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Foreign Policy

Are Improved Relations Possible?

Apr 06, 2022
  • Yuan Zheng

    Researcher, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

High-level communications between China and the United States have increased recently. First, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken surprisingly called Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to congratulate China on its successful hosting of the Winter Olympics. This was followed by a meeting between U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Yang Jiechi in Rome, and a video conversation between the Chinese and U.S. heads of state on March 18 — another cloud meeting after a four-month hiatus. The proximate cause of all this is the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Whether the outbreak of the war between Russia and Ukraine presents an opportunity to improve China-U.S. relations is a matter of great concern for all.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has shaken the existing order and will reshape the global landscape. The international situation has become more complex. The war broke out in the heart of the European continent and involved almost all major countries of the world today. In the China-U.S.-Russia triangle, the U.S. and Russia are completely at odds, and it will be difficult to repair their relations for a while. The Biden administration has basically continued the Trump administration’s hard-line policy toward China, and China-U.S. relations have been hovering at a low point.

Ironically, it is the U.S. policy of containment and suppression of China and Russia that has pushed those two countries closer. For some time, the U.S. strategic community has been debating the choice between working with Russia against China or containing the China-Russia axis, but the view that China and Russia are joining forces to challenge U.S. interests has become the mainstream consensus.

The current war between Russia and Ukraine actually has two fronts: one is the direct military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine on the battlefield, and the other is the sanctions imposed by the U.S.-led Western bloc against Russia, which is in some ways more important. The U.S. and its allies want to take advantage of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and try to consume and weaken Russia through the proxy war model. So, while increasing military and economic aid to Ukraine, they continue to escalate comprehensive sanctions against Russia.

But the U.S. believes that there is still a big loophole in sanctions. Its name is China. Without China’s cooperation, the U.S. and Western economic sanctions against Russia are unlikely to achieve significant results in the short term. The Biden administration has tried to pressure China to withhold economic or military assistance to Russia. China and the United States clearly have different perceptions of the merits of the Russia-Ukraine war.

As a de facto participant in the war, the United States has to look in the direction of both Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Its strategic community also fears that while the U.S. is busy with the Russia-Ukraine war, China will launch military operations in the Asia-Pacific, especially in the Taiwan Strait. Therefore, the U.S. has signaled, through various channels, warnings to China not to act rashly.

Perhaps the Biden administration will slow down its pressure on China in the short term, but the U.S. will not fundamentally change its containment policy regarding China. The adjustment did not happen overnight, but actually started with the Obama administration pursuing an Asia-Pacific policy of strategic rebalancing. That policy only became more drastic under the Trump administration. After the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, U.S. warships passed through the Taiwan Strait as usual, and Biden sent former senior officials to visit Taiwan to continue to support independence forces on the island. Even if there is a war between Russia and Ukraine, there will little, if any, substantial change in the U.S. hard-line policy toward China, though some tactical adjustments will be made.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s visit to China. Today’s China is not the same as the China of 50 years ago, nor is the United States the same United States. But improving bilateral relations is of great importance to both countries, as well as to regional security and even global strategic stability. Given the significant changes in the current international situation, returning to a stable development track in China-U.S. relations will require both sides to make efforts.

First, the United States should change its perception of China. Relations have encountered difficulties in recent years mainly because of major deviations in U.S. perceptions. China’s political system is unique and is in line with its actual situation, and the United States should view its rise rationally. If the U.S. does not change the inherent Western concept of hegemony, always suspicious of China’s intentions, it will be difficult to handle relations well.

Second, China and the United States should try to find areas where they can cooperate and engage in healthy competition. The two have similar demands on managing differences, maintaining regional security and preventing strategic confrontation. There is still room for cooperation on some issues of global governance, including climate change, public health, non-proliferation and global economic recovery.

Third, it is important to manage differences and conflicts to prevent them from subverting the entire relationship. Since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States in 1979, many contradictions and differences have defied resolution. In the face of major differences that have become more and more prominent over the years, both sides should find ways to effectively control differences in a new context, find a way to get along and build a new type of major power relationship.

Fourth, the U.S. should look at China as an equal and not condescendingly level accusations, demand certain actions or even demand cooperation, another great power, in a threatening tone. The U.S. approach — “those who follow me will prosper and those who oppose me will perish” — is a complete departure from the historical trend in current international relations. In the video meeting with President Xi Jinping, the U.S. side still said in a threatening tone that China cannot give support to Russia or there will be serious consequences. Such a tone is highly inappropriate, and the Chinese will never buy it.

Fifth, the U.S. side cannot say one thing and do another. This only exacerbates mutual distrust. U.S. policy toward China has always been pragmatic. Nixon’s visit was designed to get China to work with the United States against the Soviet Union. After the demise of the Soviet Union, the U.S. gradually began pointing its finger at China. Now the U.S. is asking China to stab Russia in the back. One cannot help but ask: After burying Russia, as it hopes, will the U.S. lead its Western allies to bury China?

The Chinese side attaches importance to President Biden’s “four nos and one no,” which shows that the U.S. side knows where the Chinese side’s greatest concerns lie. However, the U.S. side is still saying one thing and doing another. It promises one thing while doing the opposite. The Biden administration’s two-faced policy can be seen by comparing the statements issued by the Chinese and U.S. heads of state after their cloud meeting. The White House statement, for example, did not mention a word about the “four nos and one no.” Not only that, the U.S. side continues to threaten China, to intervene in the Taiwan question, and launch sanctions against China.

The Chinese are not stupid, and they are not afraid of trouble. China has always had its own principles and positions. If the United States wants China to cooperate, it should not only make commitments but also take actions. It should not say one thing and do another, which increases China’s distrust and does nothing to improve relations between the two countries.  In response to the two-faced U.S. approach, China is bound to have a dual policy. 

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