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Foreign Policy

Glancing Back, Looking Forward

Feb 26, 2022
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

In February 1972, at the invitation of Premier Zhou Enlai, U.S. President Richard Nixon made his famous ice-breaking trip to China and extended a handshake across the Pacific. During that visit, China and the United States issued the Shanghai Communique, marking an important step toward normalization of China-U.S. relations.

Over the past five decades, a sea change has taken place in the international landscape. Especially in recent years, as China’s comprehensive national strength and international influence have increased on all fronts, the United States has come to regard China as its primary strategic competitor, plunging China-U.S. relations to their lowest point in 50 years. The era of engagement with China marked by Nixon’s visit to China seems to have come to an abrupt halt.

In the face of the major changes in the international landscape and the dynamics of bilateral relations, a review of the historical process of normalization and development of China-U.S. relations over the past 50 years is highly relevant and serves a practical purpose in determining whether the relationship can get back on the right track in the foreseeable future.

As a first step, both sides must have a sensible understanding of the ideological differences between the two sides. Fifty years ago, the labels “communist China” and “U.S. imperialism” were the dominant or prevailing perceptions on each side. But thanks to the profound strategic vision of the countries’ leaders, significant ideological differences were set aside.

Thirty years ago, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, ideological factors again drove U.S. perceptions of China, and the Clinton administration oscillated on whether to link most-favored-nation status with human rights, but eventually took a pragmatic approach and avoided jeopardizing U.S. economic interests over ideological differences.

In recent years, because of strategic adjustments and a reshaping of policy by the Trump and Biden administrations, China-U.S. competition and confrontation have expanded to broader areas of trade, science, technology, defense and geopolitics. More worrying is that the situation is gradually evolving into a confrontation between two institutions, two systems and two ideologies.

But the U.S. should have drawn lessons from history. It should acknowledge the ideological differences between the two countries, recognize the hazards of ideological disputes and avoid hyping or amplifying such differences. More important, ideology should not dominate bilateral relations to the detriment of its own interests.

The key to getting China-U.S. relations back on track is for both sides to rationally examine each other’s interests and aspirations. Looking back at the development of bilateral ties since the normalization of relations, the interests of the two countries have evolved in line with the dynamics of the international situation and balance of national strength. Over the past 50 years, adjustments in their respective interests and efforts to manage conflicts of those interests have been key to the interaction and peaceful coexistence of China and the United States.

We are in the midst of changes at a scale unseen in a century — including a pandemic. The world has entered a new period of turbulence and change, and the historic transition from the post-Cold War era to the post-pandemic era is now in motion. At the same time, the power balance between China and the United States is evolving, with China’s economic output reaching a historic mark of 75 percent of that of the U.S., and its international influence now parallel to the U.S. in many places and in many sectors.

The development of any country’s national power will always mean changed interests. The U.S. should be fully aware of the changes of the times, understand the changes in China’s interests, respect China’s position and interests on core sensitive issues and deal with competing interests in the relationship in an objective and rational manner. More important, the U.S. should abandon its so-called long-term strategy, which is based on the assumption that China’s expanding interests stem from an intent to seek hegemony and replace it. The U.S. should abandon its established policy of encircling and competing against China’s interests.

Whether the China-U.S. relationship can get back on the right track hinges on practical cooperation in areas of converging interests. One of the reasons why the U.S.-China relationship has continued to grow over the past 50 years is that the two sides have always been able to find common interests and cooperate effectively, enabling them to drive the bilateral relationship forward. At the outset of the normalization of China-U.S. relations, both fully recognized their common interests in the international landscape and used them to implement specific strategic arrangements in foreign policy. The changes in the Sino-U.S.-Soviet triangle reshaped the world. In the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, for example, China and the U.S. responded to the crisis with a view to developing their respective economies and ensuring the stability of the world economy, pushing their relations in the new century to a new level.

In the current competitive situation between China and the United States, there remains a wide range of common interest, including biosecurity, multiple new security threats in the digital era, dealing with regional hot spot issues and global challenges under new circumstances in the post-pandemic era. Balancing competition and cooperation and developing strategic cooperation in areas of converging interests should guide the way forward for China and the United States. 

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