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Foreign Policy

Restarting Sino-U.S. Relations

Nov 30, 2020
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

Although U.S. President Donald Trump has continued to make efforts to overturn the American election and secure a second term, the major news media have reported that Joe Biden was elected the 46th President of the United States. On Nov. 7, Biden declared in speech to the nation that he had won.

It is high time for Biden, who will start a new term of office in January, to review past China policies and start laying down new ones. Sino-U.S. relations have an opportunity to make a new start.

Rich experience has been accumulated in the last 49 years since U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China, and it’s helpful to discuss how to reset Sino-U.S. relations after unprecedented deterioration over the past three or four years. There have already been many different views expressed and policy suggestions put forward. However, the following points might be essential to making a pragmatic, feasible and successful restart.

First, it’s a must that the two sides should agree to safeguard bilateral relations, which are beneficial to the two countries and the rest of the world. To prevent the damaged relations from deteriorating further, from now on neither side should do anything that harms both countries.

To be frank, it is the U.S. that should refrain from doing anything to sabotage the bilateral relationship, since China has never taken the first stepto do so. It should be recognized that the anti-China policies pursued, malicious remarks made and actions taken against China by the Trump administration have seriously damaged the interests of both countries. From putting to rest the various valuable mechanisms of exchanges and dialogues established over the past 45 years after great efforts by both sides, to the abrupt unilateral shutdown of the Chinese consulate in Houston, to restricting Chinese diplomats’ friendly exchanges with various circles of Americans, to downsizing existing bilateral exchanges in journalism, education, culture and science, Sino-U.S. relations have suffered a great deal at U.S. hands.

In essence, the Trump administration took China not as a competitor but as an open enemy. It was rare in international diplomacy that a top diplomat, such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, would make groundless accusations against China in every country he visited in recent months.

When we recall President Richard Nixon’s words in his book “Beyond Peace,” — “in the future, particularly on foreign policy issues, we should treat China with the respect a great power deserves and not a pariah nation” — we feel that the Trump administration had erroneously reversed Nixon’s words. Therefore, getting Sino-U.S. relations back on the right course is a test of U.S. sincerity and credibility in serving the interests of the two countries and the world.

Second, no unilateral action should be taken by either side to harm the other. In the past three years or so, the U.S. has initiated quite a number of unilateral actions to harm China. Extremely high tariffs imposed on China-made commodities sold to the U.S., an arbitrary ban on U.S. computer chips (and even chip exports from other countries) to Chinese business partners and and unreasonable ban on Chinese businesses’ exports of telecommunication equipment to U.S. partners are just a few examples.

The reality is that when U.S. policymakers intended to reap big gains by harming China through such unilateral actions, the U.S. was also harmed. There was no unilateral U.S. action that solely harmed China while making big profits for the U.S. It has been proved that those extreme actions failed to achieve the intended results of the politicians when American businesses and consumers had to suffer.

Now President-elect Joe Biden is planning to put the improvement of the economy as one of his top priorities. There is no doubt that the resumption of vigorous Sino-U.S. economic and trade relations would give the U.S. economy new push as China is about to implement its 14th Five-Year Plan, which provides abundant opportunities for exchanges and cooperation in the economic, trade and financial areas.

Third, both sides should agree to restart exchanges and cooperation in areas of common interest. China and the U.S. share vast common interests that far outweigh their differences. The two sides need to figure out priority areas and programs for exchanges and cooperation.

It is widely believed that increased trade, two-way investment, global climate change, international terrorism, drug trafficking anda the nuclear issue in Iran and on the Korean Peninsula are priority areas where the two sides could take immediate cooperative steps. Biden has said effective control of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. is his priority task and that a team of medical experts has been set up and will be strengthened.

Naturally, Sino-U.S. cooperation in suppression of the pandemic should be the top priority. Although there have been many exchanges through various channels between the two countries since the outbreak, there are a lot more that can be undertaken to increase cooperation — in particular, to help control the pandemic in the U.S., help the sick and save lives.

Fourth, both sides should observe international norms, including mutual respect for each other’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and core interests, as well as noninterference in each other’s internal affairs. In fact, these principles have already been laid down in quite a number of bilateral documents. The problem that remains is gaining a mutual understanding about how to observe them. Discussions linking specific issues of mutual concern need to be held to increase mutual understanding and promote the better observance of those basic principles and prevent conflicts.

Fifth, dialogue should be conducted on issues upon which there are serious differences. From our two countries’ different social systems, to different understandings of each other’s strategic intentions and human rights, the differences can be divided into categories. It is well-known that Sino-U.S. relations are based on the principles of peaceful coexistence that reach far beyond different social systems. Therefore, it is inadvisable at all times for either side to emphasize differences in ideology, political system or civilization.

To reduce their differences, the two countries have already managed to establish a party-to-party exchange format and set up a great many cultural programs of cooperation to increase mutual understanding. Other differences could be listed in different categories for discussion so as to work out different ways of resolving them.

China and the U.S. are the two great nations of the current world. The U.S. is the only superpower, while China the largest developing country. China has a right to develop, and this deserves to be respected, not undermined. The U.S. is doing everything possible to maintain its sole superpower status. At this point, the U.S. has identified China as a country with the potential to challenge that position. Under such circumstances, it is crucial for the U.S. to fully understand the true nature of China’s peaceful development.

Biden recently said that China is a strong competitor. Frankly, some conflict not going to be avoidable. But it could be fair and friendly based on mutually agreed rules. When both sides agree to make joint efforts to deal with competition wisely, it follows that smooth, healthy bilateral relations are not too far away. 

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