Under former U.S. President Donald Trump, relations between the United States and China reached their lowest ebb since the establishment of diplomatic ties. The new Biden administration is still reviewing its China strategy. In the face of great uncertainty, observers of should reflect not only on whether relations will improve in the near term but also on their medium- and long-term future.
The future of the relationship depends not merely on the shifting balance of power and evolving interests but more important on whether the two sides can find meeting points of knowledge in their respective views of the international order. I believe the cognitive root of the current difficulties in China-U.S. relations likely lies in the tension between the theory of hegemonic stability in a unipolar world and the theory of stability through democratization of international relations in a multipolar world.
Historically, the complexity of international relations has often been oversimplified into sets of antagonistic and hierarchical perceptions — for example, us vs. them, insiders vs. outsiders, friends vs. enemies, civilization vs. barbarism. In the American diplomatic experience since World War II, hierarchical relationships within the Western world established under the leadership of the hegemon — the U.S. — has restrained the reckless behavior of allies, maintained the stability of internal political relations, contributed to economic development and worked well in building a united front against the Soviet Union. It was a coherent perception.
But the sudden end of the Cold War made American strategists uneasy about a new multipolar world, while the euphoria of victory reinforced the U.S. belief in hegemonic stability — that is, when confronted with an anarchic international system, a benign hegemon is better than an absence of order.
However, such unipolar stability must be based on a super powerful hegemon and its willingness to control world affairs, as well as the willingness of other countries to accept such control. The problem is, over the past 30 years the increased multipolarity of the international system and American leadership fatigue have made the model increasingly unsustainable. For the U.S., the proposition of democratized international relations by China and other emerging countries not only bears on relations with China but also presents a major theoretical question: In a multipolar democratic world, can there be peace in international relations?
For more than 20 years, Chinese elites have gone to great lengths to stress that the country has no intention to contend for hegemony or to replace the U.S. America was not convinced. At this rate, China may soon experience persuasion fatigue.
I believe that the discussion of China-U.S. relations must take place outside the above-mentioned bilateral framework and be focused on the strategic belief that it’s possible to build a stable international order as international relations are democratized.
The democratization of international relations does not mean the absence of management; uncontrolled democracy leads to disorder. In this sense, the U.S. view is not entirely unreasonable. The question is how? The hegemonic stability theory naturally calls for centralized management of international relations by the hegemon. However, no management is without cost. The hegemon can maintain such an order only when the benefits of management exceed its costs.
After the war on terror and the financial crisis, the American elite, as well as the public, realized that the costs of managing the world had exceeded the benefits. The management of international relations needs a new model. This may be a meeting point of knowledge for China and the U.S. But what would such a new model be like? There is no common understanding yet.
Further, the common understanding must be constructed in practice through trial and error, with mutual learning and communication. Excessive fear of a democratized world will stagnate the innovative application of knowledge. It is also an underestimation of the possibility of mutual supervision, mutual management capacity building and institutional construction among major countries with increased political autonomy in international relations.
In Europe, religious tolerance was achieved only after some bloody and destructive religious wars in the 16th and 17th centuries, when monarchies came to realize that the gains from compulsory religious conversion had been far smaller than previously imagined. Humans in the 21st century should have the wisdom to achieve a cognitive transformation without incurring a huge cost.
The U.S. and Soviet Union walked into the Cold War because both sides wanted to strictly control their respective allies, subdue each other and eventually establish a superior-subordinate relationship through complete decoupling. In a highly interdependent global environment, the costs of such hierarchical control are enormous, as any control requires resources, which are not infinite.
This in practice requires that the model of international relations gradually transform from the original hierarchical one to a horizontal one, and from vertical controls to horizontal mutual supervision and mutual management. The essence is to construct a mindset favoring competitive symbiosis in international relations. Therefore, the vision of China-U.S. relations in a democratized world will not be unmanaged or disorderly. Rather, under the new model of managed major-country relations, along with mutual supervision and restriction between China and the U.S., other members of the international community may also supervise and constrain the behaviors of these two major countries.
In the longer term, international relations will also need to evolve into a new model of self-disciplined stability toward mutual compromise, supervision, restraint and inclusion. Given where the China-U.S. relationship stands now, the two countries should not only continue identifying areas of converging interests but also strive to find and connect at more intersections of understanding.