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Foreign Policy

New Era, New Requirements

Mar 17, 2021
  • Qi Weiqun

    Assistant Researcher, Global Engagement Academy of Shandong University (Weihai)

On Jan. 20, Joe Biden moved into the White House and started a new term as president of the United States. It’s a good opportunity for China and the U.S. to rebuild their relationship, according to a recent research report focusing on the different “strategic cultures” of the two countries,

Strategic culture is defined as the thoughts and ideas that shape political leaders’ policies. It is deeply influenced by the history and customs of a given nation.

The report, authored by Professor Jia Wenshan of the Global Engagement Academy at Shandong University (Weihai) and colleague Lu Fangzhu is titled Rebuilding the Strategic Culture for the Sino-U.S. Relationship. It’s a comparative analysis using material published in Foreign Affairs and ThePaper’s coverage of the “40 Years and 40 People” interviews.

It highlights the role of strategic culture in shaping Sino-U.S. relations.

The study found that China’s strategic culture and that of the United States are not compatible. Chinese strategic culture opposes thinking that yields binary opposition and a zero-sum game. China’s foreign policy is shaped by the Confucian belief of “harmony in difference” and “seeking common ground while respecting differences,” which stands in sharp contrast with the Trump policy of all-out confrontation with China. 

The report studied 24 essays published by Foreign Affairs and 40 interviews conducted by The Paper, a Chinese news website. The essays in Foreign Affairs mostly highlight Sino-U.S. conflict and decoupling, while acknowledging some areas of possible cooperation.

The authors found five major themes: 1) geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific and Indo-Pacific regions where the U.S. seeks primacy; 2) trade wars can be avoided; 3) high-tech competition is a must; 4) the energy and pharmaceutical sectors demand cooperation; 5) new polarization of the U.S. and China is unavoidable.

By contrast, the topics of focus by the people interviewed by The Paper focus more on the reality of Sino-U.S. interdependence, the existing basis for cooperation and suggestions on how to avoid vicious competition and maintain a working relationship.

The authors argue that the mutual adjustment and realignment of each party’s strategic culture is necessary to revive a strategic culture of cooperation, which had underwritten U.S.-China engagement from Nixon to Obama. A renewed strategic culture of cooperation would enable the two countries to play their global roles and carry out their responsibilities in the interests of themselves and of the whole world.

The authors also believe that because of the rapid development of military weapons by China and the United States, the principle of Maximum Mutual Destruction (MAD) no longer works. China and the U.S. have formed a high degree of interdependence in the fields of economy, finance, the internet, education and more. This makes it possible for the two countries to adopt the principle of Maximum Mutual Gains (MAG).

The two countries are advised to find more common grounds for cooperation, while decoupling can only lead to losses that neither country can afford. To effectively deal with global challenges such as COVID-19 and climate change, it urgently needs high quality cooperation between the two most influential global powers.

During Donald Trump’s time in office, the United States sought all-out confrontation with China in virtually all fields. Trump’s decoupling strategy almost destroyed the channel for communication between the two countries. The strategic culture in both was increasingly defined by antagonism and conflict.

Meanwhile, China made steady efforts for peace, dialogue and win-win results. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly said that both China and the U.S. will gain from peaceful coexistence and lose from confrontation. Cooperation is the only right choice.

China and the United States should not get involved in confrontation or oppose each other. Instead, they should respect each other and seek win-win solutions. China's State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi also expressed China’s desire to rebuild relations in the new era by reopening dialogues at all levels and in all fields to gain accurate pictures of strategic intentions.

In Biden’s campaign for election, he expressed disapproval of Trump’s policy of high tariffs, which had harmed the interests of the United States. Both President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have agreed that there is still room for cooperation between China and the United States, despite the challenges they see from China. In this new situation, it is urgent to build a new strategic culture that can maintain stable bilateral relations. Since the normalization of the diplomatic ties 40 years ago, Sino-U.S. relations have brought rich experience and lessons. Now with China’s further reform and opening-up, each should be able to understand and adapt to the other better.

Speaking of competition, it is generally believed that it’s impossible to avoid because of the different histories, cultures, political systems and strategic priorities of the two countries. China takes national sovereignty, unification and development as its priorities, while the United States is eager to maintain the liberal global order and its status as the leading global superpower.

But both China and the United States have the responsibility to maintain the stability of the bilateral relationship, as well as to foster peace and development around the world. Therefore, it is important to keep channels of communication open. For instance, on the Taiwan question, it is dangerous for the United States to violate the “one China” principle.

China and the U.S. should have benign competition, so that they can continuously draw on each other’s strengths and improve their innovative capabilities to drive the progress of human civilization. In the process of competition and cooperation, both sides can give full play to their imagination and creativity to make the pie bigger, so they both benefit, while at the same time jointly promoting a global community with a shared future for mankind.

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