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Foreign Policy

Sino-US Relations in Transition: What’s Certain and What Isn’t

Nov 27 , 2019
  • Cui Liru

    Senior Researcher, Taihe Institute

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Sino-U.S. relations are experiencing an unprecedented period of difficulty, and there are great uncertainties in their development prospects. These uncertainties come from major changes. The current tensions in bilateral relations and the challenges and difficulties the two countries must face for a considerable time to come are fundamentally a symptom of their historical transition from an old pattern to a new one. Looking at the uncertainties facing the development of Sino-U.S. relations from what is certain in these major changes will help us acquire a deeper understanding of, and to more calmly face, the current situation. 

What is certain?

► China’s strength has risen significantly, and the gap between it and the United States has shrunk considerably. It is of particular note that this trend can be expected to continue as a new balance is sought.

► The United States has made major adjustments in its strategic posture toward China. It identifies China as a major rival, a major challenger and a revisionist country. These labels have fundamentally changed U.S. strategy, along with the dynamics and development of bilateral relations. Strategic competition marked by strengthened vigilance, checks and balances and countermeasures has replaced dialogue, exchanges and cooperation, which have characterized Sino-U.S. relations.

► As an important part of the new relationship, changes in another area are also fundamental. China and the United States have developed an interdependent economic and trade relationship. With the overall improvement in China’s economic strength, these have far exceeded the scope of bilateral relations to become an extremely important part of the economic supply chain and value chain around the globe. Global interdependence and the strategic competition between the two countries form an important foundation of mutual restraint.

► China and the United States are each in a critical period of economic, political and social transformation. The complex changes in their domestic political and economic situations amid rising nationalism and populism is currently posing an unprecedented challenge to the handling of major issues.

What is uncertain?

► Where are bilateral relations heading? What is happening now and what is coming in the next five years will determine which one of two scenarios becomes dominant — the notion that bilateral strategic competition will fall into the so-called Thucydides trap or the “too big to fail” pragmatic proposition. In this regard, the results of the Sino-U.S. trade war and negotiations will be indicative. If China and the United States can overcome the severe challenges of the transition period, their goal should be to gradually establish a stable framework for relations that adapts to globalization and multipolarization.

► Can the basic guidelines of “seeking common ground while reserving differences” and “separating politics from economics” be sustainable? For a long time, the reason that problems and disputes between China and the United States — arising from different development levels and political systems — have not become fundamental obstacles to developing bilateral relations is largely because these guidelines have been continuously sustained by the leadership on both sides. They have had a tacit understanding of the function of these guidelines. Obviously, the current decoupling proposition in Washington actually means the abandonment of these guidelines. The debate on this issue in the United States and the resulting policy orientation will have a major impact on the future direction of Sino-U.S. relations and even on the international political and economic system.

► Can China and the United States reach a political and security consensus on peaceful coexistence in the Asia-Pacific region? This big question involves strategic and policy considerations related to some important issues: the Taiwan question, the South China Sea, the DPRK nuclear issue and the region’s security architecture. When strategic competition prevails in Sino-U.S. relations, there is obviously an important correlation between the two sides’ handling of these issues. The Asia-Pacific has probably become the most important engine for global economic development, and its special diversification and diversity have also resulted in complex relations between nations at the geopolitical level. China and the United States have different views of the economic, political and security interests in the region and need to understand one another. This is an important aspect of the new Sino-U.S. relationship.

► The biggest uncertainty in the current development of Sino-U.S. relations is probably that American politics have entered a historic period. The Trump phenomenon is its most prominent feature, but its deep and complex meaning goes far beyond Trump himself. It covers many economic, political, social and diplomatic factors, including economic transformations and the resulting widening gap between rich and poor, the polarization of politics, the intensification of racial and religious conflicts, the resentment of the middle class, public disdain for the American establishment and elite governance, nationalism and populism running high, “America first” dominating foreign relations and the reversal of multilateral mechanisms and international responsibilities. Sino-U.S. relations have a spillover effect. As the United States enters a new election cycle, slamming and suppressing China helps score political points, leaving Sino-U.S. relations even less optimistic over the next two years.

It is foreseeable that for a considerable period of time to come, under the theme of strategic competition, frictions and tensions will become the new normal of Sino-U.S. relations, even though both Beijing and Washington have realized that confrontation will have disastrous consequences and that the effect of “too big to fail” will make the management of risks, disagreements and competition the most important factor in the transition period. Since last year, China has been suggesting that the Chinese and American militaries should become the “stabilizers” of relations in the new era. This can be considered a way to strengthen the risk-control mechanism. On this the U.S. seems to agree.

However, the real way out for the development of Sino-U.S. relations lies in active initiative based on history and the future. To this end, it is necessary to profoundly understand the characteristics of the new Sino-U.S. relationship — that is, a combination of “super large” and “ultra complex.” This contains the real enormous capability and historical heritage of the two countries and the interaction between them and the current major international changes.

It is narrow-minded to think that changes in the development of Sino-U.S. relations can be attributed solely to a policy shift by either party. Only by looking at the new Sino-U.S. relations with a broad perspective, including their historical evolution, will the two countries have the positive attitude required to face the current difficult situation. Moreover, the history of Sino-U.S. relations shows that measures to get out of predicaments were not created until they had to be.

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