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Foreign Policy

From Guardrails to Boundaries

Feb 06, 2024
  • Han Liqun

    Researcher, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

The past few years have seen the China-U.S. relationship hovering at the lowest point since its establishment. Today, both nations are trying to reverse the downward trajectory and steer relations back toward recovery. During talks in July 2021 in Tianjin, China, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman stressed the need for “guardrails” in relations to prevent conflicts. The proposal seemed reasonable, and it prompted discussions on both sides.

However, the United States continued to take actions detrimental to bilateral relations with respect to a series of issues, including Taiwan, the South China Sea, human rights, investment and economic and trade ties. In doing so, it dismantled the idea of guardrails before China could respond. While outwardly calling for guardrails, Washington in fact seeks to contain China, not to protect both sides. This condescending approach obviously doesn’t work.

Since the Tianjin meeting, China has repeatedly stated that the three joint communiques and the fundamental norms of international relations are the most important guardrails for China-U.S. relations. To promote their healthy development, China argues, it doesn’t make sense to adopt a hegemonic approach that allows reckless behavior on one side and denies legitimate rights of the other. Thus, both countries should get to the bottom of basic issues that disrupt their relations based on principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation. The United States gradually recognized the shortcomings of its proposal as it was translated into practice. It then formed some new concepts and adopted the “de-risking” strategy proposed by Europe. But all of these policies still reflect a condescending mentality and a zero-sum game; consequently the results are hardly satisfactory.

The task of stabilizing bilateral relations remains heavy and urgent. President Xi Jinping stressed that whether China and the United States can handle their relations well is relevant to the future of the world. This is the question of the century and one to which the two countries must provide a good answer. U.S. President Joe Biden also acknowledged that the China-U.S. relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world. Such statements underscore how important it is for Beijing and Washington to sit down and explore ways to get along with each other. In this context, it is necessary to maximize the inspiring ideas that emerge in communications between the heads of state and senior officials from both countries.

On Jan. 26 and 27, Wang Yi, a member of the Political Bureau and director of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, met in Bangkok with Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser to the president. Wang emphasized that while all countries have national security concerns, they must be legitimate and well-founded, and no country should politicize issues indiscriminately or overstretch the concept of security to suppress the development of others. In this meeting, the two sides agreed to have further discussions on the boundary between national security and economic activities. This holds significant potential. It could evolve into a way forward, as both countries strive to get along well with each other, and it may be applicable to a wider range of sectors.

In recent years, Washington has engaged in indiscriminate politicization of various issues and stretched the concept of security in ways that restrict bilateral economic and trade activities, people-to-people exchanges and investment. This constituted a major indicator of the declining state of bilateral relations, fundamentally eroding their foundation. Currently, Washington seems poised to tighten restrictions in certain sectors: Some restrictive practices are waiting for the approval of Congress, and some more sinister ideas are under discussion and may be implemented soon. If these moves are not checked in time, the fundamentals of China-U.S. relations will suffer even greater damage. To avoid this scenario, one solution is to establish clear boundaries between national security and economic activities and refrain from expanding restrictions. This underscores the strong relevance of boundaries. 

Guardrails are physical barriers designed to avoid hard collisions and subsequent conflicts. They are not fundamental or long-term elements in bilateral relations — after all, they may be breached in the case of a violent collision, and their impact on psychology and decision-making in both countries vary as a result of their different values. In contrast, boundaries are principled markers, establishing limits for behavior and ideology. They are also the embodiment of the principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation. Boundaries are not designed to prevent the escalation of conflicts arising in a diplomatic context; instead, they are meant to fundamentally change perceptions and prevent the occurrence of conflicts in the first place.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States. Almost a half-century ago, Chairman Mao Zedong, along with President Richard Nixon, Premier Zhou Enlai and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger set the tone and delineated boundaries for China-U.S. relations from the perspective of the global landscape, epistemology and global trends. In their many meetings, presidents Xi and Biden have likewise focused their efforts on defining the basic direction, basic principles and basic boundaries of bilateral relations. These basics offer an insight into the perspectives and methodologies for studying relations and are a constant source of inspiration.

Boundaries also represent bottom lines and values — and cognitive boundaries are stronger than physical guardrails. On issues involving the core interests and key interests of other countries, China, a responsible major country, consistently abides by international law. It works to establish boundaries in its relations not only with the United States but with all. The United States must fundamentally and cognitively behave in the most sensible way. In other words, its actions should fall within reasonable boundaries.

For example, the Taiwan question is a core interest of China and the foundation of China-U.S. relations. To maintain peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, therefore, Washington should behave within the boundaries of non-interference in China’s internal affairs and stick to the bottom line that it does not intend to divide China. This is a more effective approach than any imposed guardrail.

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