The Sino-U.S. relationship has seen serious risks, challenges and uncertainties brought by the administration of President Donald Trump. Different words are used to describe the state of relations, including “new cold war,” “decoupling” and “partial disengagement.”
In May, the White House published a policy paper called the United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China, emphasizing the major challenges that China allegedly poses to the U.S. in the fields of economy, security and values. It also reiterated the failure of U.S. engagement since the Nixon administration and acknowledged the whole-of-government strategic competition policy against China.
The Trump administration has been stirring up trouble continually in China -U.S. relations, from the shaping of public opinion to the implementation of policy. From June to July, senior officials such as the Trump’s national security adviser, the director of the FBI, the attorney general and the secretary of state have delivered a series of speeches regarding China which were packed with zero-sum thinking and cold war mentality, exaggerating China’s threat and emphasizing ideological opposition.
Trump himself successively signed what was titled the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 and the Hong Kong Autonomy Act. The U.S. State Department announced that China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea were illegal.
Moreover, the United States suspended the Fulbright scholarship program and closed the Chinese consulate in Houston.
All these moves have not only interfered with China’s internal affairs but also undermined social and cultural exchanges between the two countries.
Based on this experience, we might well expect further deterioration in Sino-U.S. relations. At present, both strategic and academic circles in U.S. recognize their importance, complexity and sensitivity. They also believe in strengthening the U.S. strategic competition with China, which does not approve of the idea of a new cold war. It is aware that the U.S. is moving toward comprehensive strategic competition against China, not only for its own sake but for the benefit of its Western democratic allies.
The U.S. actions will undoubtedly bring major challenges to Chinese diplomacy. Needless to say, Sino-U.S. relations have reached a historical low point. Some scholars have even used the words “free fall” to describe the current situation.
What will the China-U.S. relationship be like in the future? Will it have a hard landing? Or will the decline be arrested and the situation stabilized? It may be difficult to answer those questions with any certainty, but I have three points to make that are relevant.
First, competition will be the keyword of the future. The research report recently released by the Rand Corporation, China’s Grand Strategy: Trends, Trajectories, and Long-term Competition, pointed out that “China and the United States will likely be in competition with each other for many years to come. Indeed, the two countries seem destined to be locked into long-term competition because neither is likely to withdraw from world affairs in the foreseeable future. In addition, each country perceives the other country as a significant rival, is deeply suspicious of the actions and intentions of the other country, and is highly competitive.”
Of course, competition does not always lead to confrontation. Nor will it inevitably lead to tragedy in great power politics. This will depend mostly on the strategic choices and policy interactions of the two countries. Any crazy, emotional or self-righteous policy may have unfavorable consequences far beyond the expectations of the decision-makers themselves.
Second, it’s a basic fact that China and the United States both gain from peaceful coexistence and lose from conflict. Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, stated in his speech that although China is deeply integrated into the world economy, “Beijing is more dependent on us than we are on them.”
He must have forgotten the experience and lessons drawn from the history of the development of Sino-U.S. relations — that coexistence and cooperation benefits both, and conflict and confrontation has no winner. This has been proved by past history and will be proved again in the future.
Third, the U.S. will not get what it wants through extreme pressure on China. When the U.S. government is advancing its pressure policy, it proceeds from the general assumption that the U.S. is in a strategically superior position. As long as the pressure is strong enough, the other party will inevitably give in.
However, it fails to see clearly. Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations recently published an article in the Washington Post headlined “What Mike Pompeo doesn’t understand about China, Richard Nixon and U.S. foreign policy.” He criticized Pompeo’s speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library. In his words, "The problem was not simply that the nation’s chief diplomat was decidedly undiplomatic. Worse was his misrepresentation of history and his failure to suggest a coherent or viable path forward for managing a relationship that more than any other will define this era.”
Indeed, the U.S. government ignores the principles of diplomacy when it comes to China, disregarding its history and culture and the aspirations and spirit of contemporary Chinese people. China has long pursued an independent foreign policy of peace. The fundamental goals of this policy are to preserve its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity; create a favorable international environment for reform, opening-up and modernization program; maintain world peace; and promote common development. China will not succumb to any external pressure. It has the determination and ability to safeguard its legitimate rights and interests.
The Chinese nation has experienced hardships and adversity but remains indomitable and continues to develop. The Chinese people are hardworking, intelligent, courageous and fearless people. This kind of character is a firm guarantee that China will move steadily toward a bright future and realize its dreams.
Knowing, understanding, and respecting Chinese history, culture and the spirit of its people are necessary for Americans who want diplomatic success with China, something that will strengthen Sino-U.S. relations and promote world peace and development.