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Foreign Policy

Toward a Resilient China-U.S. Relationship

Apr 23, 2024
  • Yuan Sha

    Associate Research Fellow, Department for American Studies, China Institute of International Studies

Blinken 2023 China trip.png

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited China last year in an effort to “stabilize” relations between Washington and Beijing after an American fighter plane shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon. (File photo)

Since the San Francisco summit in November, relations between China and the United States have entered a period of rapprochement that has been welcomed around the world. The latest series of high-level engagements, including a phone call between President Xi Jinping and President Joe Biden and the subsequent flurry of diplomatic action inject additional confidence into the bilateral relationship. With U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveling to China in the coming days, the development of relations will be closely watched around the world.

However, given the U.S. strategic goal of “out-competing” China and America’s hawkish domestic tendencies, many suspect the recent stabilization might be tactical and fragile, rather than strategic and sustainable. This concern warrants attention: The two countries need to think hard about how to rebuild genuine trust and resume cooperation. Against this background, resilience might be a worthy objective for the China-U.S. relations. 

Why resilience is needed 

Resilience refers to the ability to withstand endogenous or exogenous shocks, to recover quickly and to adjust to form a new balance. Because this case involves one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world, resilience is of especially great importance. It can help ensure overall stability not only in the interest of the region but beyond.

First of all, a resilient China-U.S. relationship would help establish a healthy floor for bilateral interactions. Neither the U.S. nor China wants a breakdown of relations, but the vicissitudes of the past several years have demonstrated that misperceptions and misguided policies could easily degenerate into unintended tensions and conflicts.

The Biden administration has continued to tighten export controls and trade tariffs on China. More ominously, U.S. support for Taiwan separatists risks violating the “one China” principle and upsetting cross-strait stability. President Biden is also likely to sign into law America’s new national security package, which would further increase military assistance to Taiwan.

Complicating matters is the upcoming U.S. presidential election campaign, during which China-U.S. relations are at risk of being hijacked by political rhetoric. Thus, building resilience is badly needed to ameliorate tensions and avoid confrontation.

Second, a resilient China-U.S. relationship could send stabilizing signals to the world. As the Ukraine crisis grinds on and the Israel-Palestinian conflict risks escalating and spilling over into the wider Middle East region, a stable China-U.S. relationship is desirable more than ever for the world.

This is especially true in light of disconcerting moves in the Western Pacific, including the biggest U.S.-Japan alliance upgrade in decades, along with trilateral security cooperation between the United States, Japan and the Philippines. The latter risks a further emboldening of Japanese militarism and Philippine provocations in the South China Sea.

A resilient China-U.S. relationship could send a powerful signal to the world, building confidence that both countries are responsibly managing bilateral relations, deterring the imprudent moves of some countries and avoiding unnecessary tensions in the region.

Last but not least, a resilient China-U.S. relationship could prepare the two countries to jointly meet global challenges. Confronted with a glaring deficit in global governance, the international community badly needs the alignment of interests and coordination of efforts from major countries. President Xi has called for building a community with a shared future under the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative and the Global Civilization Initiative. The Biden administration also laid out in its 2022 National Security Strategy a dual-track approach that includes “cooperating with any country that is willing to work constructively with us to address shared challenges.”

As the two countries have mutual concerns and interests in managing regional and international hot-spot issues, as well as in global governance, resilience could help them coordinate their efforts and demonstrate solidarity to the international community. 

How to build resilience 

Given the current opportunities and challenges in China-U.S. relations, resilience can be seen as an intermediate objective. As to the question of how to build resilience, given the domestic and international constraints, several paths could be considered.

First of all, resilience needs high-level diplomacy to set guiding principles from the top down. The historic summit between presidents Xi and Biden in November laid out the “San Francisco Vision,” which set the direction for the healthy, stable and sustainable development of relations. During the early April phone call, Xi once again underlined three overarching principles that should guide China-U.S. relations in 2024 — that peace must be valued, stability must be prioritized and credibility must be upheld. These principles are more than mere rhetoric. They capture the very essence of the bilateral relationship, which has proved itself through 45 years of diplomacy.

Second, resilience requires regularized working-level exchanges to foster predictable expectations. The exchange channels between the two countries have dwindled after years of tension, but since the San Francisco summit the two countries have re-established a number of consultation mechanisms — on diplomatic, economic, financial, commercial, military, counter-narcotics, climate and artificial intelligence fronts.

These mechanisms not only provide a platform for the two sides to clarify each other’s concerns and positions and look for common denominators to address concrete issues, but they also offer a more predictable pattern, thereby boosting confidence in the relationship. The two sides need to utilize these channels to follow through on their assurances and to deliver tangible benefits demonstrating to their domestic constituencies that win-win cooperation is possible and desirable. During this process, the two sides could develop common practices and shape positive expectations toward each other.

Last but not least, resilience needs intensive exchanges from the bottom up.

The Biden administration appeals to “de-risking” as the dominant paradigm in bilateral relations — which leads to over-securitization of almost everything from business interactions to people-to-people exchanges. As President Xi recently put it, this is not “de-risking” but “creating risks.”

A viable approach to confidence building is to start with resilience so that the two countries know the boundaries of competition and have channels through which to engage in rational debate. They need to look for post-Kissinger interlocutors between Beijing and Washington, who understand both China and the United States, who care about a constructive China-U.S. relationship and who will put forward thought-provoking questions and ideas for solving problems. The two countries need to reassure such diplomats that they will not fall victim to the so-called great power rivalry. Only in this way can the two countries encourage economic, scholarly and people-to-people recoupling.

The above suggestions might be easier said than done, since they require political will, diplomatic perseverance and public enthusiasm from both sides to make breakthroughs. But if achieved, the breakthroughs can help the two countries escape the so-called Thucydides trap and foster a more constructive framework that stands to benefit both countries and the world at large.

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