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Foreign Policy

Chinese and U.S. Experts Reflect on Future Relations

Feb 25, 2021

Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in a virtual multi-day dialogue on Sino-U.S. relations. As in the past, several dozen Chinese, U.S., and other international experts, including many former officials, attended this Track II dialogue. Notwithstanding the new president in Washington, many experts believed that it would prove difficult to substantially ameliorate relations anytime soon, especially given the bipartisan consensus in Washington that China presents the gravest long-term challenge to the United States. 

In terms of characterizing the current Sino-American relationship, participants unsurprisingly assessed bilateral ties as very poor. One Chinese expert labeled relations as being the worst in decades. There was mutual concern that neither side has articulated a convincing rationale for why the two countries should cooperate rather than compete.

In this regard, an extensive debate occurred over the extent to which the contemporary China-U.S. confrontation resembles the Cold War conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. Experts identified some clear similarities: the weighty and often conflicting global influence of the PRC and the United States; the bipolar distribution of power in many domains; and the Sino-U.S. competition for the allegiance of other countries. Participants also identified some major differences between the Cold War era and current world politics: the advent of novel military relevant technologies such as cyber weapons; China’s lack of ideological allies or proxy military partners; the unprecedentedly high levels of Sino-American economic interdependence and societal connections; and the important if declining U.S. military advantages over the PLA. 

Nonetheless, there was general consensus that Chinese leaders, having endured both the COVID-19 pandemic and the hostility of the Trump administration, believe they enjoy a stronger position today than even a few years ago. Many of the U.S. experts believe that China aims to overtake and displace the United States as the world’s dominant economic power, based on consolidating the Belt and Road Initiative as the foundation for a future Sino-centric global order. They also see Beijing as striving for military preponderance regarding Taiwan, the South China Sea, and the East China Sea. In other regions, the PRC aims to diminish the credibility of U.S. power and influence sufficiently to persuade other states to bandwagon with Beijing rather than Washington, as Russia is already doing. 

A related debate addressed the extent and nature of U.S.-PRC ideological competition. Though neither government appears to actively aim to change the other’s political system, the experts believe that many Chinese and U.S. leaders feel threatened by the other’s values and policies. The PRC opposes the U.S. promotion of universal, liberal democratic values, including freedom of speech on the Internet and freedom to protest. Meanwhile, Americans fear that China intends to change institutions and norms to build a more hierarchical , authoritarian international structure. 

The Biden administration will strive to strengthen the liberal rules-based international order. Analysts expect to see rising tensions as Beijing and Washington compete to define principles for the weakly regulated fields of cyberspace , big data, cloud computing, artificial intelligence, and other emerging domains. The new U.S. administration will seek to strengthen U.S. alliances and mobilize U.S. partners in disputes with China, which will likely constrain U.S. willingness to make concessions to China opposed by these countries. 

PRC interlocutors proposed that Biden withdraw Trump administration sanctions on China to create a clean slate that would allow new initiatives to gain momentum within the PRC bureaucracy. They warned that Trump-era sanctions should not be used as a bargaining chip by the Biden administration, which Beijing would view negatively.

Participants agreed that China has been poorly understood in the United States. American speakers blamed the PRC’s lack of transparency, while Chinese representatives perceived inadequate American empathy and knowledge about their country. Neither the Chinese nor the U.S. information operations against each other’s populations appear successful given the increasingly negative views of Chinese and Americans toward the other country.  

There was much deliberation over which country should begin the process of rebuilding trust and cooperation—and in which domains (economic, political, or security) to focus. It was suggested that perhaps China take the initiative in the economic domain while Washington could make an opening gesture in the political or security field. The two sides could then try to integrate these reciprocal but parallel initiatives, although they might need to keep some degree of compartmentalization between them. 

Some Chinese analysts recommended waiting until the new U.S. administration completed its policy reviews and addressed pressing internal issues. Though American participants expected the Biden administration would first focus overwhelmingly on domestic recovery issues, several U.S. experts urged against delaying a Sino-American dialogue on urgent matters. They noted that the Biden team was eager to pursue new foreign policy initiatives and that next year the November congressional elections would challenge that desire. Chinese and American experts acknowledged that the U.S. political environment often makes it difficult for U.S. leaders to execute positive diplomatic moves toward Beijing without being accused of being soft on China. PRC participants claimed that past Chinese gestures to overcome strained relations have resonated poorly within the U.S. political context and that PRC companies, such as Huawei, have spent millions of dollars in feckless attempts to address the commercial concerns of the U.S. authorities.  

Both Chinese and Americans suggested that releasing Westerners detained in China and Chinese nationals detained in the West would send positive signals. Either or both countries could also consider sending someone to each other’s capitals for quiet conceptual talks on a framework for future exchanges. But these talks should be made public at an early point before concerns build among domestic actors in the United States and third countries over the lack of transparency. Whatever the public-private mix, several U.S. interlocutors warned that any dialogue had to produce concrete results. The previous two U.S. administrations lost interest in direct talks after the Obama and Trump teams concluded they yielded only nice talk but little action. 

Unlike in the economic and an ideological realm, Americans see bilateral security tensions as deriving less from a direct PLA threat to the U.S. homeland but rather how Beijing has behaved aggressively toward U.S. partners in the Indo-Pacific region. The U.S. commitment to defend allies from a PLA attack would be the most likely path toward a China-U.S. war. There were accordingly suggestions that all countries look for measures to reduce military maritime patrols in the disputed waters off China’s coast—namely, in the East and South China Seas as well as the Taiwan Straits. In the long term, experts saw value in establishing a hotline between Chinese and U.S. commanders. 

Both Chinese and American scholars suggested that climate change might be a good subject to explore cooperative initiatives. One American noted that Secretary John Kerry, the new U.S. climate czar, would see dealing with China a priority. A PRC expert suggested that climate change could serve as an ice breaker for further collaboration, like Ping-Pong did in the early 1970s. Some experts warned that the management of climate change could, like the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, become another front of strategic competition between Beijing and Washington.

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