Interviews | Diplomacy | East Asia

Wang Peng on China-US Relations in the Xi and Trump Eras

“China-U.S. relations can’t go back to the past”.

By Shannon Tiezzi and Juan Zhang for
Wang Peng on China-US Relations in the Xi and Trump Eras
Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Wang Peng is an associate research fellow at Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China. In this interview, Wang discusses U.S.-China relations, cross-strait ties, and Chinese foreign policy.

How do you see the future of U.S.-China relations, as Washington seems to be embracing the idea of a long-term, ideological competition?

“Long-term” and “protracted” are both adjectives that are often seen in recent times. China-U.S. relations can’t go back to the past, and in the future the confrontational nature of this relationship will intensify. The ideological competition might manifest itself as the competition between development models and political models.

What is your take on the cross-strait relationship after the Taiwan elections coming up in January 2020? Should we expect a rapid improvement in cross-strait relations if Han Kuo-yu of the KMT wins? How about if Tsai Ing-wen is re-elected?

My stance is “cautious and pessimistic.” Han Kuo-yu and the Kuomintang cannot change the rightward turn currently seen in the island’s political atmosphere. They are even less able to hold back a step forward in U.S.-China tensions or long-term, high-intensity competition in that relationship, which forms the larger background for the cross-strait issue.

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How has Chinese foreign policy changed under Xi Jinping?

First, it is more confident – rather than “assertive,” the word that a few outside observers use to describe this.

Second, on the ideology front the role of the Party is more prominent. Look at the discussion regarding “the Party controls diplomacy” at the Fourth Plenary Session of the 19th Central Committee.

Third, China has increased its defense of national interests, especially sovereign, territorial, and maritime territorial rights. Defending these rights is gradually overtaking defending stability.

Fourth, the “Four Confidences” are also embodied in foreign affairs. Notably, the fourth “Confidence” – “confidence in culture (文化自信)” – was newly written into the Chinese Communist Party’s official constitution at the 19th National Congress in 2017. This shows a more comprehensive self-recognition by the CPC on its previous “three Confidences” (namely, confidence in the path, the theory, and the institution 道路自信、理论自信、制度自信). And this emphasis on culture has been embodied in various forms, including Confucius Institutes (though currently being questioned by Western governments), traditional culture (e.g. the officially supported rejuvenation), Conference on Dialogue of Asian Civilizations, etc. The strategic impact of such a rising cultural confidence on Chinese foreign policy remains to be seen.

There has been a major breakthrough in the negotiations of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which China is part of. This agreement is set to be signed in 2020. What are China’s considerations for joining RCEP?

First, integrating China’s relations with ASEAN from trade to a comprehensive relationship.

Second, borrowing the platform of ASEAN centrality to integrate China’s relations with the other five countries of Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand.

Third, if RCEP is concluded, objectively speaking it can hedge against the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy, which targets China. At least on the economic front it will definitely play a role. In fact, I’m currently writing an article “RCEP: The Indo-Pacific States’ Collective Mechanism for Hedging Against Economic Uncertainty” that will go into more detail.

What is your thinking on Trump’s “America First” foreign policy? What are the implications of this policy for world politics and the U.S. itself?

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“America First” has positives and negatives for U.S. national interests.

The advantage is that, by stepping back from its massive international responsibilities and unending foreign interventions, the United States can (at least in theory) concentrate its efforts on domestic issues, expand its production capacity, and address the unemployment issue, etc.

The downside is that under the Trump administration this principle has been taken to an extreme. Many international responsibilities where the benefits outweigh the costs for the U.S. (such as the responsibility to ensure security for key allies, economic and political responsibilities in regional cooperative organizations, and economic and moral responsibilities under the United Nations framework, etc.) have been abandoned. This has greatly harmed the United States’ soft power and strategic reputation. The losses outweigh the gains.

U.S. domestic politics are increasingly polarized. What is the impact of this development on U.S. China policy?

The trend of increasing polarization in U.S. domestic politics has made it so that current and future governments, no matter which political party, will find it difficult to propose, implement, and maintain a stable and peaceful China policy. It will be easier to go toward an extreme. This is because office holders (including presidential candidates), in a situation where it’s more and more difficult to reconcile political differences, will be forced to adapt to this polarization (or even make use of it, following the methods of Trump himself). They do this by relying on whatever faction is judged to have the political advantage and be of use for safeguarding political power. Under these circumstances, it’s hard to avoid the radicalization of many government policies (including China policy), because politicians no longer need to (and are no longer able to) consider the long-term interests of the country as a whole. Instead politicians are more concerned with obeying and making use of the support from an increasingly prejudiced public and increasingly conservative interest groups.

This interview was conducted jointly by Juan Zhang of the U.S.-China Perception Monitor and Shannon Tiezzi of The Diplomat. It has been translated from the original Chinese.