Why has the China-U.S. relationship taken a nose dive in the past two years, especially since President Donald Trump took office? With the China-U.S. trade war as a hallmark, bilateral relations have continuously deteriorated, bringing into even more sharp focus the two countries’ distinctive strategic orientations as a rising power and an incumbent one. A China that is bent on peaceful development and national rejuvenation has been interpreted by Washington as a major strategic rival, and the United States’ China policy has hence evolved from the alternate use of engagement and containment to a new state, where containment has taken center stage and willingness for cooperation has taken a nose dive. This can be phrased as a turn from “cooperating rivals” to “competing rivals.”
What is the correct way to appreciate a China-U.S. relationship that is undergoing historic change? Will China and the U.S. fall into the trap of confrontation on many fronts? To answer these questions, first we must review the past four decades, when the two were “cooperating rivals.”
In the second half of the 20th century, the world witnessed two major events: the end of the decades-long Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union, after which the U.S. became the world’s sole superpower (a “U.S. moment” lasting 20 years, from 1990-2009); and China’s reform and opening up process and rapid economic growth within the current international system.
For 40 years, the United States’ China strategy alternated between cooperation and containment, as “internationalists” who sought to impose U.S. liberal democratic ideals on China came up against the predecessors of today’s “America First” proponents, who sought to gain the maximum possible benefit from the Chinese market. American elites, largely “internationalists,” hoped that economic cooperation between the two countries would lead China toward free market mechanisms, and most importantly for them, guide the evolution of the Chinese political system in an American-set direction.
During this period, China’s process of reform and opening up evolved. Under the Communist Party of China’s leadership, the Chinese people have followed a path of peaceful development that is consistent with national and global conditions. China has integrated itself within the global production chain and its economy has taken giant strides to become the second largest in the world. Though there still is a long way for China to go before becoming a global superpower, its status as a major global player is already unshakeable.
For the past four decades of China and the United States’ diplomatic relationship, despite differing political systems, strategic interests, and cultural traditions, the two countries remained largely cooperative. We can refer to China and the U.S. in this period as “cooperating rivals.” Win-win economic engagement was an important cornerstone for their continuous cooperation. Since they were in different positions on the global value chain, the competitive aspect of their economies was not as prominent. Geopolitical and ideological differences did exist, but both parties were rational and pragmatic. The relationship brought both parties tremendous dividends. To develop, China needed U.S. cooperation to enter the U.S.-dominated global free trade system and markets, while the U.S. attached considerable importance to the business opportunities the Chinese market afforded.
So why have both countries begun to view each other today as “competing rivals” rather than “cooperating rivals”? This is closely related to changes in U.S. domestic politics and significant shifts in the U.S. perception of the world. Both the latest U.S. National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy have officially identified China as a “major strategic rival.” This is not the outcome of an impulse on the part of President Trump nor his “hawkish” advisers. Rather, it is a strategic judgment the U.S. government and American public have made after meticulous deliberation, and may not change in the short term.
Given that China and the United States have deemed each other “rivals,” is it possible that the trade war is the first step toward a long-term path of confrontation? The likelihood of this is high in the absence of proper management of the relationship. However, there is no historical necessity for confrontation between China and the U.S. No matter your perspective, it is clear that China and the U.S., as two global and nuclear powers, must avoid all-out confrontation, and stride over or fill up the “Thucydides’ Trap.” It is of critical importance for the two parties to begin cool-headed evaluations of their behavior and assume their due responsibilities to the rest of the world as major powers.
Here arises the debate over whether China and the United States as “rivals” can continue to cooperate, and, if so, how. My answer: rivals can certainly cooperate, and there is ample room for future China-U.S. cooperation. Rivals are not enemies. Yet as rivals, U.S. suppression of China will become a mainstream policy, and if the situation is mishandled, the likelihood of the parties turning from rivals into enemies will be dramatically higher.
What demands serious contemplation now is an evolution in the “space” for China-U.S. cooperation against the backdrop of changes in both countries’ strategic postures. Under such circumstances, how should China and the U.S. cooperate?
The first arena for possible cooperation is security. As permanent members of the UN Security Council and nuclear powers, China and the U.S. shoulder a special responsibility for promoting world peace in accordance with the UN Charter. They also have important responsibilities to prevent nuclear proliferation under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. China and the U.S. have had recent effective cooperation on UN peace-keeping missions, the Iran nuclear issue (though Trump has withdrawn from the Iran nuclear deal), and the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue. Such cooperation should be continued.
It would be disastrous for the entire world if the two countries engaged in confrontation or a “cold war” in the security realm. Currently, the U.S. is preoccupied with maintaining its overwhelming military pressure on China in the Asia-Pacific. This isn’t “competing rivals,” but “rival’s confrontation,” which has no future. China is a maritime power with the capability to handle a confrontation, while the United States has lost its magic wand to maneuver global solidarity.
The China-proposed principle of cooperative, collective security is the correct direction for China-U.S. cooperation. Collective security is, after all, a common wish of all countries. The U.S. should not expect to build its own absolute security on the basis of others’ insecurity. That time has passed. China and the U.S. need to strengthen communication in the security field, clarify bottom lines (such as Taiwan), and at a minimum, remain restrained and clear-headed to avoid being dragged into an accidental military conflict.
Second, the global economy needs to maintain steady, continuous growth and a global free trade regime based on universally-accepted international rules. The world is badly in need of policies that prevent and control the accumulation of financial risks.
If a country single-mindedly pursues its own interests and doesn’t mind harming other nations’ interests and flouting international rules with trade wars and other protectionist measures, it will inevitably result in a global recession. Seeking to exclude China while making new international rules, or to completely overthrow China-U.S. bilateral agreements and conventional practices – as Trump is doing now – is inadvisable and will not succeed.
As the world’s largest and second largest economies, the United States and China have the responsibility to promote world economic growth, preserve the international economic system, and prevent the spread of protectionism. Both parties should go back to the negotiating table. The U.S., which is stubbornly going its own way, is responsible for determining what the next step will be. China can’t and won’t surrender, because there is no such word in the Chinese people’s dictionary.
Third, a third industrialization movement is sweeping the world. China, the United States, and other countries are all striving to seize the historical opportunities of technological advancement, in search of major scientific and technological breakthroughs. The U.S. leads the world in science and technology, while China lags far behind in core technologies. The U.S. has serious prejudices against China’s “Made in China 2025” program. Its plan to obstruct Chinese economic progress by containing its scientific and technological development doesn’t belong to the era of globalization.
U.S. concerns about problems regarding intellectual property rights (IPR) protection in China have been exaggerated. China is fully aware of the importance of IPR protection for technological innovation. It has already made great strides in developing the legal parameters for innovation and in law enforcement. If the United States aspires to suppress Chinese progress in hi-tech areas, it will only score regional wins that won’t last. The pace of China’s economic, scientific, and technological progress is unstoppable. Despite apparent difficulties, there are opportunities for cooperation between China and the U.S. in hi-tech areas, but they should choose fields where both can benefit. For instance, every year China spends more on importing chips than on oil, among which American-made chips are the majority. China-U.S. tech cooperation could prove instrumental in reducing the U.S. “trade deficit.”
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is mutual tolerance of the Chinese and American political systems and cultures. Since the founding of the United States, Americans have considered themselves the beacon and fortress on the hill. In their support of U.S. liberal democracy, they are accustomed to look down on the rest of the world from a moral high ground. The U.S. has perceived and distrusted China’s political system, socialist path, and development model as “alien.” The success of China’s path of development has demonstrated that diversity of both civilizations and development models has always been a trend of history. The world is colorful and diverse, and no country can make the world its backyard, where only flowers of one color are allowed. China and the U.S. should respect and tolerate each other. Only a country’s own people are in the position to judge whether its political system and ideology are suitable. As President Xi Jinping has said, one won’t know whether a pair of shoes fits before putting them on.
President Xi proposed the Belt and Road Initiative in 2013 under the principle of “achieving shared growth,” in a bid to promote economic development in underdeveloped nations by enhancing infrastructure interconnectivity, and expanding trade and people-to-people exchanges. China is ready to contribute more, and share the dividends of its own development with other nations. China and the U.S. can cooperate in many aspects in this regard, the “China-U.S.+” model will not only benefit both countries but will be a great help to other developing nations.
Despite the considerable difficulties in the transition from “cooperating rivals” to “competing rivals,” cooperation is fully achievable, and a pragmatic and feasible historical choice for the two countries.
He Yafei is former vice minister at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and former vice minister of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council.