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Foreign Policy

Let’s Not Be Overly Pessimistic

May 16, 2023
  • Chen Jimin

    Guest Researcher, Center for Peace and Development Studies, China Association for International Friendly Contact

In recent years, the international community’s description of the direction and impact of China-U.S. relations has been permeated with pessimism — relations will suffer a free fall, the two countries will have a new cold war, there will be two parallel worlds, globalization is dead and semi-globalization is on the rise, etc. Such concerns are not unfounded.

Since the Trump administration, the United States has viewed China as its primary strategic challenge. The Biden administration even sees China as the only competitor posing a threat to its global dominance. With this background, the United States has adopted a whole-of-government, all-encompassing competitive posture. The Republican and Democratic parties are working together to constrain China; the executive and legislative branches are closely cooperating; and the United States is applying economic, military, technological, and ideological pressure. In addition, the U.S. is carrying out an international and domestic mobilization against China. All this has brought a new, all-encompassing, all-of-society aspect to U.S. competition.

It is noteworthy that the U.S. government has played up China’s threat at home, planting the seeds of long-term stagnation and hostility at the social level. In recent Pew and Gallup surveys, negative views of China have reached record highs, with 83 percent of American respondents expressing negative attitudes toward China in the Pew survey, and 50 percent in the Gallup survey identifying China as the United States’ main enemy (compared with 32 percent for Russia and 7 percent for the DPRK).

In response to the extreme pressure policy of the United States, China has launched a tit-for-tat struggle in its policy discourse and practices toward the U.S. For example, it has repeatedly used the term “containment” to describe the essence of the U.S. policy. China’s top leader has also criticized the United States by name for “blocking and suppressing” China.

However, from another perspective, China and the United States are increasingly aligning on certain fundamental issues in their interactive game. In November 2021, during a video call with U.S. President Joe Biden, President Xi Jinping proposed three principles for China-U.S. relations in the new era: mutual respect for each other’s social systems and development paths, core interests and major concerns, as well as the right to development; peaceful coexistence; and win-win cooperation.

Over the course of more than two years of interaction, the U.S. government has begun to gradually accept these three principles at the policy discourse level. For example, in October 2022, the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy stated the U.S. intention to peacefully coexist with China.

During the China-U.S. leaders’ meeting in Bali, Indonesia, in November last year, Biden said that the United States respects China’s system and does not seek to change it. He expressed a desire to avoid a new cold war and said the U.S. would avoid its allies to oppose China. He made it clear that the U.S. does not support Taiwan independence, two Chinas or “one China, one Taiwan.” He added that the United States is not looking for conflict and has no intention to decouple, or to obstruct China’s economic development, or to contain it. This was a positive response to the principles of mutual respect and peaceful coexistence.

On April 20, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen further emphasized this point in a speech on the China-U.S. economic relationship at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, stating that the Biden administration does not view the competition between the China and the U.S. as a zero-sum game.

“Some see the relationship between the U.S. and China through the frame of great power conflict: a zero-sum, bilateral contest where one must fall for the other to rise,” she said. “President Biden and I don’t see it that way.”

She added that the U.S. and China can find a path of coexistence and mutual benefit: “We believe that the world is big enough for both of us. China and the United States can and need to find a way to live together and share in global prosperity.” This statement aligns with China’s position of peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation.

As a result, China and the United States are beginning to show some signs of moving closer toward each other on major strategic issues, potentially establishing important common ground and offering hope for positive changes in China-U.S. relations in the future. However, there remains a significant gap between the Biden administration’s policy discourse and its actions towards China — inconsistencies between its words and deeds. Hope for a positive relationship between the two countries requires not only rhetoric but also the fulfillment of promises. Obviously, the U.S. government falls short in this regard. Therefore, China needs to give more weight to the practical policies of the United States.

Actions speak louder than words. Both countries taking practical action to fulfill policy commitments is a crucial step in forestalling strategic mistrust and cultivating basic mutual trust. This is extremely important and urgent for current China-U.S. relations. 

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