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Foreign Policy

In Search of a New Model

Nov 22, 2022
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

The recent face-to-face meeting of Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden in Bali, Indonesia, was their first in-person meeting since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. It sent a reassuring message to a world fraught with uncertainties.

In February 2012, then-Vice President Xi paid a visit to the U.S. and proposed a new type of major country relationship between China and the U.S., one oriented toward the 21st century. In the years that followed, building that new model has become an important keyword in bilateral relations. Yet China-U.S. relations have become severely strained in the past few years, with the narrative dominated by talk of decoupling, supply chain disruption, confrontation and a new cold war.

The Bali summit marks the return of China-U.S. relations to the right path, where both sides jointly explore a new model of major country relations after a decade of trial and error. Without doubt, this new journey will bring opportunities and challenges alike.

First, China and the United States should explore a new pattern of major country relations in light of reality and using an incremental approach. There is no set-in-stone model for bilateral ties. Neither the Thucydides trap nor analogies to the Cold War’s competitive coexistence between the United States and the Soviet Union applies to today’s multilevel, complex and highly interdependent China U.S. relationship.

Xi said in his meeting with Biden that the differences between China and the U.S. are nothing new and will continue to exist. These differences may be uncomfortable for the U.S., but facts have proved that neither China nor the United States can change the other. Only by recognizing and respecting these differences can the two sides find a new way to properly manage relations.

During the meeting, Biden reaffirmed America's “five nos” stance on relations with China, which in fact recognizes and respects the differences between the two countries. The two sides agreed that U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken would visit China at an early date, and immediately launch dialogue and cooperation at COP27. The two sides agreed to dialogues on public health, agriculture and food security.

We need to bear in mind that a single summit cannot solve all the problems in China-U.S. relations. Improvements in bilateral ties need to be achieved by solving specific problems on a continual basis. Geopolitical and ideological differences will continue to pose challenges, so how to actively carry out incremental reform and innovation despite this uncomfortable reality is central to the exploration of a new type of relationship.

Second, domestic political uncertainties in the U.S. pose a huge challenge to building a new type of major country relationship. In his news briefing after the summit, Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted that the meeting was the first engagement between the top leaders after the two countries completed major domestic events. The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China set strategic development goals for the future and elected new leadership, demonstrating a high degree of continuity and stability.

As for the U.S. midterm election, there was no “red wave” of Republicans taking over, as some feared there would be. Democrats held on to the Senate, giving the Biden administration a degree of domestic political elbow room for the next two years. What the midterms revealed is that American voters have little appetite for political extremism, but they do want party politics to reflect public opinion and the needs of the people.

If the Democrats, led by Biden, want to galvanize public support ahead of the 2024 presidential election, they must focus on the economy and people’s livelihoods. And this requires a stable international environment. The continuous high level of confrontation with China cannot solve the internal problems of the U.S. Now is the time for the United States to put into practice the goal of the Biden administration that “American foreign policy is for the middle class.”

This will require it to demonstrate political stability both in domestic affairs and China-U.S. relations. An important test will be to avoid a repeat of events like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which not only severely undermined the political foundation of China-U.S. relations but also exposed the fragility of the Biden administration’s domestic political foundation.

Third, the linear experience of the United States in achieving national security after World War II is a major obstacle to an innovative transformation toward a new type of thinking in great power relations. During the Cold War, the enemy of U.S. national security was the Soviet Union. After the Cold War, the focus shifted to so-called failed states. In the 21st century, America’s enemy was epitomized by terrorism.

The U.S. is on a constant mission to identify and defeat enemies. An important feature of U.S. national security strategy is to identify enemies or potential enemies — a concept that affects its allies. It is precisely because of the linear thinking and experience that the United States has been reluctant to accept China's proposal for a new pattern featuring no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.

However, major changes have taken place in the international landscape over the past decade, with the rise of emerging countries and the intertwining of the interests of countries around the world. Hence it is difficult for the U.S. to continue to act according to its earlier national security concept.

China and the United States are well positioned to make full use of the recent summit diplomacy. They can seize opportunities, properly manage challenges and renew the search for a new type of great power relationship. 

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