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Foreign Policy

China-U.S. Relations in 2024

Feb 29, 2024

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Notable experts at a seminar hosted by the Charigo Center for International Economic Cooperation (CIEC) on Jan. 30 stimulated discussion on a wide range of hot-button topics, including China-U.S. relations, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the wider landscape of the Middle East, the Russia-Ukraine war, developments in Europe and international economic trends.

The following analysis summarizes those concepts. The experts did not review this summary, and their remarks have been edited for length and clarity. Source names are listed at the end. 

Views on trends in China-U.S. relations 

• Conflicts between Russia and Ukraine, between Palestine and Israel and others on the Korean Peninsula create an imperative for the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to engage in dialogue with China to communicate its policies and explore possibilities of cooperation. The U.S. also needs to stabilize the bilateral relationship and prevent it from spiraling out of control or plunging into direct confrontation. Moreover, new problems and challenges have prompted China to adjust its policies over time. Interactions have intensified between Chinese and U.S. leaders, between senior diplomatic and national security officials and at the wider government level.

• A pattern of strategic competition and confrontation has taken shape between China and the United States. The past few years has witnessed major changes in China-U.S. relations without parallel since the establishment of diplomatic ties in January1979. The relationship is and will continue to be marked by an unparalleled level of strategic complexity. The United States aims to achieve long-term containment of China, while China seeks to promote mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation through dialogue. In terms of development strategies and international geopolitical strategies, the two nations are moving toward competition, confrontation and control. This trajectory is expected to be the new normal in the future.

• The ongoing mix of dialogue, suppression and containment indicates that the Biden administration’s China policy has fully formed. First, the United States is focused on long-term strategic competition with China; second, it has begun to implement a carrot-and-stick strategy against China: On one hand, it intensifies efforts to counter China across various fronts, including technology, trade, data, markets and supply chains; on the other, it has restarted dialogues between top leaders, as well as other bilateral mechanisms. Third, in addition to engaging in communication with China and suppressing its development, the United States continues to contain China at a strategic level by enhancing its comprehensive deterrence and strategic deployment in the Asia-Pacific region in line with its Indo-Pacific Strategy.

• The United States continues to cause trouble for China on issues regarding Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong. In fact, the core issue in their strategic competition today has extended beyond the Taiwan question. China should deal with the Taiwan question in a calm and judicious manner, because it is a bargaining chip employed by the United States to strategically suppress China.

• China-U.S. economic relations have experienced substantial changes, unlike any seen since the launch of reform and opening-up policies. From containment to decoupling and de-risking, fundamental changes have taken place in the U.S. strategy toward China.

• The West, led by the United States, still dominates the world stage. It seems that the more chaotic the world is, the stronger the United States’ global leadership and influence becomes. In fact, the status of the United States has risen.

• The world situation has witnessed recent changes, presenting both China and the United States with new opportunities and challenges. From the perspective of global security, there is a notable trend toward fragmentation. The world is splitting into three major blocs: the Global West, the Global South and the Global East. Some scholars and media outlets in the West claim that Russia, Iran, North Korea and Syria will form a new camp opposing the West, and they even include China in this group.  Their labeling of the Global East demonstrates a continuation of a Cold War mentality.

• China will stay committed to a foreign policy of independence and non-alignment, develop its own networks of friends and identify areas of cooperation, although China-U.S. competition, the Russia-Ukraine war, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other conflicts are expected to continue in 2024, although international relations are interactive and interlinked and will continue to evolve. It remains to be seen whether the world will eventually be divided into several relatively fixed camps and what choices China will make. But it is certain that there will be tremendous changes in the world landscape formed after World War II and the Cold War and that these changes have the potential to impact the United Nations-centered global governance system.

• The global economy is projected to experience a downturn in the medium and long term. The World Bank predicts that global growth will be slow for the next five years and that it’s impossible to predict what will happen after that. The severe uncertainty in the international economy underscores the importance of the stability of China-U.S. relations. The peace and development of the world and the common interests of mankind require stability and regular communication between the two nations.

• The Korean Peninsula may become a new flashpoint in the international arena. Since taking office, the Yoon Suk Yeo administration in South Korea has aligned closely with Washington, and their close military cooperation has intensified North Korea’s sense of urgency. In the context of the Ukrainian war, Russia-North Korea relations have been strengthened, especially in the military and strategic sectors. These developments, along with President Vladimir Putin’s upcoming visit to North Korea, provide ammunition for Washington to argue for enhanced relations with Japan and South Korea, threatening to disrupt the situation in East Asia. This represents another serious challenge for China. 

How should China respond? 

• First, China should recognize that its relations with the United States are now and will continue to be marked by intense competition. Regardless whether China recognizes or accepts it, domestic changes in China and the United States, as well as shifts in their power in the wider world, clearly indicate that China-U.S. relations will not return to their pre-2016 state. Relations are now and will continue to be marked by intense competition. In the foreseeable future, the United States will remain strong and the sole superpower in the world. The Western world, led by Washington, will continue to occupy a dominant position in the world in terms of political discourse, military strength, technological innovation, economic strength and international influence. Competition is the new norm in China-U.S. relations, and is a long-term process that evolves with changes in situations around the world and the formation of a new global landscape. Essentially, China-U.S. competition is about economic and technological prowess, about the stable development of the two countries and about the well-being of their respective people. Therefore, the fundamental issue for the two nations is to manage their own affairs well.

Second, China should develop well-defined diplomatic and security strategies that serve its overall national interests. Specifically:

a) It should continue to adopt an independent and proactive foreign policy. It should not tether its fundamental interests to other countries’ affairs or allow its fundamental interests to be undermined by external factors. China’s fundamental interests revolve around doubling its economy and realizing the rejuvenation of the nation in the near future.

b) It should properly handle the relationship between international morality, historical correctness and proactive action. A country of China’s size needs a foundation of strength in the current international political context. In a world where the concept of power politics exemplified by the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan dominates, the significance of rhetoric is on the decline, and participation and intervention are indispensable.

c) While safeguarding its core interests, China should embrace a pragmatic and flexible foreign policy to expand and strengthen scientific, technological and economic cooperation with Europe, Japan, South Korea and Australia. Strategically, this approach serves to mitigate the intensity of containment efforts from the United States or other hostile forces. Economically, it helps facilitate China’s transformation and development in the long term.

d) It should leverage its “hard power” (military and economic strength) and its “soft power” (flexible diplomacy, people-to-people exchanges and international cultural exchanges). Backed by its hard power, China can harness more of its soft power in more regions and fields around the world.

e) It should establish cross-departmental teams to coordinate all aspects of its relations with the United States.

Third, China should pursue further openness with the world. This means increasing the breadth and depth of its international economic cooperation, improving its domestic business environment in line with the rule of law and enhancing the transparency of its laws, regulations and policies governing international investment and economic cooperation.

Fourth, from the perspectives of China-U.S. rivalry and national security, China should take a long-term look at the landscape of foreign investment, economic cooperation and international trade.

Given current economic circumstances at home and abroad, as well as geopolitics, it is important to consider the role of the United States when evaluating the strategic, security and economic benefits of foreign investment, foreign aid and procurement of critical materials. That is because Washington tends to closely monitor projects strategically significant to China. At the same time, measures and means to safeguard China’s overseas investments must be enhanced. As China’s investments and economic interests grow in volume and significance worldwide, Western politicians and media, notably those in the U.S., have sought to smear and even disrupt key projects under the Belt and Road Initiative, projects to which China attaches great importance, along with certain resource projects. However, China has the ability to protect these assets.

Fifth, China should include vital resources, commodity supply channels and transportation channels critical to national security and industrial security in its strategic considerations of China-U.S. relations.

Sixth, as a result of political and economic shifts in the United States and the tougher U.S. policy stance, China should open up opportunities for two-way people-to-people exchanges and academic and business interactions. It should also provide support for international exchange events initiated by Chinese entities in the science and technology sector. 

SOURCES: The seminar hosted by the Charigo Center for International Economic Cooperation included, among other participants, Ni Feng, researcher from the Institute of American Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Professor Zhu Feng, executive dean of the School of International Relations of Nanjing University; Chen Mingming, former Chinese ambassador to New Zealand and Sweden; Huo Jianguo, former president of the Chinese Academy of International Trade and Economic Cooperation; Professor Zhang Minqian, doctoral supervisor of the School of International Relations; Professor Huang Jing, director of the Center for American Studies at Shanghai International Studies University; and CIEC Director Wang Xin. 

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