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Foreign Policy

China-U.S. Relations Underpinned by Cooperation

Sep 21 , 2015
  • Wu Zhenglong

    Senior Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

Chinese President XI Jinping will pay a state visit to the US at the invitation of President Obama. This is another historic meeting between the two heads of state after the Sunnylands meeting in California, US and the Yingtai meeting in Beijing, China.

The current dynamics of China-US relations are not very positive. Both the academic and government circles lean towards negative thinking on China-US relations. “Congagement” (containment and engagement) has been a consistent foreign policy towards China by eight successive presidents since Richard Nixon, yet the outcome has been a source of frustration for the academic circle.

There are two US overarching goals behind the rationale, neither of which seemed to be realized. First, engagement was meant to accelerate China’s opening up and thus catalyze its “political liberalisation” concomitantly. Second, to integrate China into the US-led international system and have it act as a follower.

If anything, after 40 years of development, China embarked on a different path. The policymaking and academic circles in the US are making a compelling case for adjustment in US policy towards China, which begets some concern about where China-US relations are heading.

Since the beginning of this year, China and the US have been at loggerheads over the South China Sea situation and cybersecurity. The US has been increasing pressure on China on issues such as China’s reclamation moves in the South China Sea, and the so-called cyber attacks emanating from China, culminating in threatening sanctions against businesses and individuals from China for espionage behaviors. In the background is a major event unfolding—the 2016 presidential election campaign. Some contenders launch into China bashing for grandstanding effect, even going so far as to make uncalled for remarks about the upcoming visit by President XI, leading to the perceived “endgame” of China-US relations.

Under such circumstances, the upcoming visit is all the more important as it will serve as a bellwether that will help put bilateral ties on an even keel again.

The author is of the view that it is ill-advised to exaggerate the differences between the two countries at the expense of their commonalities. On account of both conventional and non-conventional security, China and the US are far from approaching a showdown.

Per contra, cooperation remains the main theme of China-US relations. True,t some thorny issues made the headlines, yet we should not lose sight of the overall picture. China and the US engage in close collaboration on a host of issues of global significance, spanning political and economic governance, the Iranian nuclear issue, the North Korean nuclear issue, climate change, and anti-terrorism. Global challenges called for global solutions. Though the sole super power in the world today, the US cannot run all global affairs alone, and China as the second-biggest economy, is increasingly indispensable in global affairs.

Experience has shown that economic and trade ties are the ballast for China-US relations. With two-way trade topping $550 billion, China and the US are each other’s second-biggest trading partners. As such, the two countries’ economic interests are highly intertwined, so much so that they practically rise and fall together. In this sense, economic and trade ties are vital in a stable bilateral relationship between China and the US.

With another round of presidential-election debate approaching, the congagement policy will gain more traction with the containment part becoming more prominent. There will be more friction, but major conflicts are an off-chance. The US has been suffering from “war fatigue” since the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, and war aversion has become a dominant theme in public opinion. Now even if the flesh is willing, the spirit is weak. Foreign policies on Iraq, Syria, and Ukraine all suggest that the US is trying hard to avoid being involved militarily. Even its attack against ISIL is of token magnitude; still less likely would be a full-blown conflict with China on the South China Sea. As bilateral ties become more mature, the two countries are better positioned to manage their differences.

On balance, common interests outweigh differences. As long as both sides are committed to cooperation, accommodate each other’s core interests, and manage differences to avoid disrupting bilateral relations, China-US relations will not get out of control, and the foundation for bilateral ties will remain solid.

Both sides attach great importance to the upcoming visit by President Xi, and are working in close collaboration to ensure its success. We have every reason to believe that the summit between the two heads of state will inject new momentum into China-US relations.

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