It is barely one and a half months into the Trump Administration and the world has witnessed a plenty of surprises in American foreign policy. That has made some fret about possible deterioration of the China-US relationship, undoubtedly the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century. At stake are not only impact long-term interests of both nations but also the prospects of world peace and global economic growth.
Despite pessimistic predictions lately there are some strong signs in bilateral communications and consultations that suggest a good beginning is on the horizon.
As China’s President Xi Jinping said in his Davos speech, this is the best of times and worst of the times. The same goes for the China-US relationship, as it now faces both great opportunities and serious challenges.
The most significant event is of course the phone conversation between Xi and his US counterpart on the 20th of February. Both leaders reaffirmed their determination to increase cooperation between two countries on the basis of “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win through cooperation” so as to be good partners both bilaterally and globally to maintain world peace and stability.
President Donald Trump stresses that his administration will continue to adhere to the “One China Policy”, as it constitutes the essential political foundation of US-China relations. These positive pronouncements were again echoed during the recent meeting between President Trump and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi.
I am not suggesting that China-US relationship will be plain sailing all the way hereafter. What I intend to say is that both countries do appreciate the salience of a better bilateral relationship vis-a-vis world peace and global economic growth. That is indeed a solid starting point.
Admittedly President Trump’s China policy, as with other American foreign policies, is still evolving and will take some time to come into shape, but the basic outlines are already coming into view. Here are some elements worth noticing:
First, there is a fundamental understanding that China and the US, the two major powers of the world today, need cooperation not confrontation. There are many areas where two nations’ interests converge or fairly close to each other, especially to maintain peace in the world at large and in Asia in particular as well as to promote economic growth in both countries and globally.
Second is that economic cooperation and trade frictions will probably simultaneously increase as the new US government puts its focus on gaining greater economic benefits with its trading partners through “buy American and hire American” and its ambitious plan to renovate its infrastructure, creating both challenges and opportunities for China, its major trading partner.
3. Third: While the ideological edge might be dulled a bit temporarily in bilateral dealings (eventually it will resurface), the geopolitical entanglements perhaps will loom larger as the new US administration continues the “rebalance” in Asia-Pacific in its own way by strengthening military capability and actual deployment in the region. Regional security will therefore become more complex and risky as the US begins to implement its decision to deploy THAAD in South Korea and encourages Japan and other allies to continue on their course of possible collision with China.
4. Fourth, some adjustments have to be made in globalization and global governance by both countries to accommodate the changing tides of globalization as well as the reprioritizing in America’s positions in certain fields of global governance such as climate change.
In sum, with a good starting point and strong signs of moving the relationship forward in the right direction, what should both nations do to make it really work? Here are a few suggestions:
1. It is imperative to reinforce the strategic understanding that China-US relations need to be developed on the principle of “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win through cooperation” proposed by China. Respect for each other’s core interests is at the heart of that understanding whereby China has repeatedly expressed its position that the one-China policy is non-negotiable. What’s more, parallel actions in various fields are needed to keep the bilateral relationship on an even keel during this time of complexity and turbulence. What strategic consensus both can achieve will, to a large degree, determine whether two countries are capable of avoiding falling into “Thucydides Trap”, a prediction that an incumbent power and a rising power will usually resort to war to resolve their conflict. We do hope and believe that the US and China will have enough political wisdom to prove that theory wrong. The reality is that, as wisely said by President Xi, the Pacific is spacious enough for both the US and China to prosper and peacefully co-exist.
2. Economic interdependence and cooperation has been the bedrock of China-US relations for decades, which has benefitted both nations. That is the fact of life that needs to be remembered as the Trump Administration puts its “America First” policy into practice and tries to make and remake trade deals and arrangements with China including negotiation on a Bilateral Investment Treaty.
Short-term gains, if there is any, should be balanced against the long-term interest of free trade and investment.
To reduce the US trade deficit with China, first we need to have a full grasp of where the surplus goes. American companies in China profit from that and many countries including the US that supply components to China’s final products also share much of the surplus. The same goes for “lost jobs”. According to research done by American economists, over 80% of that loss is a direct result of technology revolution. Simply put, it is the machine that has replaced the worker.
Also, the US can expand and increase its exports to China by, among other things, deciding to sell surplus shale gas and oil to China and lifting the bans on its sales of dual-use (for both civilian and military applications) goods to China.
Some adjustments might be necessary, but the overall direction of economic cooperation and two-way free trade and investment between two countries must be kept intact.
3. Proceeding from common strategic interests of both countries to maintain peace worldwide, it is incumbent upon the US and China to contribute to a new security framework in Asia-Pacific, especially in East Asia, by working together. Over-reliance on military alliances targeting third parties cannot provide adequate security for all. Only new cooperative and collective security arrangements will do the job.
This new security concept proposed as by China and accepted by many should be given more serious consideration.
In this connection, how to defuse the nuclear crisis and rising tension on the Korean Peninsula is of paramount importance to both countries. Any suggestion to have surgical strikes at DPRK facilities is tantamount to lighting the fuse to war, and no war should be allowed to happen. China will not accept a nuclear Korean Peninsula nor condone any action that will lead to another war there. By the same logic, the deployment of THAAD missile defense system in South Korea is totally unacceptable to China. Washington and Seoul should reconsider such a reckless move that will undermine fragile strategic balance in the region. We need to work closely and continue to seek a proper solution through peaceful political negotiation.
As major powers, the US and China do have their special responsibilities as articulated in the “the United Nations Charter” in the maintenance of world peace and security. In today’s era of globalization, that responsibility also covers economic and other challenges — for which a cooperative relationship between the two is indispensable.