For much of 2018, the increasingly escalating economic friction between China and the US has been dominated their relations. Unfortunately, the trade war impacts both countries’ strategic judgments toward each other and is rapidly spreading to the fields of politics, military, security, and culture. China suspects the US of accelerating adjustments to its strategy toward China to comprehensively contain its rise. Meanwhile, the US accuses China of interfering in its internal affairs by taking revenge on soybean producers. Even worse, the Hudson Institute speech delivered by the US Vice President, Mike Pence on October 9th brought China-US differences over values to a new high.
Various negative events combined — including disputes on trade, Taiwan, the South China Sea, and human rights — have sent China-US relations into doldrums. The United States strategic community shares an understanding that the engagements over the past years have not delivered the expected effect of changing China, and has instead made China a principal competitor. They believe it is time to make fundamental changes to their strategy toward China, but that the US must play by ear to find out how. For some time, the discussion in the Chinese strategic community has revolved around two questions: If US policies toward China are transformed to comprehensive containment, how should China respond to them? Furthermore, what adjustments should be made to China’s reform and development plans?
Although the Xi-Trump meeting in Buenos Aires on December 1, 2018 was dubbed successful, the path China-US relations takes has changed. Both sides and the international community have to accept the reality that the bilateral relations have entered a “new normal”, in which competition coexists with, but outweighs, cooperation. The “New Normal” may manifest in various complicated forms. Despite the ongoing cooperation in different fields, some aspects of the relationship will likely become worse than before: Chinese and US public opinion as well as media attitudes towards each other could become emotional and hostile; domestic politics may have a “lock-in effect” on diplomatic decisions; trade friction may continue; political and cultural relations may suffer; military conflicts at sea might intensify; and the competition for power to shape international order will begin to surface. A “technological Cold War” between China and the US may be underway, and other issues may surface, such as tightened visa rules, sanctions on important entities and individuals, and routine US arms sales to Taiwan.
Today’s US is no longer the unparalleled, unstoppable power that it was at the end of the Cold War. Great changes have taken place in China and the world since the establishment of China-US diplomatic relations in 1979. As both internal and external factors have changed, China-US relations will not follow the pattern of the past 40 years, and their foundations will not remain unchanged.
The establishment in the US misunderstand China, believing it is attempting to undermine the leading role of the US and eventually supplant it. They also hold that China-US competition on the international stage is essentially a contest between Western democracies and authoritarian countries, led by China and Russia, and represents a conflict between two value systems. By stirring up chaos in the systems, President Trump is not only reshaping the standards for international rules, but forcing US allies to take sides, for example, on the renegotiation of the established free trade agreements. The Trump administration has given clear signals that it will adjust its policies toward China, making it more likely that China-US relations will continue to decline.
Nevertheless, both China and the US are well aware that their countries, with huge economic aggregates, are bound together by profoundly intertwined interests. Furthermore, changes in bilateral relations may have a far-reaching impact. Therefore, even if there are irreconcilable structural contradictions and an inevitable intense competition, all-out and direct confrontations must be avoided, divisions must be managed, and partnerships must be sustained in areas that are workable. This is not only wishful thinking, but also a realistic option although it faces considerable uncertainties. It is going to take time to see whether satisfactory results can be delivered.
On the 40th anniversary of the establishment of China-US diplomatic ties, it is just as important to look back at history for planning the future. It is necessary to address the “New Normal” of China-US relations with a “New Paradigm” in view of significant changes in the power balance between China and the US. However, to do so, a stable “co-opetition” relationship is needed.
In order to reach the new paradigm, China and the US should redefine their positions in the global economic system, reduce conflicts of interest in the global industry chain, and avoid the breakdown of global systems. In this way, China and the US can continue shouldering the responsibility of driving global economic growth, rather than create a lose-lose situation by competing with and fighting each other.
In order to enable the new paradigm, both sides need to deal seriously with each other’s list of “core interests” — the list should be as short as possible, and must rationally regulate and restrain the use of domestic politics in changing bilateral relations, so as to avoid a situation where domestic politics put relations in a bind. Meanwhile, the two countries must practice mutual respect, including mutual non-interference. In the next few years, the outcome of the China-US race will not depend on their performance on the international stage, but rather their practical results in addressing domestic issues and promoting nation-building based on their own value systems.
Moreover, the new paradigm requires China and the US to focus on global peace, stability and development, and discard narrow-minded thinking that centers on geopolitical strategic competition. The new paradigm must focus on the development of a strong sense of community with a shared future for major countries, break the rule that a war is inevitable between an emerging power and an established one. And before that, the new paradigm may have to allow for the existence and extension of strategic competition, but its definition and scope must be specified so as to enable limited competition characterized by self-control and mutual temperance.
In the future, a major battleground for the head-on strategic competition between China and the US will be the Western Pacific. Small and medium-sized Asian nations and peripheral developing countries are important third parties, from whom China and the US must seek support. Countries like Russia, India, Japan, and Australia will have a significant impact on China-US strategic competition, and developments of hotspot issues such as the South China Sea tensions, the Taiwan issue, the North Korean nuclear threat, and the Iranian nuclear program will influence how China and the US rearrange their interests in different regions. China cannot stay out of the issues, whether near or far from the Chinese territory.
The new paradigm requires both sides to improve high-level dialogue and communication mechanisms. It requires them to clarify their strategic intentions and establish an interaction channel commensurate with major-country relations. Both countries must enter into regular strategic dialogues and manage differences and forestall risks for the sake of the world’s strategic stability. They must strengthen institutional dialogues and professional exchanges between their military forces, prioritize the establishment of high-level rules of conduct to facilitate their coexistence in the Western Pacific, and reach a consensus on the power structure in the region, so that a security framework for coexistence can be built upon it.
China and the US should continue deepening and expanding their existing areas of cooperation, such as maintaining energy security, non-proliferation, combating transnational crimes, control of infectious diseases, response to climate change and disaster relief, and cyberspace and outer space.
During the meeting at the G20 Summit in Argentina, the two leaders agreed to expand cooperation based on reciprocity and mutual benefit and manage differences based on mutual respect. It is probable that this is exactly the essence of the “New Paradigm”.
There may be three major differences between the “New Paradigm” and the “Old Paradigm”: firstly, the policies of China and the US towards each other no longer depend on unrealistic notions; secondly, the new paradigm puts more emphasis on the bottom line of avoiding conflicts; thirdly, the new paradigm needs the two countries to address bilateral relations on the global stage.