For years, China-U.S. relations has featured both competition and cooperation. Based on a belief that engagement would help shape China’s rise in the direction of America’s interests, successive U.S. governments before the election of Donald Trump had considered cooperation a very important side of coin. However, U.S. assessment of China’s rise and how it may affect the predominant U.S. role in the world underwent a paradigm shift as early as the second term of the Obama administration.
When Trump took office, the official policy of all-around competition with China was settled. Since then, the U.S. has pursued a whole-government approach, with China as its foremost opponent. And then, with the pandemic, the bilateral relationship took a turn for the worse. Under Trump’s reign, all cooperative mechanisms that had been set up before were halted, leaving only the economic track open — a trade war. In other words, engagement was no longer about preserving the stability and good wishes for the bilateral relationship. It was reduced to a vehicle to force China to yield to U.S. interests.
President Joe Biden’s tone toward China is a little different, and the general atmosphere has improved a bit.
First, U.S. officials, such as National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and the National Security Council’s Indo-Pacific coordinator Kurt Campbell, have mentioned the concept of “competitive coexistence” with China several times. Biden also expressed that the U.S. would not like to pursue a cold war with China, and said the U.S. military aims at deterring rather engaging in war.
Second, this administration tends to focus on U.S.-China competition in the economic and high-tech arena. Biden’s middle-class foreign policy also means he identifies U.S.-China competition as a long-term proposition, which may consume several decades, and the side with far superior national strength may ultimately win, implying this government does not believe in any prompt victory overnight based on maximum pressure.
Third, under the “3C” policy put forward by the Biden administration, the U.S. will choose to confront, compete and cooperate simultaneously with China, based on specific situations and with the premise of serving U.S. interests. The U.S. especially refers to the climate change, North Korea, Iran and Afghanistan issues as possible areas for cooperation.
However, this does not mean one can assume that solid cooperation will be doomed in the days to come.
First, the nature of the bilateral relationship is totally different from previous years.
On one hand, China is adamant about safeguarding its core national interests. In recent years, the government has also emphasized the importance of a holistic approach to national security, the content and scope of which has been extended to 16 spheres.
On the other hand, while all these involve the legal right of China to develop and expand its interests in a more direct way, it has made the U.S. even more worried and concerned. This negative cycle of cognition and response limits the room for possible cooperation since, in most areas, there are conflicting interests.
Second, both have preconditioned their cooperation on the other’s compromises. The U.S. has said its pattern would be one of “cooperation from a position of strength,” which means it will rely on coalitions and other coercive means to force China into a corner for cooperation. Further, even if China cooperates, it should not bargain for the removal of any U.S. deterrence efforts, such as in the Indo-Pacific or around Taiwan.
Whereas China sticks to the principle that cooperation is only possible without U.S. bullying, and further puts forward “three bottom lines” and “two lists” as the basis for cooperation — including that the U.S. not challenge, slander or even attempt to subvert the path and system of socialism with Chinese characteristics; not attempt to obstruct or interrupt China’s development process; and not infringe upon China’s state sovereignty or damage China’s territorial integrity. It is not rational that the U.S. thinks these parameters take away its bargaining chips in negotiations with China.
Third, in specific areas where the countries’ interests overlap, there are also conflicting interests. For example, with climate change, although both put this at the top of each other’s national agenda, the U.S. still lacks trust in China’s intentions and criticizes China to weaponize the issue. On North Korea, the U.S. is suspicious about Sino-DPRK ties, although it lacks the incentive to engage with North Korea seriously itself.
With such trends continuing in the years to come on both sides, the bilateral relationship may worsen without the necessary cooperation to at least manage potential conflicts rather than let them run out of control. Maybe the two sides should learn to deal with each other more realistically. The world, let alone China and the U.S. themselves, cannot endure the cost of conflict and confrontation for too long. Some of the Cold War experience, though it may not be an exact parallel, can be instructive — that is, some type of cooperation pattern should be established to avoid being dragged into a lose-lose situation.
This is not limited to enhancement of a crisis management system between militaries in the sea and air, but suggests a much broader area of strategic stability, including economic management, norms and regulations — such as in space, the deep sea, the Arctic and the high-tech and cyber domains. Otherwise, the world may suffer from a divided power configuration in which war, whether hot or cold, will hang over us like the Sword of Damocles.