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Foreign Policy

A Very Challenging China-U.S. Relationship

Apr 18 , 2017
  • Chen Yonglong

    Director of Center of American Studies, China Foundation for International Studies

The common topic of several seminars for experts from both China and the U.S. that I have attended recently was “opportunities and challenges faced with China in the era of Trump administration”. Chewing it over, the topic itself is one that contains huge challenges.

In the first place, the concept of “Trump era” is for the U.S. and U.S. people concerned with foreign policy and foreign relations under Trump administration as well as the historical status, role and responsibilities of the U.S. Even though the China-U.S. relationship has become one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world and the importance of China’s ideas, approach, diplomacy, position and role in the world is rising or has already risen to the global level in some respects. The economic aggregate of China will for sure catch up with and exceed that of the U.S. in the near future, while the U.S. is still the world’s No. 1, and China still lags way behind in terms of comprehensive national strength. There is no “role exchanging issue” between China and the U.S., and challenges and difficulties for the U.S. are not opportunities for China. China is not “part B” in the geopolitical, economic and security pattern of the U.S., much less an opponent. The China-U.S. tie is an indispensable bilateral relationship in today’s world, and cooperation is only opportunity ahead.

The world might be entering an era of post-unipolar, and in my opinion, Trump is not going to throw out the entire world order established after the World War II. Instead, he is going to break some global or regional arrangements under the traditional establishment system, namely arrangements that no longer conform to U.S. interests. However, Trump’s main ideas do not fit the present era in many aspects, such as geopolitical multi-polarization, geo-economic diversification, fragmentation of geo-security, and globalization of information flow (including new media and we media). Under this situation, whether Trump can be great is subject to the tests of historical changes and the times. Facing challenges of party politics and continued fragmentation of U.S. society, Trump attaches much importance to the economy, admires former U.S. president Reagan, and is poised to copy Reaganomics, which may have some space and conditions to be successful. Meanwhile, the current situation of improper governance and regulation deficiency of the Trump administration cannot be sustained, and his governance needs to be in sync with the real world.

In the second place, China and the U.S. need to adapt to the basic need for mutual re-shaping at this new stage. The reform and opening up policy of China in the early days was not merely for the U.S. or other Western countries, to be exact, it was opening up for the market economy, for bringing in market factors and establishing market mechanisms. For this reason, China has paid great but necessary prices, provided super national treatments for multinational corporations in many aspects. For a long time, China has been positively accepting a certain amount of shaping by Western countries without any complaints; instead, China thanks them for their cooperation. It’s worth noting that China didn’t mechanically copy Western experiences, it creatively developed a socialist market economy with Chinese characteristics. Today’s China has already been equipped with certain capabilities to provide public goods that can benefit countries of different organizational systems, to the region, and even to the world. That is to say, when shaping itself, China can positively influence the outside world and play the role of shaping other parties in the world. The China-U.S. relationship is entering into the new era of mutual shaping, and since Trump has taken office, the bilateral relationship has stumbled and been full of challenges. However, the two countries have also overcome many difficulties to achieve the first Xi – Trump meeting at Mar-a-Lago. The U.S. relationship with China might depend on the hope for a “new pattern of relationship between great powers”.

In the third place, the China-U.S. relationship features conceptual collisions and connections. The U.S. pursues an alliance policy, and China advocates partnership policy. China’s approach represents an ideal of moral and profit that has strong inclusiveness, while the other is the result of responsibility and obligation that evolved the state of war (both hot wars and cold wars), which have become the norm of “value-oriented” international relations with shrinking practical application and legal status any more. Conceptual collisions and connections between China and the U.S. directly concern the long-term positioning and development direction of this bilateral relationship. In the Obama era, even though the U.S. side admitted the importance of China-U.S. relationship verbally, the U.S. relationship with allies came first, from its Asia-Pacific rebalancing policy followed by the relationship with new partners, and then the relationship with China. Now the Trump administration has openly accepted the principles of “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” in power relations and has expressed willingness to face the future and jointly design the bilateral relationship in the next 50 years together with China, which was a very positive posture. Compared with making U.S. allies pay more for defense, more difficult issues loom: Can President Trump really jump out of the pattern of traditional thinking, and can he fight his way through the gantlet of domestic parties and Western allies? The road to make America great again leads to Beijing; and for China to be strong and prosperous, effective cooperation from the American side is also indispensable. Can China and the U.S. break the shackle of system and value differences and move forward as partners together? This may be the biggest challenge that faces the world in modern times — if the answer is yes, the evolution of a modern international order can avoid many detours. Core interests on sovereignty, security and development between China and the U.S. will be respected.

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