It seems that Sino-US relations will enter a relatively stable period after the successful presidential summit last November. But even if greater economic cooperation initiatives and the military memorandums can pull bilateral relations back to a smoother track, we have to keep in mind that there remain some potential disputes that are still untouched. How will the ongoing Ukraine crisis and Hong Kong’s “Occupy central” movement impact Sino-US relations? Do they have similarities with the so called “color revolutions” that occurred in Central Asia and the Middle East several years ago? And what role has the US played in these social movements? Most of these issues related to ideology have been deliberately put aside. Two weeks ago, the US congress testified on the role of China’s Confucius Institutes and claimed that the Institutes had interfered with academic freedom, indicating US worry over China’s cultural and ideological exports.
The question here is: Will these potential ideological differences between China and US come into being a new source of mistrust and trigger a new round of tensions?
In recent years, the most remarkable feature of Sino-US relations is that the growing strategic mistrust has seriously impacted the stability of bilateral relations. The strategic mistrust has two major sources. One is structural. China’s rapid rise to become the second largest economy in the world has forged a new landscape for its relations with the US. The US, as the so called “established power”, will inevitably worry if China, as the rising power, is preparing to eventually challenge US global leadership. However, China also worries about what the US has done to contain China. Especially because the US is muddling through a domestic political stalemate and external challenges, while China’s foreign strategy is getting more proactive, this structural mistrust is rising further. The other source of mistrust is geopolitical. The overlap of the two countries’ geopolitical strategy gravity makes the situation even more complicated. The US rebalance strategy was widely thought as preventing China’s dominance in Asia; while US worries that China’s intention is to ultimately push the US out of the region. This mistrust is heavily manifested in the two countries’ persistent military tensions in the region.
With great effortsin managing this mistrust, including rhetoric reassurance by top leaders and broadening the range of cooperation, the bilateral relationship is being kept in control for now. But deep mistrust remains and the relationship is highly sensitive.
The structural and geopolitical mistrust are still there, and a new possible ideological mistrust is emerging on the horizon. From some Chinese people’s perspectives, the current Ukraine crisis is another round of “color revolution” like that in 2004, which was instigated by the US desire to overthrow the “dictatorship”. In this sense, even if not all Chinese people believe it is a threat, they still feel uncomfortable. If the Ukraine crisis is relatively remote, the “Occupy Central” movement in Hong Kong, which some people called an “umbrella revolution”, was more immediate. Despite the fact that the crisis in Hong Kong and Ukraine issue has profound internal factors, the role of the United States is still doubtful. In particular, in the recent US Congressional hearing, it is believed that US Confucius Institutes have “interfered in academic freedom”. Behind that claim, it seems that the worry about the Chinese government’s exporting of its ideology is rising in the US. This unfriendly attitude to Confucius Institutes, together with the suspicion related to the two crises above, will possibly evoke the existing memory of ideological differences between China and the US.
Due to different cultures, traditions and political systems, there is a longtime ideological collision between the two countries. Only in the last decade, partly due to the US focusing on terrorism issues, the US criticism of China’s human rights conditions was reduced. But since the global financial crisis in 2008, there is more and more discussion about China’s State Capitalism in the US. It seems that the United States is getting more inclined to observe China from an ideological perspective. Especially now, there is a growing number of Americans in Washington who feel that China and the US have had competing visions on how to reshape the Asia-Pacific region, behind which there is a deep root of cultural, value and ideological divergences.
Because of that, we have reasons to worry about this potential difference evolving into a new source of strategic mistrust. Compared to structural and geopolitical problems, the ideological mistrust is more complicated and more difficult to manage. If getting into reality, it will cause more troubles for both China and US, and trigger a new round of turbulence in the Sino-US relationship.
However, even when the two countries have their own ideology preferences, it does not mean that it will necessarily lead to a conflict. For the two countries, conflict will only do harm to both sides. A mutual respect for ideology is the basis of establishing a New Type of Major Country Relations. China and the US should resist the temptation of criticizing each other on ideological issues. But since the ideological issues can’t be avoided, it’s getting more urgent for the two sides to launch a more formal dialogue on ideology related issues, such as the governance model, in addition to the current economic, strategic and security dialogue. Furthermore, China and US should deepen their cooperation and coordination in helping other countries to find more sustainable development model, thus showing the world that their ideological differences can be mutually complementary rather than only contradictory. These efforts will be helpful for both sides to narrow the gaps on the ideological difference and be of far significance in their better relations.