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Foreign Policy

Better China-U.S. Relations: A Troubled Proposition

Mar 05, 2020
  • An Gang

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

Ironically, the need for cooperation to inhibit the global spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, has not brought improvements to China-U.S. relations. The gulf of enmity and distrust between the two countries has continued to widen.

Clashes provoked by the United States have received much attention in the Chinese media of late. China’s response has been consistently diplomatic. For example: 

• After the outbreak of COVID-19, the U.S. was the first to evacuate its citizens from Wuhan, Hubei province. It cut off flights and restricted the entry of Chinese nationals into the U.S. Wilbur L. Ross, the U.S. secretary of commerce, said in an interview on Jan. 30 that the epidemic in China would help to speed up the return of jobs to America.

• Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and others lobbied hard during their visits to Central Asia, Europe, Africa and the Munich Security Conference for solidarity with the U.S. in forming a coordinated China strategy. They pressured allies to avoid adopting Huawei 5G technology.

• The U.S. continued to challenge China’s sovereign security and strategic endurance over the South China Sea and Taiwan. On Jan. 25, the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year, the U.S. Navy littoral combat ship “Montgomery” trespassed in waters adjacent to China’s Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands).

In early February, Lai Qingde, Taiwan’s “vice president” and a member of the Democratic Progressive Party, visited America. It was said that the U.S. and Taiwan were preparing for a visit by Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen to the U.S.

On Feb.12, the U.S. Army flew three aircraft over Taiwan — an apparent response to the flight of several combat aircraft of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army over Taiwan on Feb. 9 and 10.

A U.S. Navy warship traveled across the Taiwan Strait from north to south on Feb. 15. It was the second time this year that a U.S. warship crossed the strait. The first was the guided missile cruiser USS “Shiloh” (CG-67) on Jan.17.

• The U.S. Congress continued to produce legislation interfering in China’s internal affairs, with the House of Representatives approving the Tibet Policy and Support Act of 2019 at the end of January.

According to reports in Chinese media, Pompeo also attempted to sow discord between Central Asian countries and China with the so-called Xinjiang issue. He expressed support for NGOs engaging in anti-China activities.

• In early February, the comment section of the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia,” which seriously hurt the feelings of the Chinese people with its racism, and it escalated to diplomatic issues. The Journal refused to apologize.

• On Feb. 19, the U.S. State Department announced that it would treat the branches of five “mainstream Chinese media companies” in the U.S. as foreign missions and required them to register their employees and assets in the U.S.

• The U.S. interfered with the election of Chinese candidates for the director-general of the World Intellectual Property Organization, further explaining its policy of confrontation with China in the international arena.

For its part, China responded evenhandedly, keeping lines of communication open with the U.S. on major bilateral issues. On Feb. 7, the heads of state of both sides exchanged views by telephone on COVID-19, as well as on economic and trade issues.

China implemented the first phase of the China-U.S. economic and trade agreement step by step. It has adjusted tariff measures on about $75 billion of imports from the U.S. since Feb. 14, and on Feb. 21 it published the first-time exclusion list of the second batch of American commodities with associated tariffs.

At the same time, China has responded strongly to U.S. actions that undermine China’s interests and dignity. On Feb. 19, a spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced the suspension of press credentials for three Wall Street Journal reporters in Beijing.

On Feb. 24, the tourism authority of the Chinese government issued a warning to Chinese tourists “not to travel to the U.S.” in the near future, stating that “Chinese tourists are often treated unfairly because of the excessive anti-coronavirus measures taken by the U.S. and its security situation.”

Despite repeated claims by the U.S. embassy in China and State Department that the U.S. government had coordinated a large amount of aid for China, Chinese diplomatic officers have changed their tone little, if at all, accusing the U.S. of directly or indirectly overreacting, acting selfishly, taking the opportunity to further degrade U.S.-China relations and generally kicking China while it’s down. It has taken no steps to correct these actions.

At the same time, China’s military has not and cannot loosen its stance in defense of national sovereignty and security because of the new domestic focus on fighting the coronavirus epidemic. In addition to its normal offshore tours, the Chinese naval fleet, consisting of four warships, conducted an open-sea training exercise in international waters near Hawaii in mid-February.

The fight against COVID-19 should have had the effect of mitigating the steadily deteriorating relations between the U.S. and China. Professional organizations from both countries did cooperate, and supplies donated by American business circles, NGOs and overseas Chinese flowed into China. However, the situation has changed. Given the failures to coordinate on strategy, combined with crippled economic cooperation and poor communication, the hole in China-U.S. relations is far from being filled by cooperation in areas such as public health.

The developing situation shows that the Trump administration and the political right wing in the U.S. have continued promoting their strategy of competition with China, along with domestic and international mobilization and even taking advantage of China’s difficulties for their own benefit.

Neither China nor the U.S. have any intention to relax their rivalry, and relations have continued spiraling downward in a reactionary cycle.

Catalyzed by these events, conspiracy theorists on both sides have further degraded relations with false news reports and speculation that have stirred up emotions and promoted misjudgments, with obvious effects.

The thinking of a country is deeply influenced by its strategic culture, and there are significant differences between the strategic cultures of China and the U.S. Chinese strategic culture has emphasized “Tao” and “righteousness” since ancient times. And the country has been sensitive about its weakness and defensiveness in modern times. When foreign rivals generate friction during internal Chinese crises, China will tend to amplify the hostility it sees from its rivals and claim “moral legitimacy” in its responses.

U.S. strategic culture, by contrast, is profit-driven and shortsighted, and it has become steadily more pragmatic since Donald Trump took office. Its established strategic agenda will not be easily changed by opponents’ internal problems, and it will lag behind when adjustments are needed.

During the outbreak of COVID-19, even if some actions taken by the U.S. against China were conventional, sectoral and procedural, their psychological impact on China may be profound and will inevitably have a direct impact on the evolution of China’s policy toward the U.S. in the post-epidemic period.

Given the current situation, the mutual antipathy of China and the U.S. will become the norm after COVID-19. If the development of China-U.S. relations has lost its strategic momentum since the end of the Cold War, and material momentum since the second half of the Obama administration, what’s happening now is the loss of its dynamism.

“China-U.S. relations stand at a new crossroads.” This idea was mentioned repeatedly in strategic circles with respect to China-related strategy in the U.S. two years ago. Now, the driving force in China-U.S. relations seems to have passed this crossroads and entered the one-way road of vicious competition and all-out conflict. This cannot be reversed by one or two opportunities for cooperation.

Even if COVID-19 does not take long to disappear, and both China and the U.S. take steps to repair relations, two long-term questions arise that need to be answered by both sides: To what extent can China and the U.S. afford to “decouple” from each other? And will further decoupling, while fighting a disease, develop into a systemic decoupling?

All manufacturing industries in the U.S. are reassessing their supply chains at the government’s request, as are countries including Vietnam and South Korea. In the midst of the coronavirus epidemic, Trump halted a domestic push to ban the sale of large cargo aircraft engines to China.

Washington is debating whether to expel Chinese journalists representing official media organizations from the U.S. in retaliation for the Chinese government’s decision to revoke the press credentials of the Wall Street Journal journalists. On March 2, the U.S. State Department announced that it would impose a workforce reduction on five Chinese state media companies in the country to 100 employees — down from 160.

We can see that the decoupling energy is specific to each instance, but all of them will ultimately coalesce into a force that cannot be stopped, absent sufficient political will. Meanwhile, if COVID-19 continues to rage for the long term, and countries continue to rebuild barriers, the inevitable result will be a deeper and broader restructuring of the global industrial and supply chain.

This is the real danger currently facing China-U.S. relations.

Another problem is that at a time when the world needs China and the U.S., each with its own strengths and advantages, to function as global powers, both of are stuck in competition, mutual suspicion and bargaining rather than cooperating. This will not only disappoint the international community, but will eventually undermine the leadership of both China and the U.S. and hasten the collapse of the existing international order and global system. In the end, members of the international community will make their own choices amid the ruins of this system, and perhaps they will choose neither China nor the U.S.

The future is not looking bright, but we must not give up. Even if we have passed the crossroads, there is still a long way to go to the edge of the cliff. There are still some barriers, but through honest dialogue, effective control and functional cooperation in different fields, the U.S. and China can prevent relations from spiraling out of control.

Before we enter the post-epidemic era of China-U.S. relations, a key question should be asked: What kind of China-U.S. relations and external environment does China need?

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