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Foreign Policy

Establishing a New Strategic Framework

Jan 19, 2022
  • An Gang

    Adjunct Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University

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As the United States continues to review and adjust its China policy, the focus of China-U.S. interactions is circumventing or transcending whether “competition” will define the future. The critical question has turned to how the two sides will compete.

The virtual meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden on Nov. 16 highlighted several areas where the two sides could reach a consensus: 

1. Both sides recognized that they should prioritize running their own domestic affairs and that the competition between the two countries lies ultimately in substantial results in their domestic governance.

2. Both agreed to pursue “coexistence.” Biden used the term “durable coexistence” and Xi said China and the U.S. should “coexist in peace.”

3. Both emphasized “responsibility,” although in different contexts. For the U.S., China being responsible means responding to the U.S. policy adjustments in a professional, restrained, rational and calm manner. China expects both countries to shoulder their share of international responsibility and lead the global response to unprecedented challenges.

4. The two sides acknowledged that a complete decoupling of China and the U.S. is impossible.

5. Both agreed that it’s vital to maintain communication, manage differences and cooperate on global issues. 

Driven by the positive effects of the Xi-Biden virtual meeting, China-U.S. relations entered a period of “dynamic stability” temporarily. Both sides tried to create space for coordination and cooperation to ease the tension. For example, talks have been arranged to allow the free departure and return of journalists from both countries, to reopen previously shuttered consulates and to resume commercial operations with the Boeing 737 MAX. However, such “dynamic stability” will be built on a weak foundation if ties are unstable. 

After years of friction, the “positive list” facilitating the stable development of bilateral ties has become too short. Topics including nuclear nonproliferation, nuclear security, the fight against infectious diseases, the crackdown on transnational crimes, people-to-people exchanges and cooperation in international and regional hot spot issues that used to be highly praised by governments and media of both sides have vanished from open discussion. Enterprises, professional institutions and individuals on both sides have maintained the functional parts quietly. Coordination on climate change, barely a highlight, is also endangered as the U.S. shifts its focus on pressing China to implement its goals of peaking carbon emissions and achieving carbon neutrality. As senior officials of the U.S. tend to use energy security issues to suppress China’s development, bilateral coordination has given way to competition. China-U.S. cooperation is losing momentum. 

Correspondingly, the “negative list” that will drive China-U.S. relations into the abyss of cutthroat competition is extending. Despite high-level communication and dialogue, the U.S. administration is implementing hard-core measures to contain China. Manipulated by the Biden administration, science and technology have become the core of China-U.S. competition. The U.S. censorship regime regarding supply chains and the so-called democratic alliance on supply chains are about to set detailed programs, rules, implementations and inspections. Practical steps to exclude China from the global supply chain are just around the corner. At the end of 2021, the U.S. convened the first Summit for Democracy, and a second is already approaching. As the U.S. seeks to defend democracy against authoritarianism, fight corruption and promote respect for human rights, there will be new troubles in the future development of China-U.S. relations. The World Health Organization and the Western world are making every effort to end the COVID-19 pandemic in 2022, but this will not necessarily ease tensions between China and the U.S. in terms of anti-pandemic approaches and narratives. On the contrary, it implies additional fierce confrontations over the mutual recognition of vaccines, distribution of drugs, the opening of borders, biosecurity and other related issues. The Biden administration’s diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing is well underway, signaling further decoupling of the two countries in sports and culture. 

Disturbances in domestic politics stand out even more. Rather than cooling down the tensions inherent in the Biden administration’s China policy, the U.S. Congress is about to pour fuel on the fire. The House of Representatives and Senate passed the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which forces U.S. enterprises investing in China to choose between U.S. laws and the Chinese market. Consumers now have to choose between the two countries. The decoupling is widened to cover broader areas. As the 2022 U.S. midterm election and the 20th CPC National Congress draw closer, the Biden administration lacks the courage, motivation, time and space to deliver material changes to improve bilateral relations. 

China supported the U.S. on issues such as promoting the minimum global corporate income tax and the release of crude oil from strategic petroleum reserves. The two countries share the same direction in developing a green economy. Nevertheless, signs have been clearer since the second half of 2021 that China and U.S. capital markets are drifting apart amid increasingly irrelevant fiscal policies. Considering the uncontrolled printing of money, an escalating budgetary crisis and prolonged inflation in the U.S., close attention should be paid to any exacerbated decoupling between the two countries and China’s significant adjustments to its foreign exchange and debt policies, if any. 

Taiwan has become the most prominent powder keg in the China-U.S. relationship. The U.S. uses salami-slicing tactics to interfere in Taiwan, hollowing out its commitment to the one-China policy. Moreover, China-U.S. interactions on Taiwan are now carried out against a background of military readiness, which means the risks and consequences of a head-on collision are increasingly hard to estimate and control.

The Indo-Pacific has become the main wrestling arena for China and the U.S. In this region, China’s Belt and Road Initiative and America’s Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative are zero-sum rather than complementary. Both countries are going their own way. Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy is more systematic, comprehensive and practical than Donald Trump’s. After making substantial progress in building several small task-oriented security alliances, the Biden administration has started to build an Indo-Pacific economic architecture. It will serve as a regional alliance for a supply chain that uses trade facilitation, the digital economy, supply chain resilience, clean energy, infrastructure and labor standards to sign wordless economic and trade agreements. China is likely to be excluded. 

Competition over third parties will further escalate. In Eastern Europe, the U.S. has been inciting several small countries to take actions that test China’s bottom lines in Taiwan, Xinjiang and other matters. If China takes any countermeasure, the U.S. will advocate the so-called “threat” of Chinese values and drive a wedge between China and the EU. In ASEAN, the U.S. has been searching for and fostering strategic pivots, stirring up maritime confrontations and enhancing U.S.-led military-security cooperation. It is also trying to undermine ASEAN’s centrality, obstructing China’s efforts to rewrite regional rules and enlarge influence in the Western Pacific region. The U.S. is still working in these two directions, and the effects are yet to be evaluated. But the sure thing is that China and the U.S. will have more evident and divided friends in these two regions. 

Confrontations on specific issues have been driving public opinion battles domestically. Hatred and stigmatization have become the leading tone of media coverage and the attitude underlying people’s perception of the other country. The blowback of initial decisions and policies that gave birth to such hatred and stigmatization has forced the two countries to maintain their paths, thus restricting the space for readjustments. 

To sum up, the confrontational nature of China-U.S. relations is increasingly evident and unlikely to be eased in the short term. Long-term games, in a real sense, have just begun. Competition is unavoidable, and gaming will deepen problems. The future of China-U.S. relations lies in the new strategic framework the two sides are willing to and able to establish and the reasonable approach to achieving “competitive coexistence.” Based on the speech given by State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Dec. 20, China has recognized this and intentionally put a “new strategic framework of China-U.S. relations” on the agenda. Essential elements of a strategic framework include “strategic foundation,” “strategic principles,” “strategic mechanisms” and “strategic assurance.” However, these elements are scarce in actual China-U.S. relations, and some don’t exist. 

Regarding a strategic foundation, the consensus reached in the videoconference between heads of states is necessary, yet insufficient. Intentional intersects must be translated into written confirmation and a well-organized common narrative into mutually acceptable positioning, targets and directions for China-U.S. relations. The key is that the U.S. has no intent to redefine its China policy as “competition,” and the two sides are standing at different levels of mutual judgment. The U.S., in its communications, appears to believe that China aims to exclude and replace the U.S. to claim the international throne. In contrast, China believes the U.S. is determined to suppress its potential competitiveness and alter its political ideology. China goes to great lengths to explain its intentions, while the U.S. is only eager to learn about China’s “ability” enhancement. From the U.S. perspective, intent is built on capabilities, which will give birth to uncontrollable intent once the capabilities grow to a certain level. This vast difference in the strategic culture and mindset has restricted the effects of the dialogue. 

In terms of strategic principles, China’s leaders have proposed three principles to be observed by both sides in the new era — mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation. This proposal has provided a starting point for discussions, but it would be challenging to expect the U.S. to accept it. To begin with, the U.S. is unable to understand the true meaning of mutual respect in the context of the Chinese language. The two sides need to continue discussions on strategic principles, trying to use language that both sides understand and refrain from using a threatening tone. 

In terms of strategic mechanisms, previous high-level dialogues with strategic attributes have been discarded or suspended by the U.S. New strategic mechanisms need new designs based on new situations and the changing nature of bilateral relations. This is difficult to negotiate. But given the current tensions, no matter what new arrangements are implemented, it is urgent to restore strategic dialogue. In the military aspect, hotline arrangements, rules for air and maritime encounters and exchanges of military colleagues are not working well in practice. While reserving existing channels, the two militaries should aim to update and extend — adapting to China’s military reform’s new conditions and concerns and upgrading the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy. 

Strategic assurance is the most challenging element. In the five decades since U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China, if the three China-U.S. joint communiques served as the mutual strategic assurance under those historical conditions, are they not still effective under new conditions? What new assurances must be made by the two countries? Discussions have yet to begin on this topic, which should cover things such as the common challenges we face, the common rules we observe, “The bottom line of interactive behaviors, the commitments to mutual non-aggression, the measures for mutual respect and the areas in which the two sides must cooperate with each other. They include hot spot issues, such as the Taiwan question and DPRK nuclear issues; strategic security issues, such as nuclear weapons; international military control; space militarization; cybersecurity; risk control and crisis management on bilateral and military-to-military relations. 

Making mutual strategic assurances is the necessary path to a new strategic framework. Discussions in this regard must uphold the spirit of the Shanghai Communique, but topics will be much broader, complex, multi-dimensional and sharp. China and the U.S. are the two major powers of the world. When their leaders can confirm that peaceful coexistence is their mutual goal in the international system, even if it is a competitive coexistence, efforts should be made to make specific arrangements at different levels and in various aspects. China and the U.S. must achieve collective understanding and agreement through professional negotiations and communication, ensuring mutual strategic assurance. This requires effort from all sectors and areas under direct, high-level leadership. It will take years and will encounter numerous difficulties. 

A new year, 2022, has dawned. I hope this article may inspire material discussions regarding the establishment of a new strategic framework for China-U.S. relations. The future of relations should not be found in the debris of a major crisis or times of confrontation. It should be started from frank dialogue, sincere exchanges and every small but concrete commitment and arrangement.


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