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Foreign Policy

No Need for Pessimism

Jun 27, 2020
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

The recent rapid deterioration of Sino-U.S. relations has worried the world. It has caused huge damage to China, the U.S. and other places. However, from a long-term historical point of view, it’s natural for the Sino-U.S. relations to improve or deteriorate at different historical periods.

The advent of the current rapid deterioration has some peculiar historical background. The main cause is in-depth changes in the U.S. domestic situation.

In addition to the historical changes in China and the world balance of power, the peculiar Trump administration has played a decisive role in the rapid deterioration in recent years.

Slow changes in Sino-U.S. relations might be expected to continue for a long time, while rapid deterioration is partial and temporary. The following assessments offer a different possible future course:

First, the Chinese and American people have always been friendly toward each other, and that is the eternal motive force that has pushed Sino-U.S. relations forward. In the two centuries since the American merchant ship “Empress of China” sailed to China in 1784, friendly exchanges and cooperation between the two countries and peoples have grown step by step to an unprecedented level in recent years beyond anyone’s predictions.

In 2018, annual bilateral trade in goods and services exceeded $700 billion and two-way direct investment approached $160 billion. Despite the deterioration of bilateral relations and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, bilateral trade in April this year reached $39.7 billion, surpassing the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada marks. This single month performance is significant.

In terms of one side’s positions relative to the other’s strategies, the historical record notes that China and the U.S., as close military allies, fought against Japanese, German and Italian fascists during World War II. And in the years following U.S. president Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 until the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, China was treated as a U.S. quasi-ally. The two countries’ common interests were dominated by their resistance against Soviet global expansion.

During the current fight against COVID-19 — despite a few U.S. politicians’ persistent demonization of China by slandering China’s effective efforts on combating the coronavirus domestically — large quantities of China-made face masks, ventilators and other medical equipment have been welcomed by the American people and have contributed to the sacred goal of saving more lives in the U.S.

All of this demonstrates the great vitality of Sino-U.S. relations.

Second, the vast common interests shared by China and the U.S. have not vanished and will not vanish. That is the fundamental basis for sustainable, healthy bilateral relations. It might be true, as many believe, that interest is eternal while friends are not. The harsh reality in the world is that existing Sino-U.S. common interests, though sometimes requiring long and painful exploration and practice for their discovery, inevitably prevent the two countries from destroying each other independent of man’s will. The Chinese and American people keenly understand that there is no other choice but to live harmoniously together in the same small Earth village. Neither would be able to escape the sufferings brought about by calamities such as a nuclear war, a lasting global economic recession and financial crisis, global air pollution, disasters resulting from climate change and a global public health crisis. There is no force on the earth that can eliminate the interdependence of the two countries. 

Third, China is a firm defender of Sino-U.S. relations. China’s long-term goal is to build, together with others, including the U.S., a community of shared future. It is fortunate that China does not deal with the U.S. in the same say as the Trump administration has been dealing with China. China persists in a friendly posture toward the U.S.

Even when the Trump administration acted to harm China in a number of ways, China typically responds with reserve, taking into account the overall interest of Sino-U.S. relations. Relations would go from bad to worse, and never see improvement, should China follow the Trump administration’s example.

China and the U.S. are the two largest economies in the world, and neither wishes to see its economy destroyed in a war between the two countries. No matter how bad the bilateral relations may become, rest-assured that there will be no large-scale war, especially as both are on high alert at all times for self-defense.

So-called complete decoupling in trade, financial, military and cultural affairs, as well as in science and technology, can never be realized, as it is against the will of the people of both countries and would damage their interests. Experience over the past three years has time and again demonstrated that unilateral punishment of China by the U.S. consumes a large share of  national power. America has inflicted heavy losses on itself and lifted federal government debt to an unprecedented $26 trillion.

Resistance to the China policy of the Trump administration has begun to grow in the U.S., and Trump’s anti-China policies will meet with more difficulties in their implementation. 

Fourth, China’s rise does not mean that destructive conflicts is inevitable. As the only superpower in the world, the U.S. has an established strategic objective, which is to prevent any country or a group of countries from gaining overwhelming power in Asia or any other part of the world. But China’s rise, though unstoppable, does not seek hegemony in Asia or world affairs.

Naturally, competition — and some confrontation — is unavoidable. However, when the U.S. fully understands China’s true strategic intentions, and takes a positive step forward to see more opportunities for U.S. development and cooperation brought about by China’s rise, confrontation can be restrained or avoided, and competition will be conducted fairly based on mutually agreed rules.

Fifth, the oddities of the Trump administration’s China policy determine that will not last long and that changes are inevitable. These might be briefly summarized as follows:

1. Damage the Sino-U.S. trade relations by launching the tariff war against China.

2. Interfere in China’s internal affairs and make constant trouble for China on issues regarding Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, human rights and so on.

3. Impose new restrictions on Chinese investments in the U.S. and on U.S. visas for Chinese students, journalists and others, while also blocking IPOs of Chinese businesses in the New York stock market.

4. Make hostile remarks against China on every possible international occasion.

5. Urge or coerce allies around the world to join the U.S. in suppressing China’s high-technology businesses, HUAWEI and others.

6. Try to form a new anti-China bloc in the world.

The true intention of such policies reflect Trump’s personal beliefs and political goals. Many observers in the U.S. have pointed out that Trump’s anti-China actions have been making China a scapegoat or shield for his own poor response to the COVID-19 pandemic and racial discrimination in the U.S.

In fact, his anti-China moves are unprecedented, never seen after the two countries’ relations were normalized in 1979.

Trump’s “punishment of China” is actually self-defeating. It punishes American businesses, consumers and other sectors of society, as well as some allies. Meanwhile, it is believed that the U.S. anti-China doctrine is becoming increasingly unpopular in the U.S. and other parts of the world. 

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