Following the China-U.S. summit in San Francisco, there was a global sense of reprieve, with the prevailing sentiment suggesting that the decline in relations had halted, at least momentarily. Nevertheless, the question of whether relations can rebound from their low point remains, as the two countries face five critical challenges.
First, the Taiwan question has reemerged as a paramount, sensitive and pressing concern in Sino-American relations.
Taiwan is slated for leadership elections and legislative bodies on Jan. 13, and the electoral atmosphere is tense. A victory for Kuomintang candidate Hou You-yi might lead to a thaw with Beijing, particularly through increased personnel exchanges. Conversely, if Democratic Progressive Party candidate Lai Ching-te prevails, tensions could escalate. Given that China’s mainland has said that Lai and his running mate, Hsiao Bi-khim, are proponents of independence, a strong response from the mainland could be anticipated to deter the DPP’s more assertive factions from any actions that might threaten peace and stability.
In the U.S., such a development could be interpreted as the mainland’s attempt to intimidate Taiwan’s democratically elected leaders or to alter the status quo, prompting domestic calls for a response from the Biden administration. This could lead to a show of increased support for Taiwan from the U.S. Congress, potentially triggering a cycle of reciprocal actions between Beijing and Washington.
My colleagues and I, in collaboration with the United States Institute of Peace, have researched these dynamics — outlined in our report, “China-U.S. Signaling: Action-Reaction Dynamics on the Taiwan Question” (China-US Focus). We found that both sides are at risk of misinterpreting the other’s policy signals. While both China and the U.S. share a desire for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, China objects to U.S. support for the DPP candidate’s advocacy of a “new two-states theory” and “peaceful separation,” which it sees as contrary to the U.S. assertion that it doesn’t endorse independence for Taiwan.
Second, geopolitical flashpoints, such as tensions between China and the Philippines over South China Sea islands and reefs, are exerting an increasing influence on Sino-U.S. relations.
Fueled by U.S. encouragement, and despite some U.S. voices claiming there’s a lack of evidence for China’s claims, a Reuters report on Nov. 29, presented some in an article headlined “How the U.S. courted the Philippines to thwart China” (reuters.com). It said the Philippines had deviated from its commitments to China by transporting construction materials to its grounded warship on Ren'ai Reef in the Nansha Islands, intentionally clashing with Chinese Coast Guard ships and inviting international media to document the incidents. It subsequently accused China of “bullying the small.”
In response, the Biden administration invoked the U.S.-Philippines military agreement to support the actions of the Philippines. The Chinese Foreign Ministry explicitly warned the U.S. against interference and cautioned against using the Philippines to advance its Indo-Pacific strategy.
Additionally, the Ukraine conflict remains deadlocked, and the Israeli-Palestinian dispute shows no sign of resolution. Whether or not China is directly involved in these geopolitical security hotspots, the U.S. consistently portrays China as a "challenger or disruptor of global and regional order,” further straining the already deficit-laden strategic mutual trust between the two nations.
Third, during the San Francisco summit, both sides agreed to revive bilateral dialogue mechanisms that had been suspended after Nancy Pelosi’s Taiwan visit and to collaborate on low-hanging fruit.
Success in launching and operating these mechanisms and achieving tangible cooperation outcomes is pivotal in fostering confidence between the two parties.
Encouragingly, the latest development involves General Liu Zhenli, a member of China’s Central Military Commission and chief of staff of its Joint Staff Department, who had a video call with the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Charles Q. Brown Jr. in December. Liu said, “To cultivate a robust, stable and enduring military relationship, it is imperative for the United States to accurately comprehend China’s stance and to fundamentally respect China’s core interests and significant concerns.” The message is unequivocal: The U.S. military is expected to cultivate a relationship with the PLA rooted in mutual respect, while the PLA will steadfastly guard against any infringements or challenges to China’s core interests, even in the endeavor to improve bilateral relations.
Collaboration between China and the U.S. on low-hanging fruit — notably the fentanyl crisis — could, if successful, shift U.S. domestic perceptions of China. This shift is crucial for Sino-U.S. relations, particularly as in a U.S. election year.
Fourth, the upcoming U.S. presidential election is expected to have a significant impact on Sino-U.S. relations in two primary ways.
Initially, the usual turmoil of the election process may precipitate a loss of confidence in U.S. strategic circles regarding the American political system. This could amplify their apprehensions about the perceived challenge that China represents. At present, Donald Trump enjoys a considerably higher approval rating in the Republican primary election process than other candidates in his party. But on Dec. 19 the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that because of Trump’s involvement in the Capitol Hill riot on Jan. 6, 2021, he is ineligible for the ballot in the state, as per stipulations of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Trump’s legal team promptly announced their intention to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court carries substantial weight, and the final outcome is unpredictable. The case will certainly add turmoil to the 2024 U.S. presidential election. Such instability is unfavorable for China-U.S. relations, as it could heighten the anxiety of American policymakers and intensify the perception of a “systemic challenge” posed by China.
Additionally, a potential Trump presidency could usher in a foreign policy cadre of advisers who take a hard-line stance on China without having a nuanced understanding of the country. The policies they might enact could prove hazardous. And while Trump’s tendency to disregard traditional allies could alleviate some strategic pressure on China, on balance his election is likely to have a deleterious effect on China-U.S. relations.
Finally, the foremost challenge lies in whether China can resist pressure and avoid being ensnared in the “strategic competition” ruse pushed by the U.S.
The strategic frameworks each country employs to manage bilateral relations are fundamentally divergent. The U.S. adheres to a “great power competition” strategic framework, positioning competition at the heart of its relations with China; yet it fails to define the end state of this competition or establish the criteria for its success.
By contrast, China advocates the establishment of a “new type of major country relations” characterized by “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” It rejects the notion of defining the bilateral relationship in terms of competition — a sagacious strategic decision.
In recent years, the disparate strategic frameworks of China and the U.S. have been locked in a contest of resolve, with China demonstrating significant strategic determination and patience. At the recent San Francisco summit, the Chinese side underscored the need for both countries to “responsibly manage the competitive aspects of the bilateral relationship” and stating explicitly that these competitive aspects do not pertain to vying with the United States for any supposed global or regional dominance.
Looking ahead, the U.S. is unlikely to cease its efforts to entangle China in strategic competition, as it uses the rivalry to curb China’s growing strategic influence and challenges to U.S. global dominance. For China, steadfast commitment to its own developmental trajectory and strategic acumen, coupled with a focus on its internal affairs, remains the cornerstone for maintaining stable progress in its relations with the United States.