At present, the US policy toward China has entered a new stage of adjustment. This adjustment is based on the assessment of the strength of both sides and the renewed recognition of China’s position. The Trump administration has conducted a review and reflection on America’s China policy as it has been implemented since the Nixon era. This reflection is based on three major points: America’s frustrated expectations of China, current conflicting interests, and strategic competition in the future.
Since the 1970s, the United States gradually changed its hostile policies toward China. Thanks to the joint efforts of both sides, China and the US officially established diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979. As for the United States, the policy adjustment had strategic considerations for competing with the Soviet Union, but it was also driven by the idealistic belief that it could shape the direction of China’s development path. Since China’s reform and opening up, China has fully integrated into the international system, which enabled the United States to see the positive effects of this policy adjustment, thus enhancing the hope of further transforming China. As such, the core element of the US policy toward over this period was engagement. Its purpose was to integrate China into the international system dominated by Western industrial countries and let China play the role of “responsible” actor in the system. The US seemed to believe that the international system was strong enough to regulate China’s behavior in the process of integration and influence China’s development; furthermore, the US believed itself strong enough to effectively balance China. For China, this integration was in line with its national interests. Therefore, despite the lack of a common security threat after the Cold War ended, this strategic consensus — engagement and integration — persisted between China and the United States, guaranteeing the overall stability of bilateral relations.
After more than forty years of experience, US expectations that China will be reshaped in line with American wishes have only grown higher and higher. However, China’s development has not fully matched US expectations. With China’s increasing national power, the US now feels that China presents more challenges than opportunities. Consequently, America’s strategic decision-makers and social elites are becoming more and more disappointed. Recognizing that China has become the world’s second largest economy, many believe it will soon become the world’s largest economy and even replace US as the dominant power in the world — in reality China remains a developing country. Meanwhile, American patience has gradually run out. Thus, the US is moving away from its China policy based on engagement and cooperation.Since the Trump administration took office, the contradictions and conflicts between China and the United States in the security realm (such as issues over the South China Sea and Taiwan), in economics and trade (such as intellectual property rights, trade balance, technology transfer, etc.) have become increasingly prominent. In the field of non-traditional security, cooperation on issues such as climate change has become strained — it is hard to play the same roles as before, due to America’s changing policy preferences. Meanwhile, new cooperation mechanisms have not been established and the existing cooperation platforms have almost stopped functioning. Therefore, competition has become the most dominant feature of China-US bilateral relations.
In fact, competition and cooperation have always been the basic characteristics of China-US relations. However, the competition defined by the Trump administration is defined as strategic competition, which implies that there has been an evident transfer of power in the international system. In this context, the United States has re-evaluated China’s identity and clearly defined China as a “strategic competitor”.
The relationship between an established power and a rising country has become a topical issue in international politics. Graham Allison, professor at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, proposed the notion of “Thucydides’s Trap” to describe the tragic ending of strategic confrontation between the dominant power and the rising state. Professor Allison, in a recent meeting in Beijing, also acknowledged that for China and the US, this “Thucydides’s Trap” is not inevitable. It is true that the growing strength of a rising state and the fear caused by it for the incumbent power are natural when considering international relations — but national policy interactions and the construction of identity throughout this process are even more critical. As President Xi Jinping declared in a speech in Seattle in September 201, “there is no such thing as the so-called Thucydides Trap in the world. But should major countries time and again make the mistakes of strategic miscalculation, they might create such traps for themselves.” Thus, one of the core issues in Sino-US relationship is how to correctly express and understand each other’s strategic intentions, how to prudently engage in policy interactions, and how to properly establish a strategic identity. They should pay special attention to the two-way process of strengthening and recognizing each other’s identity through policy interaction. In other words, positive identification and positive policy interactions reinforce each other. From this perspective, it is necessary — even urgent — for the two sides to attach importance to and respond to each other’s concerns, maintaining effective strategic consultation and constructive interactions.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration has imposed obstacles on Sino-US cultural and social exchanges, thus damaging constructive interactions. American authorities have recently altered US visa policy for Chinese STEM students, with restrictions expanding to include social science scholars. As The New York Times reported recently, some Chinese scholars of China-US relations were denied entry into the US. It is absolutely unhelpful for promoting mutual understanding and building positive understanding. It is also not conducive to positive policy interactions. In light of the current negative shift in the perception of China in the US, as shown by the recent Gallup poll finding that Americans’ favorable views of China have dropped to their lowest level since 2012, down from 53% in 2018 to 41% in 2019, people on both sides should pay more attention to maintaining and advancing all levels of communication, including those at non-governmental levels — and certainly we should not create new barriers to block communication.