Sino-US relations face uncertain prospects. Throughout history, preserving the space for change has let the two powers mitigate conflicts that inevitably arise between them.
I. Two frameworks for understanding 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 elements. 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 Cold War — including the Korean War and the Vietnam War — fueled a China-US confrontation. This standoff relaxed after the Sino-Soviet Split and the US withdrawal from Vietnam created conditions for China-US reconciliation. After the establishment of diplomatic ties, bilateral considerations gradually became dominant in their policies towards the other nation, while other factors faded in importance (while still far from negligible). The influence of any individual country as a third-party factor in China-US relations decreased, while multilateral influences and global considerations grew — a tendency increasingly apparent in recent years as China has risen. This development seems natural for two countries of worldwide influence. For China, a broader global vision requires paying more attention to previously unfamiliar factors when analyzing and handling shifts in US policy. Sufficient understanding in this regard remains lacking in China.
Second, the underlying force driving the evolution of China-US relations is actually China’s internal reform — meanwhile, whether ties are close or distant is largely based 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 and upheavals in the twentieth century produced profound transformations. These included the 1911 Revolution, the May 4th Movement, World War II, the Communist Party’s victory in the Chinese Civil War, the Sino-Soviet Split, and the start of reform and opening up at the end of the 1970s. Second, a deeper analysis reveals that the two countries’ changing views of the future have prompted policy readjustments. In studies and discussions of China-US relations, much attention is paid to whether they have shared or opposing interests. For major countries like China or the US, the give and take of interests is to a great extent based on judging the future course of world events. In this fashion, finding common ground on what form the future will take is of paramount importance for the stability of China-US relations.
II. Four historical lessons for handling China-US relations
One, regardless of the bilateral relationship’s status, it must be remembered that the two countries differ greatly in national conditions. When handling Sino-US ties, efforts must be made to deepen understanding of the other to avoid and reduce misjudgment, and to formulate more targeted policies. History shows that for a major power like China or the US, external influence over 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 each country chooses, and its particular road to modernization, must be rooted in its own history and culture: improvements must be based on the practices and experiences of its own people.
Two, at critical junctures when changing circumstances create conflict, China and the US must keep calm, exercise restraint, and stay clear-eyed — only in this way can the two sides avoid escalating tensions and confrontation, and leave room to maneuver. 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 took great care to avoid harming Americans when ordering the second shelling of Kinmen. All of these actions helped to preserve some space for growth 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 weaknesses, so as to quell their own fears. Usually, when someone gets tough, they are afraid on the inside. For great powers to reduce such fears, they must understand each other’s assets and limitations. This mutual comprehension provides the preconditions for mutual trust. For example, for decades 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 could not 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. The process of normalizing relations soon followed. Now, for the first time in history, America fears China as its main challenger. It may well take creative reappraisals for the two countries to understand each other’s true intentions, strengths, and limitations — only then can the two powers 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 normalizing relations. The period prior to China’s reform and opening up showed clear examples of these qualities: from President Nixon’s visit to Beijing when there were still no diplomatic ties, to creating liaison offices and establishing formal diplomatic relations. In the current predicament, to build a future-oriented China-US relationship, greater wisdom and creativity are needed, alongside more observations 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 including the Gulf War, the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq War, and the global financial crisis have postponed the outbreak of China-US disagreements, even as 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 closer links to the rest of the world than ever before, thus putting itself under unprecedented constraints. Recent shifts in Sino-US ties may be best understood through four key aspects.
First, the recent wave of globalization, driven by the high-tech sector and information revolution, 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. It is within this context that China-US disagreements have surfaced.
Second, China has become the most important actor in today’s world and needs to readjust its mindset accordingly when handling external relations, as it accumulates experience in great power competition. As the second-largest economy, China now enjoys unprecedented international influence. At the same time, as the Chinese reform process enters what President Xi Jinping has called 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 domestic and foreign policy. 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 outside environment that Beijing must estimate and prepare for external responses to China’s words and deeds. China must 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 have already entered a state of comprehensive competition, with the old foundations for mutual trust no longer existing. Since the establishment of diplomatic ties, the large gap between the two countries’ overall national strength provided the basis for mutual trust, along with shared security needs and economic complementarity. However, with China’s rapid development, comprehensive competition has gradually emerged in recent years. The speed of this change has surprised many, but it is actually an outcome that China and the US would have had to face sooner or later. Now new questions arise: where is this competition going? Will it lead to societal decoupling and even vicious confrontation? Or is it still possible to shift towards fair competition alongside continuing cooperation? The desirable outcome is clear: we must avoid the former 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 much-hyped question — “When will China replace the US?” — is actually a false proposition. The future world order will surely be multipolar and pluralistic instead of a repeat of the twentieth century. The current model of the US as sole superpower will hardly be sustainable. Rather, 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 amid inevitable competition? The question challenges not only China and the US but also the rest of the world. Reform and opening up began a process for China to integrate itself into the existing world system — through it, China has developed and grown. To persist on the path 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, developed and developing alike. 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. These steps will require engagement among many participants, and the ongoing China-US trade negotiation is only the beginning.