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Foreign Policy

Ties in Transition

Mar 25, 2021
  • Tao Wenzhao

    Honorary Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences; Fellow, CASS Institute of American Studies

The curtain has come down on the China-U.S. high-level strategic dialogue in Alaska, the first face-to-face meeting between the highest-ranking diplomats of the two countries since the new U.S. administration assumed office. It was an important step toward fulfilling the spirit of the top leaders’ Feb. 11 phone conversation and an indication that after four years of destruction and chaos under Donald Trump, the United States has returned to a diplomatic track. That alone is meaningful.

The two parties conducted candid, in-depth, constructive discussions on bilateral, regional and international topics. And they agreed to continue with communications after reaching consensus on a series of subjects. The dialogue signaled that China-U.S. relations have entered a period of transition — from the wanton tit-for-tat pattern of destruction led by Trump to an era of competitive coexistence.

The positive significance of this round of dialogue lies mainly in three aspects:

First, the two sides reached a general consensus that neither side seeks conflict. In multiple speeches, including his phone conversation with President Xi Jinping on Chinese New Year’s Eve, U.S. President Joe Biden made it clear that while there is competition between China and the U.S., conflict should be avoided.

The U.S. side again said that it does not desire conflict, and that comports with what the Chinese side has consistently advocated. This consensus is quite important, as it shows that both sides are aware that they must coexist for the long term, which is fundamentally different from the ever-escalating, the stigmatizing, the suppression and even the direct attacks during the Trump years on the Communist Party of China and the current political system of China. The acknowledgement will guide China-U.S. relations in the years to come.

Second, the talks opened up a process in which the two countries can have a rational dialogue on issues of common concern. Both sides agreed that the dialogue was beneficial and that similar high-level communication should go forward after consultations on specific topics in various categories. During the Trump presidency, all bilateral mechanisms came to a halt. Various exchanges, including normal people-to-people exchanges, were interrupted as U.S. trade attacks against China came to represent the entirety of China-U.S. relationship. It is time to end this abnormality.

Third, the two sides reached consensus on multiple specific subjects, including strengthening dialogue and cooperation on climate change and setting up a joint working group; consulting on ways to facilitate the activities of each other's diplomatic personnel and journalists; adjusting related travel and visa policies, gradually promoting normal exchanges people; and enhancing consultations on various regional and multilateral affairs.

It all adds up to mean that the U.S. side won’t exclude collaboration, and wherever the situation fits it  will be willing to work with the Chinese side, step by step, to repair the basic infrastructure of bilateral ties that had been demolished under the Republican administration. 

Why is now a transitional period? After the severe sabotage of relations by the previous U.S. administration, China and the United States both need healing and recovery. The negative legacy of Trump continues to poison bilateral ties and won't be cleaned up overnight.

In addition, this round of dialogue showed the deep divides between the two countries. The Trump administration seriously damaged the foundation of positive public opinion, which continues to constrain the new administration.  We must not underestimate the fact that political polarization in the U.S. has tightened those constraints by creating a toxic domestic political atmosphere that is less than helpful in any effort to restore ties.

Various aspects of China-U.S. relations will likely be unbalanced in the near future. In some areas they may find more consensus than obstacles, and so recovery and cooperation may proceed faster and be more fruitful as a result. In some other areas, the two countries may find chasms of separation and fierce competition. Considerable uncertainty remains.

One thing is relatively certain: China-U.S. relations will neither continue on the path of the Trump era nor return to that of the Obama era. Over time, the relationship will enter a stage of competitive co-existence — that is, both sides will realize that neither China nor the U.S. can overwhelm or replace the other. Neither can they afford the consequences of confrontation. So they must co-exist on the same planet, with unavoidable mutual dependence.

It is good to remember that wherever there is mutual dependence, there are also common interests where collaboration is possible. Therefore, cooperation is not a request from one side to be granted as a favor from the other. Rather, it is an objective necessity and a mutually beneficial win-win formula. Since these are the world’s largest economies, cooperation will contribute to world peace, stability and prosperity.

In fact, China-U.S. cooperation over the past four decades has been mutually beneficial and win-win in nature. Yet because of differences in history, culture, social systems and development stages, divergence is an inescapable, objective phenomenon.

Where there is divergence, there is competition —sometimes even fierce competition. This is not unusual: Differences exist even between the United States and its closest allies. Thus, China-U.S. competitive coexistence can be expected to last a long time.

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