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Foreign Policy

Don't Hold Your Breath

Aug 28 , 2020
  • Wang Zhen

    Research Professor, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

Since the beginning of this year, tensions between China and the United States have grown at an accelerated pace, like a wild horse on the loose. Following tit-for-tat consulate closures in late July, senior U.S. officials made a controversial high-profile visit to Taiwan in early August.

Many people believe the current deterioration of bilateral relations are the result of U.S. President Donald Trump’s tactics designed to boost his re-election chances. It is widely assumed that bilateral relations may turn for the better, or even return to normalcy, in a post-Trump world.

I am not that optimistic.

First, the public support that underpins China-U.S. relations has eroded. Trump’s China policy, rolled out after he took office, has seriously undermined positive public opinion on China-U.S. relations. A Pew poll, released in July, found that 73 percent of American adults have an unfavorable view of China, versus 47 percent in 2018.

Getting tough on China has become a bipartisan consensus in American society. At the same time, many Chinese elites, who once held a warm and friendly attitude toward the United States, have begun to voice increasing criticism of Washington’s policies. On social media and other online platforms, Chinese internet users are increasingly critical of the Trump administration. If the current state of affairs is not reversed over an extended period, the social foundation of bilateral ties, built up over decades, will crumble.

Second, numerous policies adopted by both sides are, unfortunately, irreversible. Their impacts are likely to linger in a post-Trump world. For example, there is little chance that both houses of Congress will undo legislation on issues concerning Hong Kong, Xinjiang or Taiwan. Moreover, the Chinese government is unlikely to abandon certain policies it has adopted in response. Policies on both sides threaten to create an undesirable long-term strategic landscape, undermine existing strategic trust and stability and prompt the adoption of strategies that are less than constructive. Such policies and their consequences are unlikely to end in the near future, whether Trump is re-elected or not.

Third, some aggressive actions taken by the Trump administration have stimulated adventurism and opportunism, thus breaching the bottom line of bilateral relations and, even worse, exposing the two countries to the serious risk of military conflict for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

On the Taiwan issue, for example, the U.S.  administration has shattered the tacit understanding reached between the two countries following the establishment of diplomatic relations in the 1970s. It has not only failed to honor the commitments it made when it established diplomatic ties with China but also has challenged the Chinese government’s bottom line.

On the South China Sea issue, the U.S. administration has publicly abandoned its original position of not taking sides and has frequently dispatched aircraft and warships to conduct reconnaissance and so-called freedom of navigation operations in the region. As we all know, the Chinese government and its leaders have limited room to maneuver on such issues, particularly with nationalism on the rise. In the absence of strategic mutual trust, basic consensus, mutual understanding and even an emergency hotline, such military actions greatly increase the risk of conflict.

So far, the Chinese government has exercised considerable restraint to avoid dancing to the Trump administration’s tune and ultimately wants to prevent any further deterioration of bilateral ties. But if China’s restraint is perceived as a sign of weakness by some U.S. hard-line politicians, the administration might adopt riskier policies, eventually forcing Beijing to confront the U.S. head-on.

Finally, debates over China policy among U.S.  strategists are caught up in a myth, and may not be able to point a way out for improving bilateral relations after Trump. For example, when discussing shifts in the balance of power between the two countries, many U.S. strategists tend to focus purely on China-related issues, such as intellectual property protection, commercial espionage, state-owned enterprises and political reform.

Yet they lose sight of many of their own domestic problems, including the hollowing-out of U.S. industries, financialization of the economy, political polarization, the yawning gap between rich and poor and military overreach.

There is also little self-reflection on the failure of U.S. policies and strategic mistakes. Even when the coronavirus pandemic was raging out of control at home, some strategists continued to rant about China’s responsibility rather than reflecting on their own domestic policy failures. As Chinese Ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai said at the 2020 Aspen Security Forum, the real question for America is: “Is the United States ready to live with another country with a different history, different culture and different system, but with no intent to compete for global dominance with the United States?” If we fail to wake up to this question, it will be difficult to find a path toward fundamental improvement in China-U.S. relations.

The Trump administration may take more eye-popping actions in the run-up to the general election. If the dangerous trends and developments above cannot be changed, there is even less reason for optimism about Sino-U.S. relations in the near future, regardless of whether Trump remains in the White House for four more years or not.

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