In recent years, many observers have noted the changes in America’s strategic perceptions and policies toward China. But relatively little attention has been paid to how China sees the development of bilateral relations. In fact, where China U.S. relations are headed increasingly depends on the strategic positioning and policy interaction of the two sides. Therefore, it is helpful that we examine the evolution of China’s perception of the course and direction of relations to better understand the present and future. In general, since 2012, China’s perception of the development of relations has gone through three stages:
• First, promote the building of a new type of major country relations between China and the United States.
Both China and the United States have expressed their willingness to explore a new type of major country relations. In March 2013, during his phone conversation with U.S. President Barack Obama, President Xi Jinping stated that China was firmly committed to promoting and preserving China-U.S. relations and advancing cooperation and partnership. In April this year, when meeting with Secretary of State John Kerry, President Xi pointed out that the two sides should develop a new type of major country relationship based on equality, mutual trust, mutual learning and win-win cooperation. And then in early June, when President Xi met with President Obama at Annenberg, he again made clear that the two countries should work together to build a new type of major country relationship. On Dec. 4, President Xi proposed during his meeting with Joe Biden, who was U.S. vice president at the time, that the two countries should strive to build a new type of major country relationship that is free of conflict and confrontation and based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation. Obama also said the United States stood ready to work with China to build a new model of major power relations based on healthy competition rather than strategic competition. Since then, “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” have become the defining features of the relationship.
Non-conflict and non-confrontation is the bottom line; mutual respect is the prerequisite; and win-win cooperation is the goal.
• Second, promote a China-U.S. relationship defined by coordination, cooperation and stability.
In December 2018, President Xi emphasized during his meeting with President Trump that the two sides should expand cooperation on the basis of mutual benefit, manage differences on the basis of mutual respect and jointly promote a China U.S. relationship defined by coordination, cooperation and stability. During the Trump administration, China repeatedly emphasized the need to promote a relationship defined by coordination, cooperation and stability. However, after the Biden administration took office, China has made less reference to its position on bilateral relations, suggesting to some extent that its stated position on bilateral ties was only in the context of the Trump administration and was somewhat transitional in nature.
• Third, orient China-U.S. relations toward the future.
In November 2021, during a video meeting with Biden, President Xi proposed three principles needed for China and the United States to get along over the next 50 years — mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation. These three statements are generally consistent with the connotations of a new type of major country relationship, but the order of priority has changed.
The development of bilateral relations in the new era is, first of all, to achieve mutual respect — the core meaning of which is to respect the core interests and major concerns of the other party, and respect each other’s development paths and social systems. Peaceful coexistence is the basic requirement that highlights the bottom line of non-conflict and non-confrontation between China and the United States. It is also an important sign of whether the two countries can break the historical cycle of the Thucydides trap. Win-win cooperation is the ultimate goal and the natural outcome.
The three principles for the development of China U.S. relations in the new era are intertwined and progressive. In other words, without mutual respect, peaceful coexistence cannot be guaranteed, and win-win cooperation even less.
The three principles proposed by China, especially the emphasis on mutual respect, are closely related to the shift in U.S. strategic perceptions and policies toward China. Since the Trump administration, the U.S. has viewed China as its primary strategic competitor and has repeatedly stirred up troubles on affairs related to China’s core interests — principally over Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang but also undermining and hollowing out the one-China principle and seeking to internationalize the Taiwan question. This has seriously eroded the political basis for the development of China U.S. relations.
In addition, the U.S. has engaged in values diplomacy, attempting to frame China-U.S. relations in ideological terms, stirring up camp-confrontation and stepping up actions to contain China by decoupling in science and technology and taking China out of industrial and supply chains. All this has posed a comprehensive challenge to China’s sovereignty, security and development interests.
Thus, in China’s view, the U.S. has not only failed to move toward the goal of mutual respect but has taken steps backward — which is the most fundamental reason for the unprecedented challenges in the current China-U.S. relationship. Obviously, the key to getting the relationship out of its predicament depends on whether the United States can truly deliver respect.
The evolution of China’s positioning reflects the country’s increased initiative in defining and shaping the course of relations and discourse and demonstrating its confidence in approaching the U.S. on equal footing. It also reflects China’s continuity of perception with respect to the importance and direction of development of the relations. In China’s view, the state of China -U.S. relations is not just a matter of serving the interests of the two peoples; it also has a bearing on peace and prosperity for the world. For this reason, China has always been committed to promoting a new type of great power relationship that is different from the historical pattern.
In other words, building a new type of major country relationship between China and the United States is China’s direction and goal. Yet the establishment of such a relationship is not demanded by China alone, nor can it be achieved through the efforts of China alone. It requires both sides to work together in the same direction. Now that the China-U.S. relationship is at a crossroads, where it goes next depends on the strategic choices of both countries.