The summit meeting between the top leaders of China and the United States in San Francisco in November has successfully smoothed the bilateral relationship that ran aground with the U.S. overreaction to the balloon incident and its subsequent attempts to crack down on China on virtually every front. The atmosphere has continued to improve since the summit, with more dialogues conducted, more positive messages exchanged and more channels of cooperation operated.
How should this detente be interpreted? How far will the cooperation go? And how will the relationship evolve from this new juncture?
Undoubtedly, the San Francisco Summit turned a new page in the China-U.S. relationship after years of tension and uncertainty, starting in the Trump era when the U.S. decided to make a paradigm shift on China and switch to an all-around competition mode. President Xi Jinping’s visit to U.S. after a gap of six years highlights the historical heritage and contemporary value of Sino-U.S. presidential diplomacy, with more than 20 points of consensus reached across different fields.
On the political and diplomatic front, the two sides decided to continue high-level exchanges, with a view not only toward materializing consensus but also building up beneficial relations in the long run. As we see it afterward, the exchange of congratulatory letters on New Year’s Day between the two top leaders reassures us, once again, of their resolve to direct this relationship toward a track of “stable, healthy and sustainable development.”
When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi attended a reception on Jan. 5 to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States, he commented that the two countries “have reestablished communication and dialogue, and bilateral relations have stabilized.” Likewise, Liu Jianchao, minister of the international liaison department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, during his visit to the U.S. recently, said that China-U.S. relations have shown “stable and positive momentum.” The White House agreed that Liu’s visit was “part of ongoing efforts to maintain open lines of communication and responsibly manage competition.”
The military constitutes a core part of high politics. It’s also the most sensitive and crucial dimension of the China-U.S. relationship. The two sides agreed to resume high-level communication between their militaries, and a resumption of meetings at the working-level. A call between theater leaders made clear their intent to engage deeply and manage military relations responsibly.
Last month, Liu Zhenli, general of the Chinese military Joint Staff had a virtual meeting with the top U.S. military officer — Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Charles Q. Brown. This month, the 17th U.S.-China Defense Policy Coordination Talks were conducted in Washington, the latest contact since the two countries agreed to resume mil-to-mil dialogue. Both sides agreed that communication is critical in preventing miscalculations from escalating into conflict.
Concrete cooperation in many other fields has also been carried out one by one. In technology cooperation, the two have begun negotiations on renewing the China-U.S. Science and Technology Cooperation Agreement. In people-to-people exchanges, the two sides agreed early this year to significantly increase direct flights. According to data from the Civil Aviation Administration of China, regular direct passenger flights between China and United States have increased to 63 per week.
In global governance, the two sides launched the China-U.S. Enhanced Climate Action Working Group and held the first meeting on Jan. 12 via video link. Also, after announcing the establishment of a cooperative anti-drug working group, the two sides are gradually resuming and maintaining close communication in this regard.
However, the ongoing cooperation and the general improvement of bilateral relations have their own intrinsic limits. First, the perception and expectation gaps are still large. With the identification of China as its foremost adversary and a longtime all-around rival, what America really wants is to frame the development of China-U.S. ties into its ideal orbit, and agenda-setting is an important way to win leverage.
The U.S. tries to steer cooperation toward issues that matter more to its own interest instead of the well-being of the bilateral relationship per se. That’s why military and anti-drug cooperation always rank first. China would simply like to pursue a more balanced agenda for cooperation based on the principle of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation.
Yet it should also be noted that both sides acknowledge the limits of cooperation and don’t expect too much out of it. Scott Kennedy, a CSIS expert, describes the state of this relationship as a new normal of “competition without conflict.” On the Chinese side, mistrust and suspicion toward the U.S. remains high.
Second, structural problems will remain thorny and difficult to deal with into the foreseeable future. Minister Liu made it clear that the status of Taiwan is a red line for China, while the U.S. continues to boost Taiwan’s de facto independence politically, militarily and economically. China also strongly opposes America’s unilateral sanctions aimed at curbing China’s high-tech development. Provocative U.S. actions in the guise of the Indio-Pacific Strategy further erode China’s trust.
Third, cooperation is of mainly symbolic significance when it lacks depth and scope. With the U.S. election drawing nearer, it’s hard to predict how long this sort of faux momentum will be maintained, or at least avoid being compromised by U.S. domestic politics during the political season.
Resuming genuine cooperation is the first step for any party that wants to pursue a stable and healthy relationship with others in the long-run. As long as the two sides further carry out the spirit enshrined in the so-called San Francisco Vision — and provided they continue to broaden and deepen cooperation across more fields, foster a correct understanding of each other and jointly shoulder the responsibilities of major powers — a brighter future will be ensured for the good of not only the two sides but of the world as a whole.