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Foreign Policy

Rebuilding China-U.S. Relations an Imperative Priority

Dec 19, 2020
  • Tao Wenzhao

    Researcher, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

US China chess.jpg

The Jan. 20 inauguration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will open a window of opportunity for China and the United States to start rebuilding relations.

Strained ties were repaired twice during the past 70 years. The first started with Henry Kissinger’s 1971 visits to China, followed next year by Richard Nixon’s ice-breaking trip in 1972 and establishment of diplomatic ties in 1979. These events fundamentally changed the nature of China-U.S. relations, turning them from hostile to normal.

The second round of rebuilding occurred after the end of the Cold War. Since the strategic basis for bilateral reconciliation had disappeared, many in the U.S. thought the relationship would be valuable, and some even assumed that China would eventually collapse like the Soviet Union. Relations saw a steady stream of ups and downs in the first several years.

The Chinese side proposed rebuilding relations by adhering to reform and opening up, including building a socialist market economy. The U.S. side came to the understanding that the two countries would continue to need each other in the post-Cold War era and gradually changed its mindset and policies, and became willing to meet China halfway.

During his trip to New York in October 1995 for the United Nations commemoration of the 50th anniversary of victory against fascism, Chinese President Jiang Zemin spoke with U.S. President Bill Clinton, and the two sides reached agreement on a number of points. Then, via dialogue and communication at various levels, the two sides managed to complete Jiang’s October 1997 state visit to the U.S. and Clinton’s visit to China in 1998, successfully rebuilding bilateral ties.

The key to the rebuilding was affirming the two countries’ common interests in the post-Cold War era. Days before Jiang’s visit, Clinton delivered a lengthy speech in which he systematically expounded upon the two sides’ shared interests in six areas, which represented both the mainstream consensus between the Democratic and Republican parties in the U.S. and between China and the U.S.

Thanks to this round of rebuilding, China and the U.S. were able to endure the shocks from such incidents as the accidental U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the collision of Chinese and U.S. military aircraft over Hainan Island. They also reached agreement on China’s membership in the World Trade Organization. The U.S. passed a law on permanent normal trade ties with China, while China joined the WTO and saw its economy truly began to take off. Since then, China-U.S. relations have marked more than two decades of healthy, stable development.

My proposal for rebuilding the China-U.S. relationship now is based on three ideas: The first and most important is that the Trump administration has substantively changed America's China policy and done serious damage to relations. It has challenged all of China’s core interests — security, sovereignty and development interests.

The U.S. has challenged China’s current political system and vilified the leadership of the Communist Party of China. It continually hammers on the one-China policy, fosters and connives with pro-independence forces in Taiwan, supports separatism in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and frequently makes trouble in the South China Sea. It suppresses Chinese high-tech industries, sparing no effort to confine the Chinese economy to the middle and low-end of global industry chains; it does everything possible to obstruct normal people-to-people exchanges between the two countries, fabricating charges to prevent them and attempting to cut off the last link between the two countries.

Beyond economic and trade ties, relations between China and the U.S. actually have little left. Rebuilding is thus imperative. 

Second, since the 1990s, great changes have taken place in China and the U.S., as well as in international conditions. One of those is a change in the relative strength of the two countries. China became the world’s second-largest economy 10 years ago. Its GDP is expected to reach around 70 percent of U.S. GDP this year; China is also the world’s biggest goods trader and is now the No 1 holder of foreign exchange reserves. 

This is very different from the 1990s, when the two sides’ economic, military and technological strengths were nowhere near equal. This certainly should be taken into account when structuring bilateral ties. In fact, but for the devastating damage the Trump administration has done to bilateral ties, it would have been possible to reflect actual changes through proper adjustments and mutual adaptation.

Not so now, although the Chinese proposal in 2013 to build a new-type of major country relationship was an attempt. The U.S. side partially accepted the proposal and to some extent offset its strategy of “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific. Lately, with all the antics of  the Trump presidency, the foundation for adjustments has effectively been destroyed.

Third, the competitive aspect of China-U.S. relations has expanded, from economics to the military to science and technology, from Taiwan to the South China Sea, from regional order to global governance. Yet this does not mean there is only competition; cooperation is still possible in many respects. But competition calls for rules to be observed.

Take the competition between the U.S. and Soviet Union during the Cold War, for example. During the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the leaders of both the U.S. and USSR touched their respective nuclear buttons, and had a vague vision of the abyss of nuclear war. A lesson for both parties from the crisis was that competition can’t go without rules. Afterwards, the two sides continued to engage in an arms race, but arms control negotiations were also formally put on agenda. The U.S. and Soviet Union agreed on a series of treaties with mechanisms for examination and verification, which is an important reason they had managed to avoid a hot war during the Cold War.

Unfortunately quite a few of those treaties have been scrapped by the U.S. in recent years. Not that rules for crisis management are absent: During the Obama presidency the two countries established a mutual notification mechanism for major military operations and formulated a code of conduct for safety in sea and air encounters.

Still, rules are obviously lacking in many areas — not that the Trump administration would have respected them anyway. Trump has thrown other countries into dangerous positions through his frequent policy flip-flops. It’s far past time for China and the U.S. to have a comprehensive, in-depth and lasting dialogue on managing all aspects of their differences. This is an extremely important part of getting along.

There is no doubt that rebuilding the China-U.S. relationship will be a gigantic project of system engineering. And this round of rebuilding will be more complicated than the past two because the elements of the relationship are richer and broader in scope. But rebuilding is inevitable if only because China-U.S. relations have entered a new era in which they cannot afford instability. Over the past four decades, during each U.S. administration, China-U.S. relations would get a more-or-less new definition. Yet it generally has been a constructive, cooperative one. The two countries’ common interests outweighed differences, and cooperation outdid competition.

In the future, bilateral ties will remain at a stage in which competition and cooperation coexist, but where there will very likely be more competition than cooperation. Both the Democratic and Republican parties have identified China as a major challenge to U.S. global leadership, and as a main strategic competitor.

In the process of rebuilding, both China and the U.S. will adjust their corresponding policies. At the end of the day, the two must seek peaceful coexistence. The idea that both benefit when they cooperate and both suffer when they fight will ultimately prove true. 

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