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Foreign Policy

Defusing China-U.S. Competition

Oct 13, 2021
  • Sun Chenghao

    Non-resident Research Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

On Oct. 6, Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, met with U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in Zurich, Switzerland — another strategic engagement following the phone call between Chinese and U.S. heads-of-state on Sept. 10.

The meeting achieved the expected results. The two sides exchanged views on the overall strategic relationship and a series of international and regional issues of common interest, seeking to find mutual benefits, properly manage differences and work together to bring bilateral relations back to the right track of sound and steady development.

Although the Biden administration defines China-U.S. relations as “strategic competition,” it does not necessarily mean that the U.S. has utterly abandoned its engagement with China. Such engagement for sure is significantly different from that of the past, and China also has different views and expectations about its engagement with the United States. The common changes in perception and practice have pushed China-U.S. relations into a new stage of “re-engagement,” which might conducive to defusing the so-called great power competition.

The U.S. envisioned an engagement policy from a “position of strength” based on its insistence on competition with China, the essence of which is still a sense of superiority and hegemony, as reflected in Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s ambitious approach to China based on equal measures of cooperation, competition and confrontation.

However, in its dealings with China the Biden administration has come to realize that the U.S. does not have enough power or right to define the bilateral relationship unilaterally. The previous Anchorage dialogue, the communications between the two economic and trade teams and the visits to China by Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry all demonstrate that it is the intention of the U.S. to engage China and avoid possible conflicts. In other words, the Biden administration is not capable of evenly handling the three issue areas Blinken raised.

As for China, re-engagement means that it has the confidence and wisdom to deal with a tougher U.S. and will let the U.S. understand it does not have the upper hand. After the Trump shock wave, China has adopted sober expectations of the Biden administration’s China policy. At the same time, so long as the U.S. comes with sincerity, China’s door for talk is always open. It welcomes constructive measures to stabilize the bilateral relationship from the U.S. side.

The Biden administration should be clear that the nature of China-U.S. relations will not be defined by the U.S. side alone. The phone call between the two presidents and the “two lists” and “three bottom lines” put forward by China all reflect China’s positive guiding role. Through this round of re-engagement, the U.S. side might realize that China will not follow the U.S. pace to adjust its policy, and China’s national interest should not be overlooked.

Neither China nor the U.S. will be so naive as to expect a quick and thorough reversal of the current U.S. government’s competitive strategy toward China because of one or two high-level communications. Yet, in the face of such an anxious America, the two countries should avoid falling into the trap of delivering empty talk while achieving nothing. China and U.S. are not only capable of avoiding confrontation but also have the responsibility to cooperate on regional hot spot issues and global governance.

There is no denying that the Biden administration has escalated its competition with China and adopted a more sophisticated approach. Facing the U.S. government’s 2.0 version of “smart power” and “rebalancing the Asia-Pacific,” China must make rational strategic judgments and choices.

First, it is unwise to draw conclusions for bilateral relations in a rush. Judging from the recent contacts between Chinese and U.S. officials at different levels, the handling of the Meng Wanzhou case and the possible adjustments of U.S. trade policy toward China, the Biden administration has not gone all the way toward confrontation with China. The so-called Thucydides trap is not the fate of China-U.S. relations.

Second, avoiding conflict and building mutual respect should be one of the basic norms in managing bilateral relations. After a period of testing, both China and the U.S. know that it is their common bottom line not to let bilateral relations slide out of control. The two sides also understand that there is a strong practical need to respect each other’s interests.

Third, efforts should be made to expand the scope of cooperation to avoid having competition fall into confrontation. Although the U.S. tries to define China-U.S. relations in terms of strategic competition, the two countries should continue to explore ways to coexist by exploring areas of cooperation in mind — such as combating the global pandemic, revitalizing the world economy and tackling climate change.

More important, dialogue is always better than confrontation, and the Zurich dialogue this time may lead to a virtual presidential meeting and more frequent strategic dialogues between the two countries to gradually change the negative narrative of competition. To build a solid foundation step by step and seize each opportunity may be one of the most realistic paths for pushing forward bilateral relations. Robust China-U.S. relations cannot be built in one day, and it is not in the interest of any party to tear it down.

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