The current turbulence in China-U.S. relations is not so surprising after we witnessed the heated debate in United States strategic circles in 2015 over whether the U.S. should revise its policy toward China. Although there was no clear conclusion at the time, it seems many Chinese scholars believe there is now a bipartisan consensus in the U.S. that the China policy in the past four decades has failed. Currently, “decoupling” and “disengagement” are common words in both U.S. and Chinese circles, while fresh ideas concerning the bilateral relationship are rare.
The consensus on changing China policy is based on three misperceptions on the American side.
First, the U.S. perceives that China is dismissive of its power and believes that, sooner or later, it will surpass the U.S. to become the No. 1 global superpower. The imminent threat in the U.S. mind is that China will squeeze it out of the western Pacific.
To offset that scenario, the U.S. under former President Barak Obama initiated its “Pivot to Asia” or “Rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific” strategy. Donald Trump rebranded that as the Indo-Pacific Strategy.
Second, the U.S. perceives that China discredits U.S. democracy. Trump’s election in 2016 showed the flaws of the U.S. electoral system, as he won the White House via the electoral college while losing the national popular vote.
Although this wasn’t the first time in American history, it isn’t normally expected. Some Chinese media also joined in criticizing the efficiency and fairness of the presidential election mechanism, giving rise to some uneasiness on the U.S. side.
Third is the perception that China is dismantling the U.S.-led world order. In recent years, China has pushed forward many initiatives such as AIIB and Belt and Road Initiative, to increase China’s engagement with the world and fulfill the gap between the current world order and changing global dynamics.
Change brings both risks and challenges. But the U.S. only sees China as an ambitious and risky power that wants to replace the current world order at the expense of U.S. hegemony. It doesn’t see a rising China as an opportunity to build a fairer and more equitable international system.
These three misperceptions have led the U.S. to disappointment and frustration, amplifying the domestic voice that China has taken “a free ride” of the open U.S. system and its relatively liberal China policy of the past four decades. The fundamental reason for these misperceptions is that there is no longer a strategic framework within which the two countries can operate successfully with one another.
When Barack Obama was president, China raised the concept of “a new type of major country relationship,” as it sought a strategic framework to stabilize and guide bilateral relations. But this was basically denied by America. Strategic mutual trust can only be reduced when there is no framework that both sides can agree upon.
Now, the Trump administration tends to use “great power competition” to define relations between the U.S. and China. Of course, China could accept the concept of competition — one that is based on rules and has bottom lines. The U.S. also competes with its allies, including the EU, Japan and South Korea, but no matter how fierce the competition looks, it all falls under the overarching framework of the alliance system, which means the competition will not lead to any kind of military confrontation or conflict. In essence, the competition between them exists to reallocate resources and secure interests within the alliance.
Without a strategic framework, competition could easily lead to confrontation, because China is neither the Soviet Union during the Cold War nor Japan in the 1980s. The U.S. has no experience to inform its dealings with a rising China, and China lacks experience coexisting with a superpower like America.
The first step toward building a new strategic framework is maintain strategic restraint and understand each other’s thoughts. The philosophies of China and the U.S. are totally different: The Chinese prefer a broader framework first and then cooperation on concrete issues; Americans are just the opposite.
Meanwhile, points of cooperation should also be identified and expanded to help manage the current challenges in the bilateral relationship.
For instance, in terms of geopolitics, China and the U.S. could play positive roles in stabilizing the Asia-Pacific region, together with ASEAN countries. As for the international system, there remain numerous areas without norms or standards, such as cyberspace, and both countries should commit themselves to reaching common understandings and promoting basic regulations.
Another important step is that the two countries should resume high-level talks not limited to trade, so that concerns from both sides can be raised and misperceptions might be dispelled before it’s too late.