By Yuan Yanan
The year 2019 has special significance for China-U.S. relations. Forty years ago, on January 1, 1979, China and the United States formally established diplomatic relations. Although differences and conflicts have persisted amid ups and downs, the two countries have remained rational in managing and controlling differences. Meanwhile, they have continuously expanded common interests and consolidated bilateral relations.
However, in this year of celebration, China-U.S. relations are facing unprecedented change. The United States unilaterally launched a tradewar and imposed sanctions on high-tech Chinese enterprises. Economic and trade relations, once known as the “ballast” and “stabilizer” of overallbilateral relations, have been hit hard. Furthermore, the U.S. has been challenging China on sensitive issues of Taiwan and the South China Sea. Since July 2018, the U.S. Navy warships have been sailing through the Taiwan Straits more frequently. U.S. Congress has pushed for “regular transfers of defense articles to Taiwan.” Since the beginning of the Trump administration, the U.S. military has conducted more “freedom of-navigation” operations in the South China Sea than happened during the entire Obama presidency.
According to Confucius, “At 40, one should have no more doubts.” Upon turning 40, however, China-U.S. relations are only encountering greater doubt. What does the future hold for this set of bilateral relations? We must refute two major misconceptions in international public opinion.
The first misconception is that a “new cold war” has broken out between China and the United States. In May of this year, The Economist described current China-U.S. relations as “a new kind of cold war” by making an analogy between China and the Soviet Union, asserting that China and the United States have entered a new war for hegemony. After the end of World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared, “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” The famous oration is considered the opening shots of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The arms race between the two superpowers was in full swing as little economic, trade or people-to-people exchange was occurring between them. As The Economist stated, in nominal terms, Soviet-American trade in the late 1980s was US$2 billion a year. Trade between America and China is now US$2 billion a day. A flight between China and the United States lands every 17 minutes. Soybeans, beef and fish from the United States have long been the norm for the Chinese people, and “Made in China” is found everywhere in the United States. The two countries depend on each other for trade, and a “decoupling” would exert an immeasurable impact on the global economy.
China is deeply integrated into the world economy today. In the United States’ drive to contain China, it will be difficult to win support from its traditional allies. In the context of globalization, it is impossible to isolate China. Furthermore, China has no intentions of seeking hegemony. Rather, it remains committed to promoting world peace, driving global growth and upholding the international order. As a party in the conflict, China has no intentions whatsoever of becoming involved in a “new cold war” with the United States.
The second misconception is that the China-U.S. conflict is “a clash of civilizations.” In April this year, Kiron Skinner, director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, claimed “a clash of civilizations” with China. “This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before,” she said at a security forum in Washington, D.C.
Simple common sense shines a bright light on mistakes regarding history in those remarks. China is not, as Skinner put it, the first “great power competitor that is not Caucasian,” because she obviously forgot about the fight between the United States and Japan in World War II. A sensitive person will also find traces of racism in her remarks, a way of thinking that has led humanity into bloody world wars and tragic genocide. If the differences between China and the United States are really caused by a clash of civilizations, logic dictates that it is impossible for China and the United States to coexist in harmony without defeat of the Chinese civilization. This assertion deviated from mainstream Western liberal values, which cannot help resolve current disputes between the two countries. Even more worrisome is the fact that someone like Skinner is in the Trump administration’s decision making circle. If such a narrow conception is the starting point for U.S. decision-making on China, relations between the two countries will be hit even harder.
Graham Allison, a famous international relations scholar at the Harvard Kennedy School, who identified the tendency of a rising power and an established power to fall into war as Thucydides’ Trap, said in an interview that China’s 40 years of rapid development has shocked U.S. policy-makers, who are panicking over China’s rise. The trade war started unilaterally by the U.S. and all the sanctions and pressure on China are manifestations of this shock and panic. The United States has a certain attitude towards China, but it has not shaped a mature strategy. Allison believes that if both China and the United States desire a successful future, the most pressing issue is finding new balance for China-U.S. relations and designing a new model for development of bilateral relations.
This new model of China-U.S. relations should feature three prominent factors:
First, cooperation must remain the priority. American political scientist Joseph Nye said in an interview that cooperation is important in guiding U.S.-China cooperation. “We have to learn not about power over others but power with others,” he declared. He believes that the two countries share profound common interests in dealing with global issues. In this era of globalization, worldwide issues such as climate change, the threat of financial crisis, disease prevention and control and terrorism cannot be handled by any individual country unilaterally. The United States and China must work together. Therefore, it is crucial that cooperation be the priority and trend of future U.S.-China relations.
Second, the model must promote respect for each other’s core interests and control differences. Core interests are associated with national development. When core interests are threatened, China-U.S. relations could spiral out of control. A review of China-U.S. relations shows that some major incidents such as the Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1996, the U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999 and the mid-air collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea in 2001 were low points of bilateral relations. On the question of Taiwan, U.S. President Trump has encouraged “Taiwan Independence” through legislation. If the U.S. fails to manage its actions in a timely manner, things could escalate further, which will mean no good news for either side.
Third, the model must ensure rules based fair international competition. The United States, once the founder and biggest beneficiary of international rules, is now the de facto destroyer of international rules. Statistics show that two thirds of WTO dispute settlement cases were caused by failure of the U.S. to abide by rules. Obviously, the U.S. has become the major destroyer of the multilateral system. The latest case of U.S. sanctions on Chinese enterprises was entirely political. Inmany cases, the U.S. has chosen to bypass the WTO dispute settlement mechanism and directly resort to domestic policy to solve problems. Observance of international rules is as important as setting the rules. An unruly United States has become a cause of uncertainty for global stability and development.