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Foreign Policy

Cooperation, Competition or Confrontation?

Feb 04, 2020
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Academic Committee Member at Institute for Global Cooperation and Understanding, Peking University

I.State of China-U.S. relations

Since late 2017, the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has issued a series of strategic reports identifying China as its primary “strategic rival” and accusing it of posing an all-out challenge to the global and regional order and to U.S. national interests and values. The United States Congress has passed more than 10 bills concerning China, including Taiwan-related ones. The U.S. policy toward China has undergone a qualitative change.

Under its new China strategies, the U.S. has comprehensively intensified actions to suppress the country over the past two years. China has been forced to take countermeasures. Competition and friction have rapidly expanded to all areas. By 2019, major dialogues and cooperation between the two governments had basically ground to a halt, personnel exchanges had become increasingly difficult, and the level of confidence had dropped sharply, bringing the overall relationship to a 40-year low.

At present, the prominent “trade war” and “science and technology war” have not only brought serious harm to the two countries but also serious impacts and damage to regional and global industrial and value chains. The U.S. has adopted such means as a tariff war, economic sanctions, investment restrictions and efforts to establish new rules to exclude China. Some forces even advocate “decoupling” from China in economy, trade and technology.

These erroneous practices have been increasingly criticized and opposed, even in the U.S. Of course, China is willing to respond to legitimate elements in American demands through dialogue and greater reform and opening-up. Over the past year, China has undertaken a series of measures, including revising its negative list, implementing a new foreign investment law and continuously lowering tariffs.

After arduous and protracted negotiations, the phase one economic and trade agreement was reached and formally signed in Washington on Jan. 15. It marks a new starting point for the two sides to resolve disputes through dialogue and is conducive to easing economic and trade frictions. Admittedly, there is still a long way to go, and future negotiations will be even more difficult. Be prepared for that.

Compared with the trade war, the science and technology war involves even greater risks, though American suppression is also more difficult to carry out in these fields.

In response to the so-called security threat from Huawei, the U.S. declared a state of emergency to sanction the Chinese high-tech company, even telling its allies not to cooperate with Huawei.

There is a serious risk of a partial or substantial decoupling in the technology field. Many in the U.S. believe that such a decoupling will only accelerate innovation within China, including both open innovation and indigenous innovation, which will run counter to America’s desire to hinder Chinese scientific and technological advancement.
But the biggest risks now and in the future are in the security realm, including the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea. In addition to deeper policy differences, gaming in the military field has intensified, with increasing encounters between military aircraft and warships in those waters.

Since the summer of 2018, it has become routine for U.S. warships to pass through the Taiwan Strait. The many Taiwan-related bills in the U.S. Congress seriously violate the one-China principle and America’s own one-China policy. The proposed joint military exercises with Taiwan, exchanges of warship port calls, resumption of contacts between officials at all levels and normalization of arms sales to Taiwan, if implemented, will generate huge waves.

In the past three years, the U.S. Navy has conducted more so-called freedom of navigation operations near Chinese islands and reefs in the South China Sea than the total number of such operations conducted in the eight years of the Obama administration, and the specific actions in those operations have become increasingly provocative. In addition, both sides have been holding large-scale military exercises in the South China Sea, which has further intensified the tense standoff there.

However, it should also be noted that, so far, there has been no crisis between China and the United States in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea, and both militaries have stressed in the gaming process the need to strengthen risk and crisis management. In their several meetings, the countries’ defense ministers have agreed that efforts should be made to make military-to-military relations a stabilizer for the overall relationship. This is not reassuring enough. The mil-to-mil relationship, long the weakest link in China-U.S. relations, is now a stabilizer.

This is just one manifestation of the very significant setback in the overall relationship. Both sides recognize that in the face of an overall deterioration, if the mil-to-mil relationship also gets out of control, they may well be heading for the worst scenario of conflict and war. Neither side appears to want that.

Moreover, there remains a long list of frictions and risks in the security field, such as the growing competition in cyberspace and outer space, the widening differences on international nuclear arms control and disarmament, and the serious mutual suspicions on the development of smart weapons.

On the other hand, security cooperation between the two sides has declined markedly in recent years, mainly due to the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and Iranian nuclear deal and the reduced priorities given to counterterrorism and nuclear security in the U.S. policy agenda. Under such circumstances, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula has become the only piece of security cooperation between China and the U.S.

In short, China-U.S. relations have seriously deteriorated. Although not yet in conflict or confrontation, the balance of their “coopetition” has tilted sharply. Frictions that once occurred in the fields of security and human rights have now spilled into more areas and shown signs of intensification and protraction.

II. Main reasons for the rise of competition and the deterioration of relations

1. The balance of power between the two sides has changed considerably. This is the fundamental reason. With extreme anxiety, the U.S. side worries about being overtaken by China and losing its leadership position in the world.

2. Caught in the tide of deglobalization, the U.S. has been addressing the economic and technological competition with China the wrong way — a trade war, a technology war and unilateral actions. China-U.S. economic and trade ties, the long-standing ballast stone of bilateral relations, have turned into major points of friction. Competition is greatly intensified. It’s like a fuse burning toward conflict.

3. Important changes have taken place in the foreign policies and internal affairs of both countries. As China increases its actions to defend its rights and interests in surrounding areas, the U.S. has responded strongly. The “America first” notion and unilateral conduct of the U.S. has seriously damaged the two countries’ cooperation. In particular, domestic political changes in both countries have led to the resurfacing of ideological frictions. Both are raising the level of preparedness against each other.

4. In the U.S. both major political parties, the administration and the Congress, as well as the elite, have developed a shared view that regards China as the primary competitor. This includes the American business community, a longtime supporter of China-U.S. relations. But there is not yet agreement on the nature of the competition, how to conduct competition with China or what policies and measures should be taken.

5. The relative decline of global terrorist threats in recent years has made China-U.S. anti-terror cooperation less urgent. The Democratic Progressive Party returned to power in Taiwan in 2016, and the reversal of the situation in the Taiwan Strait has visibly exacerbated China-U.S. political and security frictions.

In short, there are profound reasons for the increased competition and sharp deterioration of relations, and most of these will exist for a long time to come. In this connection, it will be really difficult for China-U.S. relations to improve very soon.

III. The nature and orientation of bilateral relations

At present, competition and friction between China and the United States are obviously on the rise. It can be seen across broad areas. The issues involve not only status and rights but also systems, rules and interests. As competition intensifies, so does the risk of conflict and confrontation. But China-U.S. competition is still very different from the U.S.-Soviet rivalry of the Cold War, and it’s incorrect to think that China-U.S. relations have descended into all-out confrontation of that kind.

During the Cold War, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were enemies, and their rivalry involved two camps and military blocs. In their rivalry for spheres of influence, the two sides competed globally with their respective political systems, ideologies and arms. The two markets were isolated from each other. Although there was no great war between them, proxy wars broke out from time to time. The two sides maintained a terrible peace based on mutually assured destruction. The U.S. and the Soviet Union had no common interests except to avoid all-out war, especially a nuclear catastrophe.

By contrast, in the current China-U.S. competition the two sides are not enemies and there is no confrontation between their extended camps or military blocs. Their economic and technological competition occurs within the same international system. The two countries have a high level of interdependence in economic and technological development.

Although competition in their political systems and ideology is on the rise, it has not yet come to dominate overall relations. Chinese policy focuses on entering into partnerships instead of s. It has no intention to promote its own system and ideology to the rest of the world, nor to engage in an arms race with the U.S., nor to compete with the U.S. for global hegemony.

More important, there are many significant common interests between China and the U.S. Beyond those in the realms of economics, trade and technological cooperation, the two countries are actually in the same boat and must stand together in the face of increasing non-traditional security challenges (terrorism, climate change, international crimes, international infectious diseases, financial crises), as well as security challenges in the global commons (space security, cybersecurity, maritime transport lanes). This is very different from the U.S.-Soviet competition.

All in all, there is indeed fairly intense China-U.S. competition in many areas that will not necessarily lead to conflict or confrontation. Competition is all about the whole China-U.S. relationship. Common interests and cooperation remain an important aspect of this relationship, though they are seriously suppressed at present.

In the future, whether the two countries will engage in benign or malignant competition — that is, to compete while maintaining cooperation to achieve peaceful coexistence, or to move toward decoupling, hostility, a new cold war or even open conflict and war — will largely depend on their strategic choices and interactions.

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