security framework for inclusiveness and coexistence.

The divergence of each side’s values should be considered properly to establish a model of coexistence based on mutual respect for each other’s values, and rules of conduct based on mutual noninterference, cooperation, and development. It’s acceptable for China to adjust its approach in managing international trade, but impossible to change its value system.

Before the new paradigm is fully established, the two countries have already begun a strategic competition in almost all aspects. Both sides should define the content and boundaries of competition, compete with self-constraint and mutual constraint, and try to make the competition serve virtuous and productive ends. To this point, some Chinese scholars are calling on the two countries to conduct meaningful strategic stability dialogues and confirm the contribution of China-US relations in maintaining global strategic stability.

China and the US have diverging attitudes on the nuclear issue. China is concerned about America’s National Missile Defense and Regional Missile Defense and its Prompt Global Strike system; while the US focuses on the China’s non-transparent nuclear capabilities and potential use of tactical nuclear weapons. How should we resolve these differences? Is it possible for us to reach an agreement guaranteeing a remarkable reduction in the chances of a potential conventional crisis or low intensity conflict turning into nuclear confrontation—provided that the nuclear arsenals of both sides wouldn’t be weakened? What can we learn from the nuclear disarmament of the US and the Soviet Union during and after the Cold War? The nuclear capabilities and policies of China are completely different from the nuclear strategies of the Soviet Union at that time; furthermore, both China and the US show no intention of initiating a second Cold War. It is clear that there is room for dialogue.

At present, the risks of conventional conflicts over maritime issues, as well as unconventional fields such as space and cybersecurity keep rising. The two militaries should also discuss how to expand the definition, scope, connotation, and application of China-US strategic stability and how to avoid the possibility of conventional conflicts escalating into nuclear confrontations.

China-US relations are still in hard times, but the future is not doomed. What we should bear in mind is that, when someone in both countries pushes to close doors in certain realms, what we need to do is open other doors in realms that both countries are not so familiar with. Each country may yet show keen interest in learning from the other.

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