China-US relations today can be best understood through three major areas:
First, the current state of China-US competition.
The Trump administration has introduced new policies towards China, identifying it as a revisionist power and main strategic competitor, further tilting the already imbalanced “coopetition” between the two countries. Friction used to occur from time to time in individual areas such as security and human rights — now competition has expanded to all areas and appears likely to extend indefinitely.
There are three reasons that explain rising China-US competition.
The first is the huge change in the balance of power, the backdrop against which the US is very concerned with China’s moves to safeguard its sovereignty in the Pacific and advance the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), finding these efforts a serious challenge to its predominance.
The second is the rise of de-globalization. The Trump administration has exercised unilateralism and trade protectionism in line with its ‘America first’ philosophy, turning economic and trade relations, the long-term ballast of China-US ties, into major points of friction. The result is seriously intensifying mutual competition.
Changes in domestic politics and foreign affairs in both countries constitute the third reason. The US has deep doubts over China’s internal and external policy readjustments in recent years. Meanwhile, rising populism and serious political and social divisions inside the US have pushed the country towards finding a strategic rival to rally the various forces at home.
Besides this incentive, the decreasing threat of global terrorism and a transformed situation across the Taiwan Strait have combined to reduce cooperation and increase friction between the two sides.
Nonetheless, it must be pointed out that the current China-US competition remains clearly different from the US-Soviet competition during the Cold War. The US and the USSR were enemies, competing for global hegemony. Their markets were completely separate from each other and the two military blocs confronted each other. In comparison, although there is a rising competition today, China and the US still have enormous common interests, especially in economic cooperation and global governance. Moreover, China seeks partnerships in the world instead of alliances and has no intention of changing the existing international order or contending for hegemony against the US.
In this sense, rising competition will not necessarily lead to conflict or confrontation. Whether the competition will be primarily benign or vicious, and whether the two countries will continue co-existing peacefully or move towards hostility, will depend on their interactions and strategic choices.
Second, the prospects for China-US competition.
At this moment, several potential scenarios could plausibly emerge from the current competition. I will enumerate three of these.
The first scenario is a sustained increase in friction, gradually leading to a vicious, all-encompassing competition or even a new cold war. In the second scenario, the two sides may, through fierce yet controllable frictions and collisions, gradually find approaches toward benign competition and stabilized bilateral relations.
I would argue that the possibility for the first scenario is fairly small but cannot be completely ruled out. This dangerous prospect may become real through three possible paths.
The first is the failure of trade negotiations and prolonged trade war (including high-tech war), leading to decoupling of China-US ties in economic and technological development.
The second is the outbreak of a military security crisis or even a limited military conflict across the Taiwan Strait.
And the third is a major security crisis or small-scale military conflict caused by miscalculation or accidental discharge of fire in the South China Sea.
Confrontation or cold war would not only be disastrous for the two countries but would also greatly disrupt the world order. Global economic interdependence would be seriously damaged; the Asia-Pacific region would see a fierce arms race; global governance would be beset with difficulties, and the United Nations would again become a venue of major power confrontation.
However, the second course of development — occasional friction leading to renewed cooperation—is more likely to happen for the following reasons:
1. China has not and will never define its relationship with the US as one of strategic competition. Chinese leaders have made it very clear that, in the new bilateral context, China will make long-term unswerving efforts to develop a ‘coordinated, cooperative and stable’ China-US relationship. It takes two to make a quarrel, so this declaration is critical.
2. Positive progress has been made in China-US trade negotiations and an agreement is likely soon. Although it may not resolve all economic and trade differences, the agreement will represent an important step towards the correct direction of resolving differences through dialogue. More importantly, there is increasing agreement that the best response to a trade war is deepened reform and opening up.
3. Mil-to-mil dialogue continues. The joint staff dialogue postponed last year may be reactivated. This is a very important means for the two sides to prevent and control any military security crisis.
4. Although people-to-people exchanges have been adversely affected, most think tank dialogues, cultural, and academic exchanges (and track 2 and track 1.5 dialogues) continue today.
5. The two countries still have sound cooperation on denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. China continues to implement the UN Security Council’s sanction resolutions and actively encourages the DPRK and the US to make substantive progress in their dialogue.
6. Over the past three years, China has actively maintained security and stability in its surrounding areas and markedly improved relations with many neighbors with whom it has disputes. The possibility of China and the US entering into a military crisis caused by a third-party factor has significantly decreased.
7. Other countries in the world, including US allies, do not want to choose sides between China and the US—they hope to avoid confrontation or conflict between the two countries.
Quite predictably, if China-US relations move towards the first scenario of widening divisions and destructive conflict, US predominance will struggle to sustain itself, while the rise of China will be seriously obstructed. In other words, both countries will suffer great losses. On the other hand, if they move towards the second scenario of strengthened and reformed cooperation, US predominance may be sustained for a fairly long time but not indefinitely. Whether the world order will be G2 or G1 is not important. It is important to form a new win-win model of cooperative major country relations and international relations, which will be truly beneficial for the common prosperity and development of all countries.
Third, how China and the US can avoid the Thucydides Trap and construct a peaceful relationship.
Besides the efforts made by China I have mentioned, there are four other measures for both countries to take to promote constructive relations.
1. In a situation of intensified competition, the two countries should try their best to maintain dialogue and cooperation — non-traditional security cooperation in particular.
2. In the economic and high-tech fields, decoupling must not occur, let alone confrontation. Efforts should be made to conduct competition in a healthy manner, on the basis of international law and the market rules.
3. The two sides must have a full recognition of the rising security risk in China-US relations, and prioritize stable competition and crisis management for the foreseeable future.
4. China and the US should jointly maintain, strengthen, and improve international multilateral cooperation mechanisms and make efforts to sustain the trend towards globalization while addressing its negative aspects.
Meanwhile, the world community should actively facilitate and support China and the US to overcome their difficulties and return to stability in developing their relationship.