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Foreign Policy

Cooperation over competition: Can Osaka be A New Starting Point for China-US Relations?

Jul 22, 2019
  • Li Yan

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

On June 29, President Xi Jinping and President Trump met at the G20 Osaka Summit, a key meeting following the two leaders’ talks in Buenos Aires last December. At Osaka, the leaders decided to restart economic and trade consultations, expressing their full understanding of each other’s respective concerns. The meeting once again showed that the role of top-level leadership is still indispensable when it comes to stabilizing China-US relations and controlling increasingly fierce competition. So, will this meeting serve as a new starting point for reshaping China-US relations?

It is worth noting that some key factors affecting China-US relations have undergone significant changes recently. Public opinion in the United States has shifted in favor of a tough on China strategy. Since Trump took office, he has implemented a comprehensive hardball policy on China, exerting extreme pressure on issues including trade, the South China Sea, and Taiwan. Needless to say, this strategy has caused a sharp deterioration of China-US relations. However, Trump’s tough on China approach has not gone uncriticized at home. In a US Congressional hearing in June, up to 90% of US companies expressed their opposition to new tariffs. In addition, more than 600 large US companies jointly sent a letter to Trump asking to stop trade disputes with China, citing the harms to the interests of US businesses and consumers. On July 3, 100 US experts on Asian issues sent a letter to President Trump expressing concern about the deterioration of China-US relations and pointed out that this situation is not in line with American or global interests. The domestic resistance against the dominating hard-line voices against China over the past few years reflects positive changes in the perception of China within the United States. This cognitive change is bound to directly impact Trump's policy on China.

At the international level, more countries are beginning to worry that the sharp deterioration of China-US relations will harm their interests as well. For example, European countries facing US pressure on the use of Huawei products increasingly feel that their actual interests are being damaged and that the space for policy choices is shrinking. Southeast Asian countries have long been sandwiched between the two major powers of China and the United States, and their fear to take sides between the two countries has risen remarkably. Singaporean leaders publicly expressed hope that China-US relations would remain stable. In a globalized international system, interactions between China and the United States have ripple effects around the world. Hostility between the powers is not only unhelpful to the two countries directly involved, but it also harms the interests of other countries.

International and domestic pushback against such hostilities has in turn brought favorable opportunities for re-stabilizing China-US relations and rebuilding their foundation. It is in this context that the leaders of China and the United States met at Osaka, where they determined to develop relations based on "coordination, cooperation and stability." Obviously, both China and the United States have already felt the important and urgent significance of stabilizing their relationship, and they were right to have taken advantage of the favorable conditions for improving their relationship. Next, however, China and the United States must implement the consensus of top leaders at the working level and take practical measures to create space for stop-loss of China-US relations.

The first priority is to deal with economic and trade issues in a spirit of mutual respect and win-win mutual benefit. For economic and trade consultations, China and the United States should not only pay attention to their own economic interests, but also pay more attention to the impact of such consultations on the China-US interaction model in the long term. To a large extent, the model of economic and trade consultations will provide a useful reference for dealing with future China-US competition in various fields. Mutual benefit and win-win attitudes must replace zero-sum thinking, and dialogue should replace confrontation. Only in this way can we ensure that competition will not automatically lead to conflict.

The second measure should be maintaining positive public opinion of the long-term development of China-US relations. Over the past year or so, hostile public opinion in both China and the US has increased. Specifically, US measures to restrict technology and humanities exchanges have seriously damaged the social foundation of China-US relations. The US government needs to cherish the social ties of China-US exchanges, as this is a key factor preventing China and the US from moving toward a new Cold War. The Chinese and American people also need to have reasonable expectations for the development of China-US relations and rationally understand that contradictions may exist.

Third, leaders from both parties should look for new areas of cooperation, to address the prevailing atmosphere of overall competition. Competition is not and should not be the only form of China-US relations. In the past few decades, we have seen China-US cooperation in taking counter-terrorism measure, tackling climate change, maintaining maritime security, developing military relations, and extending opportunities for humanities exchanges. These have certainly helped stabilize relations. Today, there are additional opportunities, as both China and the US have strong domestic security concerns in dealing with drug crimes, preventing the spread of pandemic diseases, and responding to new proliferations of terrorism. It is imperative that the two countries act quickly to create new cooperative measures that can hedge the potential risks of competition.

In short, China and the US need to seize the opportunity brought by the Osaka summit, make full use of favorable conditions conducive to stability, and ultimately make this a new starting point for China-US relations.

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