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Foreign Policy

It Takes Two to Tango

Jun 24 , 2020
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor, National Niigata University in Japan

After six months of persistent tensions in relations between China and the United States, Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China Central Committee, met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a closed-door meeting in Hawaii on June 16 and 17.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Cheng Li, director of the China Center at the Brookings Institution, said the meeting could be seen as a “Nixon coming to China” moment. Although it is still too early to make any judgment, the fact that talks took place represents a relaunch of the countries’ long-stalled strategic dialogue at the highest level of diplomacy.

The significance of the talks should not be underestimated — after all, Pompeo’s words and actions have been one of the focal points in China-U.S. confrontation over the past few months. According to official Chinese media, Yang attended the meeting at the invitation of the United States government, but the fact that the talks were held in Hawaii reflects China’s proactive stance. The future of the China-U.S. relationship needs to be shaped together.

It is true that U.S. perceptions of China largely determine the direction of bilateral relations, but China’s initiative can also significantly influence how the U.S. views China. In this sense, the future of bilateral relations also hinges on Chinese actions.

No matter who is elected president of the United States in November, the new U.S. administration’s primary focus will stay on domestic affairs, with a sustained emphasis on domestic economic development. The strategic need of the U.S. is a favorable international environment to ensure its domestic development, and the ups and downs that have happened and that will happen in its relations with China will not change the nature of it.

For China, managing differences and maintaining communication will not only help prevent miscalculations due to worsening relations but also pave the way for establishing a normal working relationship with the next U.S. administration.

China’s proactive stance in the Hawaii talks also sends a political signal that China is committed to developing bilateral ties, regardless how the U.S. government changes. At the same time, reform and development in the years to come require China to seize strategic opportunities to promote a peaceful and stable external environment. In this sense, China-U.S. relations are not on the brink of hopelessness, because both countries have the same basic strategic needs in the international system.

Second, to help the United States shape an objective perception of China, it remains important for China to continue to make it clear that it has no strategic design to replace the United States and does not see the United States as a declining power.

In his memoir “Strategic Dialogue,” former Chinese State Councilor Dai Bingguo repeatedly says that in the China-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, China stressed on many occasions that it doesn’t agree with current theories about American decline. Some may argue that it’s pointless to say anything now, given the current U.S. sentiment toward China; others may argue that because China has risen on the world stage, continuing to tout these same old principles may not ease the distrust in the United States.

I believe that in its strategic communication with the U.S., China wants to help Washington correctly understand its thinking — that is, America is not in decline and China is not the Soviet Union and does not want a new Cold War.

For the United States, self-confidence and the avoidance of misjudgments are the first steps to shaping an accurate view of China. But these statements, discussed in previous strategic dialogues, may not be well-known to the Trump administration, considering that the China-U.S. Strategic Dialogue hasn’t been held for many years and that government transitions in the United States have diluted policy consistency.

Third, in China, bilateral dialogues have a dampening effect on the spread of pessimism about relations. As China continues to grow, expectations and demands for a role in foreign relations are rising among social elites and the wider society. On the other hand, fluctuations in China-U.S. relations are likely to create stark discrepancies between expectations and reality, thus triggering the spread of pessimism.

In the realm of international relations, perception is mutually constructed, and the speed at which that happens in the information age is astonishing. Because of the political polarization in the United States, it is difficult to expect the U.S. to maintain a consistent perception of China. This means that China needs to proactively present a stable picture to U.S. citizens in ways that lead to sound perceptions.

The China-U.S. Strategic Dialogue, which began in 2005, is designed to address the issue of how the U.S. views China. But after 15 years, and given the current situation, the way China sees the United States has become increasingly important. This is of great significance for the U.S. in developing an accurate perception of China and of itself.

As Dr. Henry Kissinger said, China and the U.S. need to develop a mutually evolving relationship. Thus, the future of the relationship requires effort from both sides.

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