China-US relations are entering a new stage of flux, with uncertain prospects. We should remember that history shows how restraint and preserving the space for change can allow the two giants to navigate around the tension in their complex relationship.
I. From a historical perspective, there are two noteworthy factors influencing China-US relations.
First, to understand this bilateral relationship and its evolution, we must place it within a multilateral framework. Historically, the evolution of China-US relations was affected to a large extent by third-party or multilateral factors. For example, in the 1930s and 1940s, Japanese aggression and expansion was the most important factor driving China and the US together. From the end of the 1940s through the early 1970s, the US-Soviet Cold War, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War fueled a China-US standoff and confrontation—the Sino-Soviet Split and the US withdrawal from Vietnam created conditions for China-US reconciliation. After establishment of diplomatic ties, bilateral considerations gradually became dominant in their policies towards the other nation, while other factors became less important but still not negligible. The influence of any individual country as a single third-party factor in China-US relations decreased, while the influence of multilateral factors and global consideration grew—a tendency increasingly apparent in recent years along with China’s rise. This seems natural for two countries of global influence. For China, a broader world vision and more attention to various previously unfamiliar factors become necessary in analyzing and dealing with US policy changes. Sufficient understanding in this regard remains lacking in China.
Second, the underlying drivers of this evolution in China-US relations are actually reforms inside China—while the closeness or distance between the two countries depends to a large extent on the two sides’ judgements of the world’s future. The bilateral relationship is shaped jointly by the two countries in an interactive process. Generally speaking, given their different overall national strengths and positions in the international system, the US has the initiative in the evolving relationship with China. Nonetheless, at a deeper level, two factors dominate this evolution: first, reforms inside China. A historical review of China-US relations suggests that a series of major Chinese reforms in the 20th century produced profound transformations, such as the 1911 Revolution, the May 4th Movement, the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, the Communist Party victory, the Sino-Soviet Split, and start of reform and opening up at the end of the 1970s. Second, a deeper analysis reveals that their respective views of the future to a large extent determine whether and to what extent they are close to each other. Changing views in this regard have provoked policy readjustments in both countries. In studies and discussions of China-US relations, much attention is paid to whether they have shared or opposing interests. For large countries like China or the US, the give and take of interests is to a great extent based on its judgement on the future course of the world. In this fashion, finding common ground on what form the future will take is of particular importance for the stability of China-US relations.
II. Four basic lessons for handling China-US bilateral relations
One, regardless of the bilateral relationship’s status, it must be remembered that the two countries differ greatly in national conditions—when handling mutual relations, efforts must be sustained to deepen understanding of the other to avoid and reduce misjudgment, and to formulate more targeted policies. History shows that for a big country like China or the US, external influence on its internal affairs and development path is limited. Through wider and deeper exchanges with other countries, one gets to learn from others’ experiences. Yet the system and road to development of any country must be rooted in its own history and culture, and improvements must be based on the practices and experiences of its own people.
Two, at critical junctures when changing circumstances create conflict between them, it is necessary for both China and the US to keep calm, exercise restraint, and to stay clear-eyed—only in this way can the two sides avoid escalating tensions and confrontation, and leave room for further change. From the latter half of the 1940s to the end of 1960s, except for the struggle on the Korean Peninsula, the two countries’ leaders were quite mindful in this regard, and their bark was worse than their bite. For example, President Truman decided not to get involved in the Chinese Civil War or expand the Korean War into China, while Chairman Mao paid much attention to avoid harming Americans while ordering the second shelling of Kinmen. All of these actions helped to preserve some opportunity for change in China-US relations.
Three, to a certain extent, it is through standoff and confrontation that China and the US gain mutual understanding and more importantly grasp each other’s strengths and limitations, so as to quell their own fears. Usually when someone gets tough, they are afraid on the inside. For big countries to reduce such fears, they must understand each other’s strengths and limitations, which provide preconditions for mutual trust. For example, for long after its founding, the People’s Republic of China worried about an armed US invasion, while the US feared expansion by the Chinese Communist Party in Asia. By the 1970s China saw that the US couldn’t even win the Vietnam War, while the US saw that China was plagued with the enormous internal problems of the Cultural Revolution: in this way, old worries vanished. Then the normalization process followed. Now, for the first time in history, there is fear in the US of China being the main challenger. It may well take creative reappraisals for the two countries to understand each other’s true intentions, strengths, and limitations and look squarely at the necessity of continuing cooperation.
And four, to shape a China-US relationship suited to the times, it takes wisdom, creativity and the courage to break with convention. There is ample evidence of this in the process of normalizaing relations. The period prior to China’s reform and opening up showed great examples of these qualities: from President Nixon’s visit to Beijing when there were still no diplomatic ties, to creating liaison offices and then establishing diplomatic. In the current predicament, to build a future-oriented China-US relationship, greater wisdom and more creativity are needed, along with more observation from a global perspective and more reflection on how to stabilize and improve the international order.
III. Four new factors influencing China-US relations
The starting point of change in the China-US relationship can be traced to the end of the Cold War. Since then, a series of events such as the Gulf War, the 9/11 attack, the Iraq War, and the global financial crisis have postponed the outbreak of China-US disagreements. China’s relations with the rest of the world and its national security became sensitive around the year 2000. Integration into the world economy has been an important driver of China’s successful reform and opening up. As a result, China has established an unprecedentedly close link to the rest of the world, thus putting itself under unprecedented constraints.
First, the recent wave of globalization driven by the high-tech sector and informatization has brought with it many new problems, leading to increased competition between countries, especially major powers. New problems — including rapid capital flows, fast relocation of manufacturing and industrial chains, artificial intelligence eliminating traditional jobs, a widening wealth gap, an ailing middle class, rising populism and blurred boundaries between internal and external affairs—have impacted all countries to varying degrees. In this context, China-US disagreements have surfaced.
Second, China has become the most important factor in today’s world and needs to readjust its mindset in handling external relations, while accumulating experience in great power competition. As the second-largest economy, China now enjoys unprecedented international influence. At the same time, as reform enters into the ‘deep-water zone’ where future problems will be harder to solve, China’s internal development is confronted with uncertainties. In this situation, it is natural for the US, along with other major countries and neighbors to pay close attention to changes in China’s internal affairs and diplomacy. They all must assess, prepare for, and guard against various developments in China. China’s own development is so closely linked to changes in the external environment that Beijing must estimate and prepare for external responses to China’s words and deeds. It is necessary to make sufficient preparations and plans for follow-up actions when undertaking an initiative.
Third, structural contradictions have already appeared between China and the US as the two countries are already in a situation of comprehensive competition, with the old foundations for mutual trust no long existing. Since the establishment of diplomatic ties, the large gap in the two countries’ overall national strength provided the basis for mutual trust, as China and the US shared security needs and economic complementarity. However, with China’s rapid development, a situation of comprehensive competition has gradually emerged in recent years. The speed of this change has surprised many people, but it is actually something that China and the US would have had to face sooner or later. Now the question arises: where is this competition going? Will it become vicious and lead to societal decoupling or even confrontation? Or is it still possible to develop fair competition while continuing cooperation? The desired outcome is clear: we must avoid the former situation and strive for the latter.
Fourth, the compatibility between the Chinese model and the existing world system will be the key to peace, development, and win-win cooperation. The hyped-up question — “When will China replace the US?” — is actually a false proposition. The future world will for sure be a multipolar and pluralistic one instead of a repeat of the 20th century. The current model of the US as sole superpower will hardly be sustainable. The true question is: how will China and the US, two countries with mutually beneficial economic links and many common interests alongside their very different systems and institutions, face the future world amid competition? The question challenges not only China and the US but also the rest of the world. Reform and opening up started a process for China to integrate itself into the existing world system and China has thus developed and grown. To persist on the road of peaceful development, China will have to learn, mastering the art of looking at itself from the rest of the world’s perspective. While maintaining its own interests, it is necessary for China to properly handle disagreements with other countries, both developed and developing ones. As a matter of fact, these disagreements are neither few nor insignificant — it’s not possible to duck these issues. To promote reform of the global governance system and develop a community of common destiny for all mankind, we must first avoid confrontation, mitigate structural contradictions, and establish an order with rules that are acceptable to all. This will require engagement among many participants, and the ongoing China-US trade negotiation is only the beginning.