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Foreign Policy

No Need to be Overly Pessimistic about China-U.S. Relations in 2020

Jan 16, 2020
  • Tao Wenzhao

    Honorary Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Fellow, CASS Institute of American Studies

We saw 2019 off amid the China-U.S. trade war. The U.S. Congress has made or is discussing multiple legislative acts that interfere in Chinese domestic affairs. Some U.S. leaders have made plenty of remarks that are extremely unfriendly to China, some of which are even offensive.

Across the board — in the U.S., China and the international community — evaluations of China-U.S. relations are to different degrees pessimistic, with some even believing the U.S. has developed a comprehensive all-government, all-society anti-China posture. Such an idea doesn’t come out of nowhere. Still we should take more factors into account when assessing the relationship.

We often base our analysis and judgment of China-U.S. relations on such U.S. policy documents as the National Security Strategy and American leaders’ speeches, which isn’t wrong in itself. Yet we must also keep in mind that these constitute only a part, rather the entirety, of the evidence. The documents and speeches are expressions of the views and wishes of American decision-makers whose implementation rests not only on their own wills but also on many objective factors and conditions.

Therefore these documents don’t fully capture the reality of China-U.S. relations, because things written on paper are not the same as real life. Compromises are not only normal, but could be dramatic. There are many such examples in the past 40 years. For example, George W. Bush assumed the U.S. presidency with the idea of treating China as a “strategic competitor.” He made remarks to that effect on the campaign trail. So did Condoleezza Rice in a Foreign Affairs article, not to mention veteran conservatives such as Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.

Yet, eight years later, China-U.S. relations during the Bush presidency witnessed one of the best periods of the past four decades. Bilateral relations saw seven and a half years of stability after the midair collision of a Chinese fighter jet and an American spy plane. The two countries also jointly preserved stability across the Taiwan Straits.

Robert Zoellick, the U.S. undersecretary of state at the time, put forward the idea that China should become a responsible stakeholder in the international system, pledging the U.S. and China together could build the future international system. China-U.S. relations in the Obama era are another example. Obama’s “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific was aimed at China, leading some scholars to suspect China-U.S. relations were entering a relatively harsh period. But China coped with it calmly, and proposed building a new type of major-country relations. It advocated a relationship with no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.

Eight years later, bilateral ties have made remarkable progress in economic and trade cooperation, cooperation on climate change, the Iran nuclear issue and cultural and people-to-people exchanges. Some topics of disagreement were placed under constructive control.

Of course China-U.S. relations were closely connected to the war on terror during the Bush presidency, and to the global financial crisis under the Obama administration. People may ask what relations would have been like had there not been such incidents. But the thing is, China-U.S. relations are not an isolated bilateral relationship. They form a part of the foreign relations matrix of both, as well as a part of international relations in general.

Many affairs in the international arena are inseparable from the China-U.S. relationship. U.S. decision-makers’ execution of China policies is subject to various restrictions and limitations. They can’t just follow their own wishes. Republicans criticized the Obama administration’s strategy of rebalancing for being ineffective. But it was not because Obama didn’t want to impose more restrictions on China. He had always believed challenges from a rising China merited constant attention. But what he was able to do was truly limited.

The Trump administration’s China policy faces similar restrictions. Trump has always wished to end the Afghan war but has yet to succeed. Instead of withdrawing, the U.S. has deployed more troops there. The longest war in U.S. history is still going on. The U.S. sent troops back into Syria soon after withdrawing them to Iraq, reflecting an embarrassing dilemma. The considerable increase in Russian influence in the Middle East is the last thing the U.S. wants to see. Heaven knows what troubles are in store for the U.S. after its killing of Iranian military leader General Qasem Soleimani.

The hegemonism, unilateralism, long-arm jurisdiction and arbitrary interventions of the U.S. have been making new troubles for itself rather than resolving old ones. Some scholars say the U.S. will concentrate on dealing with China after everything else has been addressed. That day may never come.

China surely has its own limitations. However, generally speaking, we have the confidence for handling relations with the United States. Domestic factors aside, China has done a good job handling relations with major countries and neighboring ones, and has reached consensuses with more and more countries in promoting globalization, promoting multilateralism, opposing protectionism and coping with climate change.

Last year, bilateral trade decreased thanks to the China-U.S. trade war, but China’s trade with the EU and ASEAN has increased, offsetting the loss. Of course China continues to believe that both sides benefit when China and the U.S. cooperate, and that both suffer when they fight. It hopes to end the trade war as soon as possible.

The year 2020 will see a general election in the U.S., and that may again produce negative impacts on China-U.S. relations. But not necessarily: 2000 also featured a general election, and the Clinton administrastion pressed Congress to pass legislation for permanent normal trade relations with China. This was a move of great significance for China’s becoming a member of the WTO. So was 2008, when two senators, Obama and McCain, published articles on U.S. China policies expressing willingness to strengthen cooperation.

The conclusion of the phase one trade agreement may improve the atmosphere for bilateral ties to some extent, but negotiations in the next stage will be even more difficult. Will the Democratic and Republican parties take advantage of China on the campaign trail? Trump did that in 2016, as what he talked about most on the campaign trail was how the U.S. lost 5 million jobs to China. He frequently said China had taken advantage of the U.S., and he made China a scapegoat for America’s domestic economic troubles, forming the rhetorical basis for launching the trade war.

More than a year into the trade war, it’s clear the U.S. has suffered. Trump meant to reach an all-around trade agreement, but if that can’t be achieved now, it doesn’t matter if the two parties can accomplish it after the elections. It was the Chinese side’s idea to take a phase-by-phase approach to the negotiations.

The Chinese way of doing things has always been to proceed from the easy to the difficult, and in a step-by-step manner. Now that the two parties have reached a phase one agreement, we can say the U.S. side has accepted the Chinese request — or that the U.S. side also needs to reach an agreement as soon as possible.

On such a basis, the two parties can negotiate to resolve more complex and difficult issues. To sum it up, we don’t need to be overly pessimistic about China-U.S. relations in 2020.

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