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Foreign Policy

Approaching the End Game

Dec 23, 2020
  • An Gang

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


In dialogues with different American think tanks organized by the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University since 2019, we frequently encountered three key phrases that left me with a deep impression.

The first one is “strategic assumption.” Both China and the U.S. have a set of strategic assumptions — about themselves and each other — when dealing with their relationship and designing their global roles. Mutual suspicion in this regard is a fundamental issue that may lead to strategic misjudgment. Therefore, we must persist in dialogue to actively strengthen our understanding of each other and ourselves and to identify the strategic hypothesis most faithful to reality and guiding principles most suitable for managing our relations.

Of course, merely reactivating a dialogue framework is not enough. The dialogues must have substance in a way that reflects the concerns of both parties equally. Also, it is necessary to establish an implementation mechanism that does not compromise the dignity of either side.

The second key phrase is “end game.” China-U.S. relations are fluid and continuously evolving, with each stage demonstrating distinctive features. At present, competition may be the predominant aspect. The Trump administration has chosen a unilateral path of strategic competition with China and continues to spare no effort to gain leverage and sprint to complete a domestic mobilization that forces China to follow.

When President-elect Joe Biden takes office, his policy orientation, many Chinese observers believe, may offer a window of opportunity for easing tensions. Some of them used the word “reset” in their comments. However, I have noticed that American scholars have repeatedly reminded China in recent two-way academic dialogues that reasonable expectations must be in place for any new U.S. policy toward China, as well as for the prospects of China-U.S. relations. So “reset” may be an inappropriate term.

In Biden’s first six months in the White House, it is unlikely that his administration will unveil any fully formed China policy. Nevertheless, it is highly possible for his administration to continue to focus on strategic competition when dealing with China issues.

We must have a clear and rational understanding of the historical stage we are in, and then design policies accordingly. Meanwhile, we should avoid being trapped in the present as we try to figure out future trends. As to what will eventually happen –– whether there will be benign competition or vicious confrontation, or even war –– the jury is still out.

Neither China nor the U.S. is passively willing to accept any outcome; we must make our own choices. What we choose, and the “end game” we play, will be determined by articulated policies, as well as by the bilateral interaction. The attitudes of third parties, such as Russia, the European Union, Japan, ASEAN countries, India and Australia must also be factored in.

I envision a spectrum of multiple possibilities for China-U.S. relations. At the dark end of the spectrum lies full-scale confrontation and vicious competition, which can only lead to the total fragmentation of the global system. The bright end offers benign competition, through which China and the U.S. promote the institutional progress of human civilization. The international community would benefit greatly from China-U.S. cooperation — that is, the realization of a positive sum game.

Relations now stand in the middle of the spectrum, but are perceptibly moving, inch by inch, to the dark end. This is a dangerous trend, and we must take action to prevent further deterioration. For China, stopping this treacherous development requires not only active dialogue and cooperation but also resolute struggle and strategy. That way, we could prompt the U.S. to envision things that are beneficial to the two countries’ common interests, and to avoid adopting policies or taking actions aimed at containing China’s development and harming its interests.

If the two countries — as a result of limitations in their own capabilities and the external environment — are unable set a course characterized by partnership; nor dare or want to choose the worst prospect, vicious conflict; nor completely cut off their intricate ties and broad functional cooperation, then they have no alternative but to set boundaries and bottom lines for competition to effectively manage risks and crises.

At the same time, they should attempt to maintain and expand the scope of cooperation, and set up a “buffer zone” between competition and cooperation. By striving for virtuous competition, they could enhance mutual understanding, so that each will respect the other’s values while cherishing their own. This paradigm for coexistence will eventually lead to a “positive sum” end game.

The third key phrase is “tool kit.” While making choices about the future, we must also kick off preparations. On one hand, we need to work on resuming rational dialogue and restarting mutually beneficial cooperation — and even opening up new cooperative spaces. On the other hand, we must prepare for resolving specific concerns and thorny issues. These all require adequate policy preparation and a reserve of tools for proactive action and response.

China and the U.S. still have sufficient motive and latitude for cooperation, both bilaterally and globally. In response to the initiative of State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi that was introduced on July 9 at the China-U.S. Think Tanks Media Forum, Chinese think tanks are picking up their efforts to advise on policies that may help the Chinese government enrich its toolkit.

In that speech, Wang proposed to bring China-U.S. relations back to the right track, in part by reviewing and agreeing on lists of interactions. According to Wang, the first list is the one that specifies all areas, bilateral and global, where China and the United States can work together. The second is a list of dialogues that itemize the differences that could be resolved through dialogue. The third is a list of issues that the two countries have little chance to agree upon and which need proper management.

Given the extensive nature of China-U.S. contradictions, as well as changes in the domestic political climate and popular sentiments in the two countries, specific differences and disputes are now difficult to address using a case-by-case approach. There will be more situations in which the slightest nudge could cause the widest chain reaction.

Therefore, when managing China-U.S. relations in the future, we must also consider how to control the scale and intensity of a crisis in a certain area or touching a sensitive issue to prevent it from spreading to other areas. The best way to tackle a problem is to adopt the method most effective in the area in which the problem arises. Such a mentality gives pragmatic meaning to the notion of a “tool kit.”

Both China and the U.S. are able to shape the future. China’s influence on relations is rising. As Professor Wang Jisi pointed out in one of his recent articles, several times in history it was actually China rather than the U.S. that has shaped the basic trajectory of China-U.S. relations by adapting itself to the situation.

But this time, I believe China will resort to using other approaches besides continuing its own process of reform and opening-up.

In his congratulatory message to Biden, President Xi Jinping expressed hope that the two sides can develop a relationship featuring no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, to jointly promote the noble cause of global peace and development. This message reminds us that both parties should recognize this window of opportunity to use it to find a new orientation — new perspectives for China-U.S. relations that could make both of us feel comfortable and proud. 

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