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Foreign Policy

Long-Term Peaceful Coexistence?

Apr 22, 2021
  • Chen Jimin

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

A diverse and colorful world is rooted in the peaceful coexistence of different species within the natural world. That said, coexistence should be a real and natural state. In terms of the human development, people of different races and ethnicities, of different historical and cultural backgrounds and at different levels of development, have communicated and interacted with one another to jointly create splendid human civilizations.

From a political point of view, the international community comprises countries having different forms of government — monarchies, republics and people’s democratic dictatorships. They may choose to embark on the capitalist or socialist road, but whatever form of government and state they may choose, they are all part of the same world. In this sense, the choice of the form of society and culture, political system and road of development should not be a cause of rivalry but a driving force for learning from each other and jointly advancing the development of human civilization.

The world is undergoing changes unseen in a century. From the point of view of the development of human civilizations, it brings both challenges and opportunities, and the key is how we make a choice. Relations between the two most important and representative big powers in the world, China and the U.S., will without doubt produce significant impacts on the evolution of human civilization. This explains why the international community is highly concerned about the trends in relations between the two nations.

There is no question that China-U.S. relations face big challenges, and there is also great uncertainty about development trends. But one thing is certain: China and the U.S. will coexist, although the ways and state of long-term coexistence may vary when different policies are chosen.

In their history, China and the U.S. have witnessed four kinds of coexistence: hostile coexistence, cooperative coexistence, competitive coexistence and belligerent coexistence. During the Cold War, China and the U.S. were drawn into the stage of hostile coexistence immediately after the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and they even fought a war. Even under those circumstances, their exchanges and interactions did not come to a complete standstill. The China visit by President Richard Nixon in 1972 kick-started the normalization process of bilateral relations, which entered into a state of cooperative coexistence after normalization in 1979.

The two countries then had frequent interactions on all fronts, including economy, security, science and technology, culture and people-to-people exchanges, and they even developed a sort of quasi-alliance. Even during this honeymoon period, China and the U.S. also had many conflicts, and on some issues, very serious ones.

When the Cold War ended, China-U.S. relations moved into a stage of competitive coexistence characterized by the simultaneous existence of competition and cooperation. In other words, it could be defined by the coined term “coopetition.” But the stage of coopetition did not come readily, as it was established after the two countries had undergone continuous wrestling and tussling in the 1990s.

This stage could then be divided into two periods: cooperative competition and competitive cooperation. The first lasted from the Sept. 11 terror attacks in 2001 to the first term of the Barack Obama administration, with cooperation outdoing competition. The manifestation of this period included the new positioning of China-U.S. relations as “responsible stakeholders” put forward by the George W. Bush administration in 2005, and the strategic positioning highlighted in the China-U.S. Joint Statement in 2011 emphasizing the commitment “to working together to build a cooperative partnership based on mutual respect and mutual benefit.”

The period of competitive cooperation referred mainly to Obama’s second term. Its main features were the U.S. strategy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific, a strategy aimed at countering China’s growing influence, as well as the tasks to deal with major power competition as put forth in the 2015 National Security Strategy. During this period, competition became more fierce, and on issues such as South China Sea and cybersecurity, the two sides were even engaged in intense and cutthroat tussling and wrestling.

In 2017 when President Donald Trump came to power, China-U.S. relations developed into a stage of turbulence, in particular when the U.S. defined China as a “strategic competitor” in the National Security Strategy released in December 2017. Then the U.S. began toughening its stance on China on all fronts, including trade, security, science, technology, culture and people-to-people exchange, and bilateral relations entered a stage of belligerent coexistence. The main feature of this stage was competition, sometimes even confrontation, but they still did not neglect any possibility for cooperation.

The Trump administration adopted a whole-of-government approach toward China, and to some extent, maneuvered domestically and internationally to counter or contain China. Against this backdrop, China-U.S. relations witnessed unprecedented setbacks, and the U.S. side created numerous obstacles for bilateral ties, blocking improvement and signaling that it would take time for bilateral relations to rebound to normalcy.

But how China-U.S. relations develop, in a sense, depends on the strategic choices of the U.S. alone. China pursues and upholds an independent foreign policy of peace, with independence as the core principle of its foreign policy. Under this principle, China resolutely safeguards its sovereignty, security and development interests and pushes forward the modernization process in line with the established strategy without being distracted or disrupted by external factors.

With safeguarding and promoting world peace as the core tenet of China’s foreign policy, China will, on the basis of the commonly recognized international norms as reflected by the principles enshrined in the United Nations Charter, seek long-term peaceful coexistence with countries of different social systems and ideology.

No doubt, that also includes seeking long-term peaceful coexistence with the U.S. As a matter of fact, China has remained consistent in its foreign policy principles and stance in dealing with the U.S., regardless of the changes of the U.S. administration — that is, seeking to build a new model of relations featuring non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation. The new model accords with the best interests of both sides and is also the common expectation of the international community.

Whether this vision can materialize, however, relies on joint efforts by both countries. What is worrysome is that the Joe Biden administration is sticking to the China policy of the Trump administration and in some ways is even more confrontational. It has been reported that the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee will deliberate and endorse the bipartisan Strategic Competition Act of 2021, which aims to show and strengthen the U.S. capacity and resolve in countering China.

Now, the ball is in the court of the U.S. Whether China-U.S. relations will develop toward a state of cooperative coexistence or worsen to a stage of hostile coexistence, the critical factor will be the strategic judgement and policy choices of the U.S. itself. Let’s wait and see if the Biden administration can make a historic decision that will promote the advancement of human civilization.

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