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Foreign Policy

China-U.S. Strategic Collaboration: Four Cases and Their Lessons

Jan 16, 2021
  • Chen Dongxiao

    President, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies


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The China-U.S. relationship has entered a new phase of coopetition. A fundamental shift in Washington’s China policy under President Trump’s watch in the past four years has intensified strategic competition to the extent of nearly eliminating any possibility of cooperation. Most observers on both sides agree that as Washington resorts to a policy of “containment and suppression,” competition will be the defining feature of the bilateral relationship for the foreseeable future and a reversion to the status quo ante is impossible even with a centrist Joe Biden sitting in the Oval Office. It follows from this argument that the focus of China-U.S. diplomacy in the years to come should be on risk control, crisis management, and getting around the Thucydides's Trap.

At the same time, some analysts also observe that even if growing strategic competition seems inescapable, there are plenty of shared interests and common concerns that warrant closer coordination between the two superpowers. In an increasingly fragmented and fragile world threatened by proliferating transnational risks and challenges, effective cooperation between China and the United States—two pivotal players with systematic influence—will be the anchor of global peace, stability, and sustainable development. A consequential question before us is, whether and how, amid rising strategic tensions, Beijing and Washington can keep a modicum of goodwill to strengthen coordination in the service of advancing shared interests and addressing common challenges at the bilateral, regional, and global levels.

It is our belief that on the threshold of a new world order and a new China-U.S. reality, if we have not seen a clear path ahead for the bilateral ties, we might as well turn to history for some guide. In uncharted waters, a look back on where we started and how far we have traveled may help us choose the right direction going forward. The most pressing issue, as we see it, is how to restart the engine of cooperation under a Biden presidency after almost all the available avenues of coordination have been shut down by the Trump administration. Beijing and Washington may have calibrated their strategic objectives and developed new perceptions of each other as they find themselves in a new balance of power and profoundly-changed circumstances, but some of the success stories of bilateral strategic collaboration over the past forty years since normalization still hold important lessons, and a world of growing uncertainty has rendered those lessons even more relevant for today’s bilateral relationship.

We, a study group at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, have picked four such cases, namely, strategic collaboration against Soviet expansionism (1979-1989); China’s WTO accession and China-U.S. joint promotion of economic globalization; policy coordination in the 2008 global financial crisis; and bilateral climate cooperation in the lead-up to the Paris climate agreement. We reexamine the processes, effectiveness, and effects of these four instances of strategic cooperation, and find valuable lessons for today’s policymakers as follows.

First, political leaders must stand tall and bear a big picture in mind. A starting point for assessing the strategic value of China-U.S. collaboration is the recognition that both Beijing and Washington are indispensable anchors against global systematic risks and crises. Whether it was in the 1980s when Beijing and Washington joined forces to push back against Soviet expansion in Southeast Asia and Afghanistan; or in 2008-2009 when two leading economies worked together to contain the repercussions of a U.S.-originated global financial crisis and revamp the international economic and financial regimes; or during the second term of the Obama administration when China and the United States joined hands in pushing through the monumental Paris climate deal, it was the close strategic collaboration between Washington and Beijing that helped defuse all these major world crises. Although Beijing had not become Washington’s peer in these instances in terms of national capabilities, it proved it had acquired the systematic influence of a pivotal player.

The zero-sum mentality is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of China-U.S. coordination—the essential element in any solutions to major international risks and crises with systematic implications. Without effective China-U.S. collaboration, coordinated international response to major crises will be delayed. A confrontational China-U.S. relationship itself will be a major systematic crisis and very likely lead to the total collapse of international order. In a world increasingly threatened by emerging disruptive technologies, accelerating climate change, zoonotic diseases, and resource stress, the strategic value of China-U.S. collaboration must be assessed from the perspective of maintaining international stability and preventing systematic crises. Moreover, Beijing’s growing capabilities and rising international status will put it in a better position to contribute to the alleviation and resolution of systematic economic, development, environmental, and pubic health crises. China-U.S. collaboration, from a global perspective, is more than a matter of choice; it is a strategic imperative.

Second, setting realistic and attainable goals and rightsizing expectations about each other to avoid dramatic fluctuations in bilateral relations. Wishful thinking about the direction of bilateral relations will only raise false hopes and reinforce senses of frustration and disillusionment. Rather than accusations of “strategic deception” traded against each other, what Washington and Beijing need are reasonable interpretations of one another’s strategic intentions and development trajectories, accurate and objective analyses of disputes and their root causes, and habits of cooperation and confidence-building measures. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, China and the United States joined forces to counter Soviet military adventurism out of strategic and security concerns. But Beijing had never harbored the illusion that this good-faith security collaboration would translate into Washington’s respect for and accommodation of China’s other core interests and concerns. In fact, as Beijing had learned from Washington’s oscillation on the Taiwan issue, there had been and would continue to be significant disputes over matters deemed as Beijing’s core interests, and China had no other viable option than an independent foreign policy even as it aligned with the United States against the Soviets.

Beijing has met Washington’s two-pronged policy (engagement plus balancing) with its own hedging strategy. Even as Beijing believes that increased dialogue and exchange will help both find more shared interests and common responsibilities in an increasingly fractured world, it remains clear-eyed about their vastly different political systems and significant disagreements over matters that concern China’s core interests. As Beijing sees it, these differences and disagreements do not preclude closer China-U.S. cooperation that could help advance shared interests and fulfill common responsibilities. But Washington should not expect that closer coordination will come at the expense of China’s core interests. The recent forty years of China-U.S. history have shown that, a clear-eyed understanding of the other side’s strategic intentions and capabilities and a balanced approach to cooperation and competition are the best guarantees against great fluctuations in bilateral ties.

Third, top leaders’ strategic determination and judgement are crucial. Great power collaboration has never been easy, and those between so vastly different superpowers like China and the United States have been historically rare. Even though shared interests and common challenges warrant strategic cooperation, major domestic and international obstacles, such as distinct political institutions, disparate priorities, partisan gridlocks, and interest group politics, still remain. As China-U.S. history has proven, strategic collaboration can be delayed and even derailed if leaders on both sides cannot stand their ground against all odds and make tough, decisive choices at critical moments.

Even as they were grappling with the aftermaths of the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999, which Beijing condemned as an act of barbarity, the cool-headed Chinese and American leaders decided to move forward with the negotiations on China’s WTO accession, knowing that Beijing’s membership would serve their mutual interests. It was both sides’ determination not to let this tragic accident send the whole relationship into free fall and follow-up joint actions to relax the political tensions that helped salvage the relationship at a crisis moment.

In the lead-up to the Paris climate agreement, it was the top leaders’ robust personal diplomacy and political commitments that lubricated their domestic bureaucratic machines for coordinated climate action. In China, achieving “ecological civilization” was designated as a core mission of the Communist Party at its 18th national congress in late 2012, and specific, quantifiable reduction and mitigation targets were later assigned to local and provincial authorities to ensure vigorous environmental and energy reforms across the country. In the United States, President Obama began to take more forceful action in his second term, signing the President’s Climate Action Plan in June 2013 to bypass Congress to advance environmental policy reforms; instructing the Environmental Protection Agency to launch the Clean Power Plan in 2014; and in 2015 overruling with a presidential decree Congressional resolutions that would have undermined the Clean Power Plan and diluted the EPA’s emissions standards on new fossil-fuel power plants. What consummated the historic Paris climate deal was the strong determination and decisive actions of the top leaders in China and the United States.

Fourth, regular communication and confidence building between the foreign policy teams on both sides are essential for translating top leaders’ consensus and commitments into concrete measures and real results. Political leaders’ global perspectives and strategic determination are necessary but not sufficient conditions for progress in bilateral coordination. Serious political commitments have to be strictly implemented by the foreign policy teams, whose regular communication will help both sides reach better mutual understanding and identify more areas of common interest. Effective communication depends on two conditions. First, principled flexibility in equal dialogues. Negotiation entails compromise and concession. While sticking to their principles on core national interests, both Beijing and Washington should allow tactical flexibility to achieve a common goal. For example, Beijing’ major concessions in the negotiations over its WTO membership were acknowledged and appreciated by the then U.S. trade representative, who urged the government in Washington to seize the opportunity to complete the deal. Second, building trust and confidence through concrete programs to rally strong domestic support.

Pragmatic exchanges on specific environmental and climate issues strengthened the China-U.S. bonds of cooperation and mutual trust. Beijing and Washington kick-started a number of cooperation projects on clean coal, electric vehicles, and renewable energy after the first round of the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue in 2009. The China-U.S. Climate Change Working Group established in 2013 proposed key cooperative initiatives covering automobile emission reduction, smart grid, carbon capture, architectural and industrial energy efficiency, data collection, forestry, low-carbon cities, and industrial boiler energy efficiency. By translating climate issues into specific projects, the United States was able to bypass legislative deadlocks in Congress and gave full play to the capabilities and advantages of the nongovernmental and business sectors as well as local and specialized institutions. By aligning climate cooperation with national and local government’s goals of energy conservation and environmental governance, China mobilized environment authorities and other stakeholders to engage in cooperation as well as capacity building. Bilateral exchanges and communications conducted around specific programs and initiatives enabled Chinese and American officials in charge of environmental, energy, and transportation policies to increase understanding and build trust and thus facilitated consensus building between top policymakers on climate cooperation.

Fifth, creating a pattern where international commitments and domestic reforms reinforce each other. At difficult times during the WTO negotiations, in order to win the support of domestic WTO opponents, Chinese Vice Premier Li Lanqing requested senior officials from government agencies and business executives from state-owned enterprises that had reservations about Beijing’s potential WTO membership to personally participate in the negotiations and engage with the foreign interlocutors on major sticking points. Fact-to-face meetings with foreigners helped these domestic stakeholders move beyond their departmental and sectoral interests and adopt a national or even international perspective. In the 19 years since the WTO accession, in order to integrate itself into the world economy, China has deepened domestic reforms in the theoretical, perceptional, and institutional areas to live up to WTO rules and standards. More than 2,300 laws, regulations, and sectoral rules at the central governmental level and above 190,000 local policies and regulations have been amended, revised, and updated, covering trade, investment, and intellectual property protection. More and more Chinese enterprises have been involved in global industrial and value chains and are competing with multinational corporations in the world market. The general public has also accepted the concept of globalization as in line with international standards, and the society as a whole is more rule-conscious. What’s more, the Chinese government has also worked hard to implement reemployment projects for those laid-off workers and land-losing farmers, establish and improve social security programs, and launch various initiatives on targeted poverty alleviation and pollution prevention and control, thereby preventing and resolving major risks brought by China’s entry into the WTO. What China has learned from its own experience is that the downsides of globalization can only be addressed through more vigorous domestic reforms and further opening up. Scapegoating and blame-shifting will only make matters worse.

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