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Foreign Policy

Don’t Overlook the Bright Side of China-US Relations

Jun 26, 2019
  • Tao Wenzhao

    Researcher, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

With China-US trade negotiations bogged down in an impasse, negative factors in the bilateral relationship are prominent, while silver linings are ignored. Yet the latter still exist, and will prove impactful in the long term. On the US side, they lie in rational views on China held by those who know the country well and are faithful to liberal ideals; on the Chinese side, they lie in the fact that the country remains committed to reform and opening up.

The US is a very pluralistic country, where there certainly are various voices about any given topic, not to mention such significant matters as China-US relations. For more than a year now, China hands in the US, including former government officials as well as scholars long engaged in studying China and US-China relations, have spoken out against the current US administration's China policies. These voices of dissent include well-known names: Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Robert Zoellick, Chas Freeman Jr., Joseph Nye, Denis Wilder, Jeffrey Bader, Susan Thornton, Thomas Christensen, J. Stapleton Roy, Max Baucus, and Michael Swaine, to name a few. They argue that the policy of engagement over the past four decades was generally successful, and they oppose cutting off engagement with China — known as “decoupling.” In their view, it is even more important under the current circumstances to encourage exchanges between the two countries' scholars, artists, tourists, and businesspeople, so as to offset the growing distrust at the governmental level. Some scholars believe that Sino-US relations ultimately depend upon key stakeholders. They believe that there won't be a Cold War between the two countries, but it's important to prevent a "Red Scare" surrounding China. Joseph Nye and Chas Freeman Jr. also suggest that the US should adjust its mindset when it comes to China. Instead of thinking merely of power over other countries, the US needs to think of power with other countries.

As irrationality thrives in Washington, we can still see the light of reason and wisdom glimmering there. So long as rational, objective, cool-headed thinking will have long-lasting impacts on China-US relations, we need not be overly pessimistic about the relationship.

Given the US federal system, Americans at federal and local levels may hold different ideas about some issues. This structure means that things that cannot be done at the federal level may be accomplished on a local level. This has been quite evident over the past year. Several scholars told me that the current tensions between China and the US are mainly problems between Washington and Beijing, while matters can be very different outside of Washington D.C. — especially in California, and on issues like climate change, for instance. Trump not only completely rolled back Obama's emission control policies, but declared US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. But many US states insist on emission control measures. In September 2018, the state government of California hosted a global climate action summit, drawing more than 4,000 participants from six continents, including a Chinese government delegation headed by Xie Zhenghua, who served as a co-chair of the summit.

In May 2019, the fifth China-US forum for provincial/state governors was held in the state of Kentucky, convening more than 400 participants, including top officials from nine Chinese provinces and US states, as well as business elites from both sides. The scale of attendance showed a very strong, shared desire to establish and maintain close links at the local level. Discussions at the forum covered culture and education, advanced manufacturing, infrastructure construction and investment, e-commerce and cross-border trade. Local governments, enterprises, and higher-education institutions signed a series of cooperation agreements to enhance local government relations as well as agriculture, energy, and education. Local-level cooperation between China and the US continues to advance.

The biggest positive aspect of the China-US relationship has been China's reform and opening up. Normalizing China-US relations was an important component of Deng Xiaoping's grand strategy of reform and opening up — it promoted China’s modernization drive, and in turn reform and opening up also promoted the development of bilateral ties. The end of the Cold War and dramatic changes in Eastern Europe brought shocks to the relationship. The main driving forces to tide over those difficult times and cement normalized ties consisted of Deng’s speech during his famous “Southern Tour” of 1992 that advocated for continuing economic reform. At the turn of the century, China’s entry into the WTO not only marked a new phase of China’s reform and opening up, but greatly promoted bilateral ties. In order to dovetail with WTO rules, Chinese central and local governments scrapped, revised, and created more than 3,000 laws and regulations in the process, conducting continuous reforms in tariff reduction and exemptions, trade barrier eradication, and improvement of the domestic system of trade law, thus upgrading the China-US relationship to a new level. China is now at a brand new stage of deepening its reforms. The third plenum of the Communist Party of China’s 18th National Congress put forward overall goals and specific measures for deepening reforms, which will certainly inject new energy into the bilateral relationship.

China-US relations are witnessing a difficult time. But from a long-term perspective, this is just a period of transition. The trade frictions provoked by the US have cast a dark shadow over bilateral ties, but the China-US relationship is bigger than a single trade spat, and covers many other important fields. As for economics and trade, imposing high tariffs is unsustainable, as it hurts others while not benefitting the US itself. At the end of the day, problems have to be solved by negotiation. The Chinese side has repeatedly stated that it is still willing to engage in serious dialogue and consultation with the US on the basis of equity, mutual benefit, and good faith, so as to reach a win-win agreement. Giving full play to the positive factors in the bilateral relationship will help overcome the current difficulties facing China-US relations.

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