China-US relations have reached a new historic juncture, which is characterized by new dynamics in the interactions between the two countries at a strategic level. The result is a new configuration of China-US relations that will be stable if the US can set aside its eagerness to be dominant across the globe.
Configuration is a term often alluded to in the Chinese foreign policy lexicon. It refers to understanding and handling of a state of affairs or a situation. Terms such as international configuration or strategic configuration refer to both the circumstances of a given time, and the interaction and dynamics between actors in response to their comprehension of the circumstances. Therefore, as it is different from a “situation”,which is prone to change,when a certain “configuration” takes shape,it is more likely to be static.
The changes in the dynamics between China and the U.S. are driven by the shift in balance of power and international standing of China. Since its reform and opening up 30 years ago, China has grown into the second-largest economy in the world, with its economic aggregate topping $10 trillion, and significantly shrinking the gap with the U.S. In spite of the slowdown in recent years, China still drives 30% of global economic growth, remaining the biggest contributor. With its peaceful rise, China has made phenomenal achievements on the back of economic globalization, and has taken center stage as the biggest developing country. As the two wars in the Middle East and the global financial crisis took their toll, the US was driven to pursue a foreign policy retrenchment, while China embarks on a more proactive foreign policy (as opposed to defensive/responsive policy in the past) to defend its growing development and security interests overseas, which ushers in an all-around major country diplomacy as the country seeks to undertake more international obligations. China continues to steadfastly pursue win-win cooperation as a core principle of its foreign policy, but it has to adapt to the new dynamics in relations with the US and the policy changes have had important implications.
Realists in Washington see the changing foreign policy dynamics of China as a challenge to the dominant position of the US, which warrants US response to hedge and contain China as a competitor. The “pivot to Asia” strategy is a case in point, a culmination of the strategic adjustment of the U.S. against China. In response, China put anti-containment and countermeasures high on its foreign policy and defense policy considerations. Against this backdrop, high-profile intervention into the South China Sea by the US turned the issue into a political and military rivalry between China and the US, and fuels the perception of strategic competition in the Asia-pacific region between the two countries.
There is no denying the South China Sea issue has dealt a blow to the fragile strategic mutual trust between China and the US and the impact will continue to be felt over the long run. Nevertheless, the ongoing strategic rivalry between China and US does not represent the whole picture, as the two countries are highly interconnected economically, which lays a broad-based foundation for the development of a new configuration.
As the two biggest economies in the world, China and the US boast a combined GDP that accounts for over 1/3 of global economic output. As each other’s biggest trading partner, China and US traded over $550 billion in 2014 and remain on an upward trend despite slow growth globally. Two-way investment continues to grow, and as of year end 2015, accumulative investment from the US to China numbered 66,000 items, worth $77.47 billion in actual investment. While Chinese investment in the US reached $46.6 billion in cumulative terms, making the US the fourth-largest FDI destination for Chinese businesses. Chinese Minister of Commerce Gao Hucheng indicated in a signed article in USA Today that in the next decade, China-US trade volume could quadruple and reach $1 trillion in 2024. Furthermore, China holds $1.2 trillion US T-bonds, making it the biggest debtor of the US, hence a highly symbiotic financial ties between the two countries.
It is apparent that China’s peaceful rise drives China-US relations into a new status, with rivalry, competition and cooperative partnership growing in tandem, the evolving configuration will feature these two conflicting dimensions as two sides of an equation.
In the second decade of the 21st century, China’s rise and world multi-polarization have become more pronounced, which eroded the hegemonic dominance of the U.S. Against this backdrop, the binary China-US relations begins to outgrow the old pattern of US dominance. This fundamentally drives the changing political and strategic dynamics between China and the US, and thus the foremost challenges.
Over the long run, the principle of “seeking common ground and shelving difference” as enshrined in the Shanghai Communique has been seen as the rule of thumb to maintain overall stability of China-US relations. But in practice, the implementation of the principle hinges on how well the two leaderships and the foreign-policy departments communicate and understand each other, and requires diplomatic finesse to navigate the overall bilateral relations and specific issues. Ultimately, it is a test of the political vision and wisdom from both leaderships across the Pacific.
China and US have entered into a new historic era where countries are closely interconnected, and bilateral ties often bear significance beyond bilateral context and take on global implications. The principle of “seeking common ground and shelving difference” remain relevant. In addition, both China and US must foster more effective communication channels and mechanisms to reflect the neo-configuration, allow both countries to transcend their differences and ensure bilateral ties remain on the right track. The China US strategic and economic dialogue is a worthy endeavor.
Promoting the concept of “major country relations” marks a significant step by China, aiming to advance its major foreign policy objective with a new concept and illustrate its determination and sincerity to open up a new chapter in China-US relations. As a nation, China adheres to peaceful development as a means to achieve prosperity; it is opposed to oppression and favors unity without uniformity. So China’s foreign policy is rooted in Chinese culture and history. China and the US have increasingly converging interests, which calls for a non-confrontational policy to serve both countries. Also, the two countries must work together to address the collective challenges facing the world. All these new developments render circumstances leading to major power confrontation non-existent, and in this new context, China and the US will foster a new type of major country relations featuring peaceful co-existence.
On the other hand, the US has its own mindset and intentions, and as two countries occupying different international standings, using different narratives for concepts, pursuing different strategic goals and guided by different foreign policy traditions, China and the US still need to work out the recognition gap between them. The concept of major-country relations was met with reservations from the US, and as time went on the concept barely passed the lips of any officials in public. Some US officials and policy advisers explained that the US wants to see more action rather than slogans. But China remains unswayed, and believes the “major country relationship” is a constructive concept that points the way forward for China-US relations. The affirmative attitude of China is rooted in its leadership’s judgment of the prevailing trend of international relations, and their faith in the peaceful development that China has been pursuing. But the US is still gripped by realist thoughts and power politics mindset.
The interaction between China and the US in the context of 21st century international politics marks a process of “reconstructing balance” in a multipolarized world. The 2008 G20 Summit was a watershed of such a reconstructing process in the economic, political and security arenas, which was evolving at the bilateral level (China and the US), regional level (Asia Pacific) and global level.
The “pivot to Asia” strategy and the “new type of major country relations” represent two political and strategic visions for reconstructing balance in the region. The US wants to preserve its dominant standing in Asia-Pacific, while China seeks to construct a more equal relationship. Recent years saw multiple incidents fueling tensions between China and the U.S., including the South China Sea issue and the deployment of THAAD, which is a result of the friction between two visions.
These changes are a new twist in the wider China-US relations spanning four decades. While we turn to history for guidance, it is vital that we come up with new thinking and new approaches in keeping with the new challenges stemming from the neo-configuration, and seek consensus-based solutions. To this end, we must allow for sufficient time to let these efforts run their due course.