Language : English 简体 繁體
Foreign Policy

New Normals in Sino-U.S. Relations

Jan 07 , 2015
  • Chen Yonglong

    Director of Center of American Studies, China Foundation for International Studies

The relationship between China and the United States in 2014 was marked by cycles of tension, détente, wrangling, and hard-earned progress. At times the tension was so high as to cause serious anxiety, and détentes came so suddenly as to bring pleasant surprises. Obviously the bilateral relationship is maturing, giving rise to a number of “new normals.”

The first, and cardinal, “normal” is the new type of big power relationship between the two countries.

During his visit to the U.S. two years ago, the then Chinese Vice-president Xi Jinping proposed to establish a new type of relationship between the two countries, namely “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” Though full of misgivings, the U.S. side accepted the idea.

The new concept was raised in an attempt for the current superpower and the emerging power to avoid the Thucydides trap. History will prove that its significance can match that of Nixon and Mao’s decision in 1972 to establish diplomatic relations. Though it still lags behind the U.S. in many aspects, China is, after all, the world’s second largest economy, which is bound to become a greater contributor to global peace and development. And the U.S. will maintain its growth momentum despite its relatively declining national strength, and will continue to be a responsible power in global affairs.

There is no denying that misunderstanding, tension, and even tit-for-tat confrontation will continue to plague the bilateral relationship, but neither of the two peoples wants to live in the shadow of confrontation or a new Cold War. In this time of globalization and information digitization, confrontation is never the workable solution to problems between big powers. It is predictable that the wrestling between the positive and negative forces on the question of whether and how to build a new type of big power relationship between China and the U.S. will, over a pretty long period of time, remain normal in their bilateral relations.

The second “normal” is the new way top leaders of the two countries conduct their dialogue.

The way the leaders meet and talk mirrors the current state of the two countries’ relations. In their “non-necktie meetings” at Sunnylands, California, and Zhongnanhai, Beijing, President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama exchanged thoughts candidly while having casual strolls. The relaxed atmosphere made it easy for the leaders to somewhat reveal their inner thoughts and thus acquire a better understanding of each other. Both meetings exceeded the scheduled time, following neither the U.S. practice nor the Chinese way, but rather a mode both sides had agreed upon on the basis of their needs. The meetings yielded scores of positive results, including a Sino-U.S. joint statement on climate change, the mutual granting of 10-year business visas, expedited negotiations on the investment protection agreement, an MOU on mutual trust between the two armies, and the code of conduct on naval and air military encounters.

The third is the “normal” in economic relations.

While “new normals” are seen in both economies, economic ties between the two countries have also witnessed new trends, which have become normal. First, in an unprecedented fashion, the two economies have become mutually reliant, as was shown in the annual $600 billion worth of bilateral trade and $100 billion worth of total mutual investment. They have become each other’s indispensable source of growth. Second, trade and investment orientation has reversed. In the past, China exported more commodities to the U.S. than what the the U.S. exported to China, while the U.S. investment in China exceeded that of China in the U.S. Today, however, U.S. exports to China have outgrown its imports while China’s investment in the U.S. has grown faster than U.S. investment in China. The trend appears to be continuing. Third, the U.S. and China have become twin engines for global economic growth with their economic policies coordinated and made transparent to the world. The twin-engine mechanism has replaced the past single-engine mode to become a new normal in the global economy.

Fourth, both countries are expected to get accustomed to a new trend in the comparison of their economic statistics. China has shown a momentum by winning more and more “world’s number one” while the U.S. seems to witness more of a decline in economic data. Both sides should refrain from over-interpreting such discrepancies and treat them cool-mindedly. They should resign themselves to the fact that mutual reliance and integrated economies have become a normal affair.

The fourth “normal” is that competition, heightened vigilance against each other, and striving for co-existence and cooperation, will be frequent occurrences between the two sides.

Strategic contention between the two powers is unavoidable in its nature but it also involves artificial factors that can be avoided. Thanks to the farsightedness and wisdom of both countries’ top leaders, strategic contention has not become the main theme in both sides’ top-level decisions. On the other hand, , the traditional theory about strategic contention between big powers lurks behind both sides’ mindsets, keeping them alert and defensive against each other’s attacks or challenges.

Currently, neither the U.S. nor China is able to wipe out the other side. China has no intention to challenge the U.S., while the U.S. finds it hard to change China. Therefore, they have no alternatives other than co-existence and cooperation. Top leaders and sensible think tanks in both countries have come to realize that a stable and positive relationship between China and the U.S. is vital to world peace and development, given that the two countries’ involvement and coordination has proven to be indispensable in many global affairs.

The fifth “normal” is the collision and interaction between the two countries in their efforts to control differences.

Collision is normal in international relations. It reflects countries’ efforts to safeguard their national interests. Collision between major powers, especially between China and the U.S., is hard to avoid and once it occurs it will send an influential message across the world. A typical instance is the collision between them at the Shangri La Dialogue, during which the U.S. and its Asian allies staged a farce of collective battering of China.

Interaction, on the contrary, is an effective way of generating positive energy. The recently released Sino-U.S. Joint Statement on Climate Change was achieved amidst the two countries’ collision and interaction. It sends a positive message from the world’s two major carbon emitters to the rest of the world on how they will cope with the climate change and guide the UN-hosted inter-governmental talks.

There are a plethora of problems between China and the U.S. that call for control through constructive efforts. They are mainly demonstrated in collisions caused by Washington’s attempts to safeguard its hegemonic status and interests against China’s effort to protect its sovereignty and safeguard domestic stability.

The Sino-US collision directly or indirectly influences the relations among the world’s major powers as well as the two nations’ relations with China’s neighboring countries. It also has a bearing on the relationship between traditional alliances and new partnerships. The practice of sacrificing the third party’s interests for the sake of forming an alliance is old-fashioned. It is advisable to constrain alliance and go for interaction so as to reduce tensions and achieve win-win cooperation.

The sixth “normal” is that the cycle of balance and rebalance will become normal in the Sino-U.S. games in Asia-Pacific.

In the region, there are always hard-line talks with regard to confrontations between major powers. The region needs to establish a proper political, economic and security order for cooperative development. The U.S., however, abused its status as the world’s sole superpower to instigate troubles in the region and then play the role of mediator so as to fish in troubled water. In many cases, Washington plays the dual role of arsonist and firefighter.

The U.S. has always called on China to contribute more to the global economy. However, when Beijing proposed to set up an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and start negotiations for establishing the Asia-Pacific Free Trade Area, Washington’s attitude turned incomprehensibly ambiguous. Whatever kind of order is to be established in Asia-Pacific, someone has to play the leading role. Washington knows well that it is difficult, and impractical, for it to continue to play such a role solely. Neither Japan nor the ASEAN is able to assume the role. Under the circumstances, it will be a new normal in the region how the U.S. will handle its relations with China and its Asian allies.

For the sake of either Asia-Pacific security or economic cooperation, both the U.S. and China are the region’s indispensable mainstays for stability and development. Asia-Pacific is where China has its home for subsistence while the U.S. has major interests in the region. They should put aside their differences, keep strategic contention within a controllable sphere and seek win-win cooperation in the region. This is the area where they should start their experiment for a new-type major country relationship.

You might also like
Back to Top