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Foreign Policy

China-U.S. Ties in a Turbulent World

Mar 23, 2022
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

Yang Jiechi, a Politburo member of the Communist Party of China and director of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, met with U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Rome on March 14 to exchange ideas about China-U.S. relations in light of international and regional issues of common concern. Coinciding with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, as well as the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, the meeting drew worldwide attention.

The world has entered a new stage of turbulence with great changes in international conditions and the pandemic amplifying one another. If the coronavirus pandemic were not enough to accelerate changes unseen in a century, the Russia-Ukraine conflict and its consequences have gone further, illustrating the turbulent nature of the current international situation and a global sense of crisis.

On one hand, the Russia-Ukraine conflict — a immensely significant geopolitical incident following the end of the Cold War — is a blow not only to Eurasia but also to the process of globalization, which had already been disrupted. The conflict has directly disrupted the circulation of energy resources, industrial and supply chains and the stability of global financial markets.

On the other hand, Western countries, led by the United States, have formed a high degree of unanimity in response to the conflict, piling multiple layers of unprecedented pressure on Russia. Yet its old-fashioned “group politics” can’t effectively resolve the problem, and is unable to respond to Russia’s corresponding security concerns. Despite its solidarity, the West has once again shown its sense of powerlessness in the face of significant emergencies.

Facing a volatile international situation, the latest round of China-U.S. interaction again demonstrates the pragmatic importance of cooperation in achieving global security and stability. Since the Trump administration shifted America’s China policy from the track of engagement to one of competition, the relationship has been in virtual free fall, with continuous divergences and standoffs over economy and trade, people-to-people exchanges and issues concerning Chinese sovereignty.

Even the pandemic has not changed the momentum. Facing challenges in the dramatically fermenting Russia-Ukraine crisis and its tremendous threat to global security and stability, the U.S. appears strong and tough on the surface, but it cannot ignore the limitations of its own capabilities. Statements about not getting directly involved militarily — for example, not setting up no-fly zones in Ukraine — show those limitations.

Nor can the U.S. itself stay safe from the economic and financial shocks. Rapidly rising oil prices have led to hard-to-control inflation at home, and it’s threatening the Democratic Party’s prospects in the upcoming midterm elections. Maintaining diplomatic engagement and conducting in-depth strategic communication with China have become indispensable for the U.S. as it attempts to cope with the situation.

The U.S. is keenly aware that without China’s cooperation there may be no way to stop the war, and the effectiveness and sustainability of its Russia strategy may be in trouble. Europe also knows that the West can neither resolve the ongoing war nor uproot the in-depth strategic conundrums behind it, and it needs China to play a role in guaranteeing European security. It’s no exaggeration to say China has been pushed to the forefront of the handling of significant global security concerns. Seeking China’s collaboration has become a pragmatic need for the U.S.

Recent interactions have actually broken up America’s plan to frame China-U.S. relations as competitive. Events have created a new reality that requires cooperation, which the U.S. will be forced to face. The administration of President Joe Biden has by and large adopted competition as the main thread of U.S. relations with China. At the same time, it hoped to prevent competition from getting out of control via strategic communication and limited collaboration.

Engaging in competition while being afraid of losing control has become the new duality of today’s U.S. mindset regarding China. However, changes in international conditions, including the Ukraine situation, have disrupted America’s plans. Since the leaders’ November 2021 virtual meeting, the U.S. has encountered a conspicuous need for increased bilateral engagement. It has reached out to China for talks at the foreign-minister level three times since then.

More important, the Chinese side has been on the right side of history in guiding the bilateral relationship, and its warnings and admonitions to the U.S. have begun to bear fruit. Biden has responded positively, for example, to President Xi Jinping’s emphasis on principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation. The latest China-U.S. talks in Rome also presented new opportunities for the two sides to implement the consensus their leaders had reached.

Meanwhile, major changes in international conditions have prompted U.S. strategists to reflect anew. Such questions as how to evaluate the world’s main contradictions, how to view China’s role and assess its positive and negative effects on the U.S. and how to balance the two geopolitical focal points of Europe and Asia in its global strategy will press the U.S. to reassess the mix of competition and cooperation with China.

In the face of increasingly complex and turbulent international conditions, it is no longer empty rhetoric that urges China and the U.S. to properly manage differences, to avoid conflict and confrontation and to enhance dialogue and cooperation. For the well-being of both countries’ peoples and those of all people worldwide and to meet the expectations of the international community, cooperation has assumed increasing real-world importance. China opposes defining China-U.S. relations as competitive and has always been open to cooperation. But it won’t relax its vigilance and struggle against anti-China actions by the U.S.. It will always resolutely safeguard its own interests. 

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