The China-U.S. relationship in 2023 has had something of a slow start but with an upward trend. Following the China-U.S. summit in Bali in November last year, there were initial expectations for positive developments in the relationship. However, the balloon incident in February disrupted things. The political atmosphere between the two nations deteriorated, high-level contacts were temporarily suspended and the relationship hit a new low.
In May, Wang Yi, director of China’s Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, and Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security adviser, met in Vienna, Austria. The two sides had frank, in-depth, substantive and constructive discussions on removing obstacles and stabilizing the bilateral relationship. In June, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China marked the end of the shadow that had been cast by the balloon, and both sides decided to return to the agenda that had been set earlier in Bali. Subsequently, high-level contacts between China and the U.S. quickly resumed.
A number of U.S. officials visited China, including Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry, California Governor Gavin Newsom and a bipartisan delegation led by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Chinese officials, including Vice Premier He Lifeng and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, visited the United States.
In November, leaders of China and the U.S. met again in San Francisco, exchanging in-depth views on strategic, overall and directional issues in the bilateral relationship. They reached consensus on a series of important matters and achieved multiple practical cooperative outcomes. The China-U.S. relationship stabilized, opening up a new vision for the future of bilateral ties.
The development of China-U.S. relations in 2023 indicates that, after several years of intense competition and repeated adjustments, the resilience of China-U.S. relations is gradually becoming apparent. Several points of consensus have emerged to support the stable development of the relationship.
Strategically, neither side is seeking a new cold war but are instead responsibly managing differences and competition to achieve peaceful coexistence. On security, neither side is willing to engage in conflict and both are maintaining high-level communication and contact with regard to Taiwan to properly handle various unexpected events. Economically, neither side seeks decoupling, but both are exploring the boundaries of China-U.S. economic and trade competition.
In terms of ideology, both sides respect the other’s choice of path, without seeking to undermine the other system. In people-to-people exchanges, both sides are committed to restoring and expanding exchanges and interactions in various fields. As for cooperation, both sides are engaging in constructive collaboration in bilateral and global governance areas where common interests exist.
After the successful summit between the two top leaders in San Francisco, the question is this: Will China-U.S. relations get a high start but experience a downward trend in 2024? We have reason to be cautiously optimistic.
First, the follow-up effects of the San Francisco summit will play a crucial role. The summit has created a positive political atmosphere for the coming year. The follow-up teams from both sides will continue to maintain high-levels of interaction, including visits, and implement a series of agreements, with practical cooperation, reached during the summit. Regular dialogues can effectively safeguard the relationship between the two countries.
Second is the continuous expansion of people-to-people exchanges between the two countries. With the easing of China-U.S. relations and a significant increase in direct flights between the two sides, direct exchanges in the cultural, sports, youth and business sectors are expected to expand. This is beneficial for consolidating the grassroots foundation of bilateral relations, improving mutual understanding and enhancing public perceptions about the other side in both countries.
Third, both governments prioritize domestic affairs and share a policy inclination toward avoiding unexpected developments in relations. The coming year is a U.S. election year, and the Biden administration’s top priority is securing reelection. It wants to prevent China-U.S. relations from becoming a significant factor or political burden in the political campaign. At the same time, China also prioritizes domestic development. It wants to promote the healthy and stable development of China-U.S. relations and avoid any negative impacts raised by the elections.
Next year will see the emergence of both positive factors and numerous challenges to China-U.S. relations. While there are optimistic expectations, several challenges have the potential to slow positive momentum, putting the resilience of the relationship to a new test.
First, resolving structural pressures in the China-U.S. relationship is a major challenge. Recent high-level engagements have temporarily halted the deterioration of bilateral ties but have not fundamentally altered the direction of the U.S. strategic competition with China. Disputes and contradictions between China and the U.S. respecting geopolitics, security, technology, values and international and regional hot spots are likely to persist. The ice formed by these disputes and contradictions won’t completely melt away solely because of recent high-level contacts. Rather, the two sides are using these engagements to manage their differences. Disputes and contradictions could escalate at any time, potentially pushing the relationship in a negative direction.
Second, the U.S. election poses a particularly troublesome challenge to relations. The positive effects of the Bali Summit between Chinese and U.S. leaders in 2022 lasted less than three months before facing a chill when the U.S. adopted a more aggressive competitive policy. The positive effects of the San Francisco summit may last longer. However, as the U.S. election campaign intensifies in the latter half of 2024, it is foreseeable that the Republican Party will vehemently criticize the Biden administration for having a “weak” China policy and demand stronger measures against it. This could lead to a deterioration in the atmosphere of China-U.S. relations. Moreover, if Donald Trump wins the Republican primary, the main voice debating China policy with Biden will no longer be the current Republican establishment but a faction with a more hawkish stance.
Third, so-called black swan events could impact relations between the two countries. The current China-U.S. relationship is in a relatively fragile state, and if something on the order of the balloon incident were to occur in 2024, it could unexpectedly impact the relationship — for example, a maritime incident involving Chinese and U.S. warships or aircraft, increased cooperation and high-level interactions between the U.S. and Taiwan or developments in the Ukraine crisis that could lead the U.S. to impose sanctions on normal economic and trade activities between China and Russia.
A more significant uncertainty is the U.S. hyping up allegations of Chinese interference in U.S. elections. Given the previous narrative around Russian interference during the 2016 U.S. presidential election (which had a significant negative impact on U.S.-Russia relations) and considering the substantial influence of social media platforms in the 2020 U.S. election, it cannot be ruled out that there may be attempts to hype the “Chinese interference” narrative.
This is all the more likely because of the popularity of TikTok among young Americans, who tend to lean toward the Democratic Party, and the fact that some Republican members of Congress have called for a ban on TikTok in the U.S. out of fear the Chinese could use it against them in the election. If any such political manipulation were to occur, it would pose a serious challenge to China-U.S. relations.