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Foreign Policy

What Should China and the U.S. Do Now?

Oct 22, 2018
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Academic Committee Member, Center for International Security and Strategy, Tsinghua University


Relations between China and the US now stand at a critical turning point. In the face of increasing competition and friction, will they move towards confrontation, or make an effort to manage and control competition and differences, persist in dialogue and cooperation and steer the bilateral relationship towards a new model of major country relations?

It is now imperative to avoid continued expansion and escalation of trade disputes. In a comprehensive trade war, not only will both suffer great economic losses, but economic relations, the long-term ballast stone of China-US relations, will become a source of confrontation. China and the US should always maintain communication and separate political from economic affairs. The two sides should also strive to reach new agreements on free trade, fair trade, and the principle of reciprocity and mutual advantage. In the process of trying to resolve trade disputes, it is critical that China actively strengthen market-oriented reforms, expand opening-up, facilitate economic restructuring, and persevere in multilateralism whereas the US must work to restrain unilateral or protectionist practices.

It is critical to properly handle the Taiwan question. The Taiwan question bears on China’s core interest and has always been the most important and most sensitive topic in China-US relations, which are stable only when the situation across the Taiwan Straits is stable. The US should act in strict observance of the One China principle enshrined in the three joint communiques. Any challenge to the One China principle or attempt to develop official relations with Taiwan will only have disastrous consequences for China-US relations.

It is an urgent and important task to manage and control friction between the two sides in the South China Sea. In the near term, they should first of all manage the fierce friction caused by the so-called freedom-of-navigation operations conducted by the US close to Chinese islands and reefs and guard vigilantly against accidentally sparking a conflict. Then, the two sides should develop strategic dialogue on avoiding militarization of the South China Sea in pursuit of feasible solutions on the basis of each other’s security concerns. With the long-term perspective in mind, a possible way out might be the US supporting China, other claimants in the South China Seas, and ASEAN countries to resolve maritime disputes and maintain peace and stability on the basis of a dual-track approach, while China supports all relevant countries, the US included, to jointly safeguard freedom and security of navigation of the sea lanes.

Amidst increased Sino-US competition and friction, strengthened crisis management, especially management of military and security crises, should become central in the two countries’ efforts to manage and control their competition and friction so as to avoid conflict and confrontation. In order to advance the development of bilateral crisis management mechanisms, the two countries should adopt a series of specific measures, such as strengthening the crisis management function of head-of-state, military, and diplomatic hotlines and making sure that they play critical roles in controlling contingencies and crises; striving for an early agreement on the basic principles of crisis management at high levels between the two countries and the two militaries; further strengthening maritime military and security consultation and seriously implementing and enriching the two confidence-building MOUs between the two militaries; working to maintain and advance the dialogue between the Chinese and American joint staffs designed to strengthen exchanges and cooperation and improve crisis management and communication.

To reestablish strategic mutual trust, China and the US should strive to reach certain agreements on a security framework for the Asia Pacific. For a long time, the two sides have been having serious differences on the Asia Pacific security framework, especially on the question of America’s bilateral military alliances in this region. In 2017, the Chinese government made it very clear that given this region’s history and reality, it is normal for various mechanisms, including various regional multilateral security dialogues and pre-existing military alliances, to advance in parallel in the evolution of a regional security architecture. China urges America’s military alliances to enhance transparency, avoid confrontation, and play a constructive role in safeguarding peace and stability in the region.

To reestablish strategic mutual trust, China and the US should also strive to reach agreements on jointly safeguarding and developing the existing international order and maintain and strengthen security cooperation in global governance. In all its foreign policies and actions, China will always be a builder of world peace, a contributor to global development, and a defender of international order. The US should support China in maintaining and developing the existing international order. On the basis of the UN Charter and norms of international law, the two sides should continue cooperating in the fields of non-proliferation, nuclear safety and security, counterterrorism, security in global public domains such as sea lanes of communication, cross-boundary crimes, financial stability, infectious diseases, and international relief operations. Promoting global and regional stability, and stability in the Middle East and on the Korean Peninsula in particular, remains their shared interest and responsibility.

For the above efforts to be successful, China and the US must maintain effective dialogue and exchanges. Since the beginning of this year, giving the worsening relationship, dialogue and exchanges have been stagnant or even interrupted, which is dangerous. Among the four high-level dialogues (the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, the Comprehensive Economic Dialogue, the Law Enforcement and Cyber Strategic Dialogue, and the Social and People-to-People Dialogue) endorsed by the two heads of states in 2017, none have been conducted. The two sides must take steps to change the situation as soon as possible. In the new situation, definition of the China-US relationship should be an important topic in bilateral dialogues. The US regards China as a primary ‘strategic competitor’ and ‘revisionist’. What does it mean? And what does China mean when it talks about strengthening the country and the military? The two sides should develop in-depth dialogue to enhance mutual understanding and reduce misgivings with a view to avoiding misunderstanding or miscalculation.

That China sticks to its strategic choices and international commitments is of great significance to stabilizing China-US relations. For a long time, China has repeatedly declared that it pursues peaceful development, does not engage in any arms race, does not seek any sphere of influence, does not enter into any alliance with any big country or develop any military bloc, and will never seek hegemony or expansion. For China, these are not only important conclusions from the Cold War but also strategic choices made in the new international situation and solemn commitments to the whole world. Implementation of these commitments in earnest will play a role in gradually reducing the China-threat fallacy in the US and steering China-US relations back to the track of sound and stable development.

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