In their respective reviews of Sino-US relations at the end of the year, various institutions, governments, think tanks, mass media and individual observers, particularly in China and the United States, have divergent judgments about the state of those relations based on different intentions, perspectives and criteria. Among those sometimes conflicting observations, however, there is also one underlying consensus: Despite all the contradictions, entanglements and escalation in tensions, the great ship of Sino-US relations has always managed to plow through the waves.
Nowadays, more and more people are concerned about the China-US relationship, and to greater extents. With the exception of an extremely small number of countries, the boundary line between pro- and anti-China camps is getting increasingly blurred. The birth of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank was a typical case in point. It was expected that many developing countries would participate actively. But the US might have never anticipated that its traditional allies Britain, France, Germany, Australia and South Korea would become the first founding members of the AIIB, and that it could have failed to prevent those countries from taking part in a China-initiated public goods program for their own benefits. Their participation in the AIIB doesn’t mean they now shun America; they remain, for example, key members of such traditional institutions as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank. It only means that they no longer endorse the clear China-or-US demarcation as in the past. They can’t afford to just listen to the US only on Sino-US relations, not to mention that US stance regarding the AIIB has been widely criticized at home. The warming up of China-Britain, China-France, and China-Germany ties after President Xi Jinping’s US visit was telling proof.
Those countries care about the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement. But they also have shown great interest in the “One Belt, One Road” initiative China has proposed. Sure, the TPP is a magnificent trade mechanism some countries have conceived in the name of further promoting free trade, which may present benchmark criteria for future world trade. Any country aspiring to join the club must first satisfy those criteria. The TPP is obviously more political, less inclusive. The “One Belt, One Road” initiative is quite different: Starting with infrastructure construction, China and stake-holding countries are supposed to undertake projects they plan, build and share together. It conforms to the national conditions and needs of all participating countries, is pragmatic and inclusive, and makes it easier for host countries to see the practical benefits of the projects, and for other participants to receive moral and economic returns.
Debate on Sino-US relations is expected to continue. But a new type of state-to-state relationship has to be built. By and large, there have been three main ideas in the extensive debate over Sino-US ties since the beginning of 2015: One holds that post-Nixon US China policies have failed completely, and China is becoming, or has already become, a rivalry, and a strategic one, to the US. Typical statements include that China and the US are in a “time of mutual distrust”, and that the US needs to revise its grand China strategy, featuring the belief that China is challenging American global leadership, and the US must take tougher containment policies. The second proposes to maintain the policy of engagement, competition, regulation and cooperation, seek to establish security and economic cooperation mechanisms in the Asia-Pacific, and to not let the South China Sea issue become a flashpoint for a Sino-US “new cold war” or confrontation. The third advocates all-round cooperation, stating that both China and the US should have sufficient strategic patience, and seek points of cooperation based on common interests.
The first point of view is evidently extremist, but very influential and misleading. The second reflects majority opinion in the US, while the third sounds more or less idealistic. Though there has yet to be a similar major debate in China, and cooperation remains the main theme regarding Sino-US ties, radical opinions such as claims of Sino-US mutual suspicion, US containment of China, and the assumption that a war is inevitable between China and the US, have also been heard from time to time.
Leaders of both China and the US have taken the challenges to lead public opinion, create and take advantage of opportunities, explore ways for building a new type of major-country relationship, and sail against the current. After conclusion of the agreement on the Iran nuclear issue, President Obama called President Xi and praised China’s constructive role throughout the process. Before and after countries reached an agreement at the Paris climate summit, Obama called Xi, giving full credit to US-China leadership in facilitating the agreement. Xi’s US visit was fruitful in that it guaranteed the correct direction of building a new-type Sino-US major-country relationship; Obama also told Xi that he would leave a stable US-China relationship to the next administration. Bit by bit, both governments have been accumulating mutual confidence through practical moves and projects of collaboration.
A consensus is taking shape among celebrities, ordinary citizens, leaders and strategists in both countries that in spite of all the changes in global and international conditions, China and the US should not change their course of engagement and cooperation. In the current age of globalization and interconnection, with global and regional challenges like wars, terrorist attacks, natural disasters and slow economic recovery emerging and increasing all the time, no country can stay immune and cope with the threats single-handedly. There is little dispute that few global challenges can be handled properly without the joint participation and effective cooperation of China and the US. From the global perspective, historic changes are taking place in the connotations of relations between rising and incumbent powers. People from China, the US and the rest of the world share the hope that the two countries adapt to each other, leave room for each other, manage and control their disagreements, and work harder to seek collaboration. That is the only way for China, the US, and the rest of the world to see a promising future. Are China and the US ready? Instead of forming a “group of two”, China and the US share the responsibility to pursue the common goal of building a global community of shared destiny.