In late May at an event hosted by Stanford University, U.S. President Joe Biden’s Asia czar Kurt Campbell said the period broadly described as engagement had come to an end. Obviously, the old strategic framework, which lasted four decades after China and the United States established diplomatic relations, is falling apart, while a new one has yet to be developed.
Both China and the United States are consequential major powers; thus undoubtedly the state and nature of the bilateral relationship will be influential not only for the two countries but for others as well. It is very likely the coming four years will be a defining moment for the trajectory of the relationship. How China and the United States engage with each other over such specific issues as trade disputes, ideological troubles and military relations, is very important. However, the answers to the following three questions will be critical and ultimately defining:
How will the United States engage with China? Will it be according to what China is or what the United States expects China to be?
According to the 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States, U.S. policy for decades “was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the postwar international order would liberalize China.” Later on, this argument was repeated by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other high-ranking officials. It seems that some American officials earnestly hope and sincerely believe that the United States should and could change China by doing this or that. However, China’s long history does not support this expectation.
It is not that China failed some American expectations, but it’s a fact that some Americans based their judgment on false assumptions. China has been around for several thousand years, and according to a leading Chinese historian, China changes the world by changing itself. So, wishful thinking will not deliver, and it might be the time for the United States to engage with China as what it is rather than as what the United States expects it to be.
Does the United States view China’s growing strength as an opportunity or as serious competition?
Starting from opening-up and reform about four decades ago, China has broadened and deepened its engagement with the United States and other countries. Its rise in the last two decades is phenomenal. China has benefited from its integration into the world politically, economically, and diplomatically, and the people of the United States and other countries have benefited as well.
As it has become more capable, China has contributed more to international affairs. In nuclear nonproliferation, China actively participated in negotiations with North Korea and Iran in the last two or three decades. In peacekeeping, China is the second-largest contributor to both the peacekeeping assessment and UN membership fees, and it has sent the most troops of any contributing country among the P5. In dealing with the financial crisis, China adopted responsible policies for neighboring countries and others as well. It initiated the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, whose mission is to finance the infrastructure of tomorrow, and it proposed the Belt and Road Initiative just a few years ago.
Some countries, the United States in particular, cast doubt from the beginning on these initiatives; however, as time has passed, misperceptions and doubt were dispelled by practical evidence. For many countries, China’s rise offers more economic opportunities than it does security challenges. China is now ready and capable of contributing more to other countries and the international community, regardless of what U.S. perception might be.
How will the United States assess China’s military modernization, as a natural and legitimate development process or as a threat?
More than seven decades ago at the first National People’s Congress, China set four modernizations as national strategic goals to be pursued. Of the four, the military lagged far behind for many years. It was not until the late 1990s that China started to increase its investment in military modernization. Every year, there will be howls from afar when China announces its military budget, even though the growth rate remains moderate by comparison with other countries. Every time there is development or investment in China’s military capability, there is a big round of debate of so called China threat.
Generally speaking, the narrative about China’s military modernization is not very healthy. For many Chinese, it is difficult to get any clue about the underlying logic of this narrative, and the frequently asked questions have always been the same: Why shouldn’t China develop its military capability? Why is a militarily powerful China a threat to other countries rather than a plus for the public good?
Some major powers justify their military buildup as supporting peace, stability and prosperity, while in reality they have only used those forces to invade other countries, or to conduct close-in reconnaissance and surveillance of China in the name of freedom of navigation. From these narratives, one can see through the thinly veiled hypocrisy.
Looking to the future, there is no such thing as a destiny of doom as proposed in the theory of the Thucydides trap. The future of the Sino-U.S. relationship is mostly up to both countries to assess, determine and choose. With its rise, the message from China is getting ever clearer: China has chosen its own way in development and governance, and coach me no more ever after. Both China and the United States should face the new reality and manage to find a way to coexist peacefully, with neither wishful thinking nor illusion. For the next four years, prudence is both a virtue and a necessity.