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Foreign Policy

Dark Moment, Smart Choices

Jul 20, 2020

Orientation of China-U.S. Relations Calls for Serious Deliberation

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Relations between China and the United States have entered a difficult stage unseen since the establishment of diplomatic ties 40 years ago. Some say it’s the darkest moment. In my view, however, we have not reached the lowest possible point. Judging from some messages from the White House, the probability of China-U.S. relations hitting fresh snags in the run-up to the U.S. general election remains high, but I’ve also noticed various in-depth deliberations in the U.S. on the future orientation of bilateral relations.

Take a look at the trajectory of the U.S. attitude toward China and you’ll find impulses in two directions: one force dominated by the right wing in Washington, or the China hawks, attempts to push China-U.S. relations toward confrontation, persistently promoting decoupling. The likely outcomes of these China policy proposals are invariably negative. The hawks seek to push China-U.S. ties onto a track of confrontation. They never hesitate; they never consider consequences. Should this force be given free rein and allowed to dictate the course of bilateral ties, vicious competition may be unavoidable.

In this scenario, the Chinese side faces the question of how to respond. As the hawks push relations in a negative direction — and we resist — are we not accelerating the tendency and rhythm of confrontation in the process? From an observer’s perspective, it’s puzzling.

The other force is relatively rational. It doesn’t advocate forsaking limited engagement but rather urges the Chinese side to adjust. This seems a reasonable orientation and yet, going forward, it can’t stop the U.S. from continually raising its asking price, with the pressures of economy and trade spilling over into politics and security. As State Councilor Wang Yi said, our two countries should each go its own way when it comes to values and political systems, and shouldn’t seek to remodel the other side.

Thus, the Chinese side faces some major issues which it needs to figure out. It needs clear answers, as does the U.S. From the Chinese perspective, how should we cope with such challenges, and judge global trends? China has held that the world trend in the post-Cold War era is peace and development. Has that trend changed now? Will it give way to conflict and confrontation? Or will it remain the same?

China’s own development has two central centennial goals. How do we prevent the process from being disrupted? China needs an international environment of peace and cooperation. How do we secure such an environment? President Xi Jinping has reiterated on many occasions that our vision for the world is  community with a shared future. How do we effectively carry out international cooperation on such a path?

All these are significant questions China must face squarely. The coming choices in the orientation of China-U.S. relations will largely determine the answers.


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Will the two countries continue to resolve differences within the same global system, or will they part with each other, dividing into two relatively independent yet mutually connected systems, each going its own way? If the latter holds true, it may mean the end of globalization and the collapse of the current regime. We often hear scholars from such middle-ground places as Japan and Europe express concern about the present state of affairs. Some ambassadors from other countries also discussed this with me, all feeling a bit bewildered, because other countries don’t want to see China and the U.S. decouple and the world disintegrate. No country wants to take sides. They hope the two giants can make wise choices regarding their orientation.

A favorable prospect for China-U.S. relations is formulating what’s been called “coopetition” — a new type of major-country relationship featuring benign competition that’s controllable; necessary cooperation is retained. But at the official level in the U.S., expressions of such willingness are muted. Washington insists on competition, a concept the Chinese were reluctant to accept at the beginning. Now we have also realized that competition is inevitable, but still hope cooperation remains the dominant aspect.

What the Chinese want is to have a relationship of benign competition and cooperation. The trouble is that even though the Chinese wish it, the message we receive from decision-makers in the White House and Congress is that they don’t want to participate.

Then what should China do? This is a huge problem. We want to take one route, Americans want to take a different one. Is there a way to persuade the U.S., so that we can coordinate and cooperate, and to proceed in the direction of coopetition? In the months before the U.S. general election, positive changes in U.S. attitude toward China are unlikely. Therefore, China needs to design the path forward, coming up with choices and solutions on its own initiative. I offer some suggestions for consideration:

First, the Chinese side should not just wait to react to U.S. provocations, but consider playing the first card in the game of promoting candid dialogue in key areas, calmly listening and effectively resolving issues of concern.

Of course, taking the initiative doesn’t mean we should also adopt a confrontational approach. The choices we make, or the things we do on our own initiative, should first preserve China’s fundamental interests but at the same time take into consideration the U.S. side’s concerns, and our choices should be in line with the global trend of peaceful development.

I think State Councilor Wang Yi’s proposal to make a checklist of both countries’ concerns is very important, and worth following up. From the Chinese perspective, we should actively identify key areas where candid dialogue is imperative, and then patiently listen rather than assuming in advance that the other side is wrong about everything and we are right about everything. Otherwise, we’ll fall into a cycle of endless quarrels and self-justification. The two parties should listen carefully to each other, deepen mutual understanding via dialogue and negotiation, reach consensus on their respective boundaries and bottom lines and exert necessary management and control over some irreconcilable conflicts of interest.

Second, many people have aired concerns about maritime security. Chinese military strength, especially that of its naval force, has grown rapidly, which inevitably raises concerns for outsiders. People are curious about the purpose of China’s growing navy, wondering what a role it aspires to in the world. So we need to make our defense policy and goals more transparent, especially to clearly define our maritime pursuits and boundaries, so as to make sure all concerned parties know China’s claims and bottom lines regarding military security. In this way, crisis-management mechanisms can be built and misjudgments can be avoided.

I particularly appreciate Kevin Rudd’s proposal at this forum that there must be tools and methods for management and control. Considering that there are many close encounters between the two militaries now, it is essential to reduce the likelihood of misjudgment. 

Third, with an eye on the post-pandemic world, we need to conduct consultations as much as possible, help other countries solve problems, make more contributions, engage more in empowerment, and assume due responsibility. In fact, despite tensions at the diplomatic level, there has been plenty of contact in professional realms. This is very important, and we must not stymie them but rather should encourage and support them. At the global level, the entire world wants to see China and the U.S. collaborate, and they should begin exploring this at the earliest possible moment.

Fourth, we should enhance China’s international image and raise our own image awareness. We should let the rest of the world know the real conditions of China, as well as what is in the Chinese mind. Sometimes we too easily become upset, angry and impatient upon hearing criticisms or unpleasant remarks, which to a great extent come from inadequate knowledge of China. I think we can make more efforts in this regard. We may need to place more emphasis on communicating with the majority in the international community, including the general public in America, and help the rest of the world know China better.

Just now, there were discussions about whether the U.S. is in decline. It has many troubles now, both at home and in terms of its relations with the rest of the world. It is in a stage of adjustment. Whether the adjustments succeed and whether the U.S. can recover are its own business and won’t be determined by what other countries say.

Meanwhile, China also faces challenging tasks at home in fulfilling its development goals, meeting the poverty alleviation deadline this year and preparing the 14th Five-Year-Plan. The workload weighs heavily on our shoulders. China and the U.S. both have serious challenges and tasks at home, and there is no need for us to engage in mutual disparagement. What we are supposed to do is solve our respective problems while engaging in constructive cooperation that can help the rest of the world.

President Xi has many times expressed to the U.S. the hope of building a relationship featuring coordination, cooperation and stability. This should be our guideline in discussing and promoting China-U.S. relations. 

(Transcript of the author’s speech at a recent webinar of the China-U.S. Think Tanks Media Forum titled “Mutual Respect and Trust Cooperation”)

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