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Foreign Policy

Transcend Ideological Divergences, Rebuild China-U.S. Relations

Feb 23, 2021
  • Tao Wenzhao

    Researcher, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

The inauguration of the Biden administration provided a window of hope for rebuilding China-U.S. relations. But even with hope, there will still be impediments and restrictions on the path to rebuilding. The Trump administration exaggerated ideological divergences between the two countries, and brought about much chaos over the past four years, erecting a major obstacle to rebuilding bilateral ties.

The foundation of China-U.S. relations has been historically built on common interests. The last four decades have consisted of both countries affirming common interests within bilateral ties. China and the United States weren't particularly aware of their ideological differences when they began the process of reconciliation in the early 1970s. At the time, common interests far outweighed divergences. The U.S. side acknowledged in the February 1972, Shanghai Communique that, "the efforts to reduce tensions is served by improving communication between countries that have different ideologies so as to lessen the risks of confrontation through accident, miscalculation or misunderstanding.”

Since entering the historical stage of reform and opening up, China has developed a deeper understanding of the role of ideology in diplomacy. Thus, they proposed not to determine state-to-state relations based on social systems and ideologies. Deng Xiaoping once warned against drawing lines along ideological differences, and called for developing friendly ties with all countries based on the Five Principles for Peaceful Co-Existence.

Regarding the two countries' ideological differences, the Chinese side proposes mutual respect and learning. In former Chinese President Jiang Zemin’s speech at Harvard University during his November, 1997, U.S. visit, he said: "Sunlight is composed of seven colors, so is our world which is full of different colors. Every country and every nation has its own historical and cultural traditions, strong points and advantages, and should respect and learn from others and draw upon other's strong points to offset one's own deficiencies, thus achieving common progress."

Over the years, China has learnt and assimilated other countries' strengths, including the U.S.’', but sought to carve out its own development path. With that, China seeks to not impose their ideology on other countries and to advise each country to find a path that best suits its own national conditions. Former U.S. Secretary of State Robert Zoellick said in a September 2005, speech on China-U.S. relations that, differing from the former Soviet Union, China, "does not seek to spread radical, anti-American ideologies."

Trump came into power riding the populist waves against globalization. During the 2016 elections, he took populism as his ideological banner, mobilizing and rallying voters and creating his own voter base. After getting elected, he continued preaching populism, worsened social disintegration, severely disrupted American values, instigated rampant white supremacy, and suppressed racial equality. Americans remain highly divided over what is democracy and freedom, even after the fatal siege of the U.S. Capitol on January 6. Richard Haas, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a recent article, "What has happened should put an end to the notion of American exceptionalism, of an eternal shining city on a hill.” Ideology has never been a well-used tool in the U.S.-China policy toolbox. After four years of chaos under former President Trump, this tool has become even more rusted.

What position ideological divergences are given in bilateral relations is of critical significance to rebuilding the relationship, and post-Cold War rebuilding of China-U.S. relations may serve as valuable reference. In the first two to three years of the Clinton presidency, the U.S. side misjudged domestic political conditions in China, as well as China-U.S. relations. It focused its China policy on human rights and made China change policy orientations through mounting pressures as a policy goal. This resulted in frequent fluctuations in bilateral ties, and U.S. policies entering a dead-end. Years later, the U.S. side became aware of the two countries’ common interests in the post-Cold War era. After October 1995, the Clinton government began to adjust its China policy, concentrating instead on stabilizing and rebuilding bilateral ties. The two countries’ divergences over human rights continued, and the U.S. side even put forward a proposal at the UN Human Rights Commission to condemn China. Though human rights are human rights, the two countries found more relevant areas where they needed to cooperate, and the status of human rights in bilateral relations lowered greatly. While such issues continued to disturb bilateral ties, they no longer were an obstacle to rebuilding the relationship.

Ideology was a Cold War-era weapon that can’t actually help us cope with the immense challenges facing us today. Global threats, such as financial crises, the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and new technologies like big data and artificial intelligence, are sending shockwaves through the international community And we can’t handle any of these challenges with ideology.

As global responses to climate change sank into stagnation after the frustration at the Copenhagen summit, it was again China-U.S. cooperation that promoted global cooperation, facilitating the Paris conference, during which the historic Paris Agreement was reached. China-U.S. cooperation can’t be more important. When the novel coronavirus pandemic broke out, the Trump administration, out of ideological prejudices, refused international cooperation, including cooperation with China.

Robert Kaplan, the renowned American geo-strategy scholar and Philadelphia University professor, recently wrote, “An age of great power competition should not mean an existential ideological clash, where the aim becomes to change the system of governance in China and Russia.” His suggestion is pertinent. The purpose of two countries dealing with each other should not be transforming the other in its own image. Such a goal would always end up in disappointment. Americans tend to say the U.S. is a pluralist society. It must be remembered, then, that the world is even more so. As the Biden administration pushes forward in rebuilding bilateral ties with China, it’s imperative that regulating ideology not be the goal. 

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