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Foreign Policy

Positive Approaches to the Development of China-U.S. Relations

Apr 22 , 2016
  • Chen Jimin

    Associate Research Fellow, CPC Party School

The Fourth Nuclear Security Summit was held in Washington from March 31 to April 1. During the summit, U.S. President Obama had a meeting with his counterpart Xi Jinping, which was the only bilateral meeting arranged by President Obama and the first time for the two leaders to meet face-to-face this year. In a joint press conference, Obama emphasized that he “very much appreciates President Xi’s willingness to have candid conversations on these issues in a constructive way.” He believed “this will just be one more step in our overall efforts to assure that the U.S. and China maintain the kind of effective, constructive relationship that is important not only to our two peoples but also to the world at large.”

Certainly, Sino-US relations are complex. An anonymous senior US official said, “Our cooperation is increasing and, simultaneously, our competition is increasing. We will not paper over that fact.” During the meeting, the two leaders discussed the key differences, including human rights, maritime security in the South China Sea and cybersecurity issues related to U.S. business secrets. Nevertheless, the two countries still reached major consensus on many issues with international influence. The two sides issued U.S.-China Joint Statement on Nuclear Security Cooperation and U.S.-China Joint Presidential Statement on Climate Change. Indeed, the approaches to promote bilateral relations can be concluded from the China-US interactions in the nuclear security summit.

First, there should be more and broader communication mechanisms in developing Sino-US relations. Strategic communication can play at least two important roles: One is to judge each other’s strategic intentions clearly and correctly; the other is to control differences, prevent incidents from harming the whole bilateral relationship. In meeting with Obama, Xi pointed out that the two sides should “actively seek the solutions to resolve their differences through dialogue and consultation, or control sensitive issues in a constructive way, and avoid misunderstanding and misperception or escalation, and prevent big disruptions to the overall interests of China-U.S. cooperation.” Currently, there exist more than 90 communication mechanisms, effectively promoting the development of China-US relations. However, there are also problems and even barriers. Before Xi’s state visit to the U.S in last September, a few US politicians said the Obama administration should cancel the state dinner. Then presidential candidate and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker even advised that the administration should cancel the visit altogether.

Furthermore, this communication mechanism should be extended to social levels, such as academia. During my time as a visiting scholar in US, I interviewed some well-known American scholars with their research on China-US relations. I found it was most necessary to strengthen communication and cooperation in academia. For example, on the US Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy, Chinese and US scholars have very different views. Some Chinese scholars believed it was the US strategy to contain China’s development. However, Professor David Shambaugh disagreed. In his view, the term “containment” had a specific object, that is, the Soviet Union. Its basic feature was “isolation”. The United States had no intention or ability to isolate China, but encouraged China to play an active role in the international community. On the new type of major-country relations between China and US, Robert Sutter, professor of George Washington University, said it was one of China’s tactics to cheat the United States: on the one hand, China proposed to build a new type of relations with the United States, not challenging US global interests; on the other hand, China posed real threats to US interests by actions, such as the deterioration of relations with the US Asian allies, taking coercive policies in East China Sea and South China Sea. Therefore, in his view, US Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy was a proactive response to check China’s challenge.

Second, it should be more relaying, less leveraging. Relaying and leveraging are two different development paths of China-US relations and could produce the opposite results. The relaying relationship is to achieve a win-win goal through bilateral pragmatic cooperation on the common interests, which not only helps to foster and promote strategic mutual trust, but also to achieve the breakthroughs in regional and global issues. For example, during the nuclear security summit, China-US cooperation on climate change and nuclear security reflected this kind of relationship. The leveraging relationship means to achieve one’s unilateral interests at the cost of the other’s. The starting point has implications of seizing every chance to gain advantage by trickery. One country could make short-term strategic gains, but the two sides will deepen strategic mutual distrust, especially for the two countries in intense competitions. For example, on Northeast Asia security issues, the United States puts much more pressure on China to achieve its strategic goals.

Last, it should be more rational in developing Sino-US relations. From the China’s side, it is so anxious to achieve quick success in development that it has caused misperceptions that China wants to be the leader in the world. For bilateral relations, China should adhere to the path of peaceful development. China will never seek hegemony or engage in expansion. In the Asia-Pacific region, China needs to recognize the US presence in the region is both a historical reality and a future trend. China will not drive the US out of Asia. The so-called China’s Asian “Monroe Doctrine” is a false proposition.

As for the US, it should not pursue a myth of interrupting or shaping China’s modernization process. In the past century, Chinese people have made tremendous efforts to seek ways for national independence and prosperity. Finally it found a path suitable for China’s national conditions, namely the socialist path with Chinese characteristics. In order to ensure a smooth and steady path for development, keeping China’s political stability is a prerequisite. President Obama posits that “we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful rising China”. But there are still many Americans clinging to wishful thinking for regime change in China. In early March 2015, there was a special report entitled “Revising US grand strategy toward China” published by the Council on Foreign Relations. It suggested, “Washington needs a new grand strategy toward China that centers on balancing the rise of Chinese power rather than continuing to assist its ascendancy.” The report noted that “only a fundamental collapse of the Chinese state would free Washington from the obligation of systematically balancing Beijing, because even the alternative of a modest Chinese stumble would not eliminate the dangers presented to the United States in Asia and beyond.” However, I believe this is neither the mainstream idea among American intellectuals, nor the US administration’s China policy. During the two leaders’ meeting, President Obama made it clear once again that “the United States welcomes the rise of a peaceful, stable, and prosperous China, working with us to address global challenges.” This is good news for both countries and the world as a whole.

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