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China-US relations likely to stay on track

ZHANG MEI | 2018-01-11 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Zhao Suisheng is a professor in the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at University of Denver. He is the director of the school’s Center for China-US Cooperation and a founding editor of the Journal of Contemporary China. He is also Member of the Board of Governors of the US Committee of the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. Zhao earned his doctorate in political science from the University of California, San Diego. Zhao’s studies focus on Chinese politics, nationalism, foreign policy, East Asian international relations and Asian regionalism. His major works include Power by Design: Constitution-Making in Nationalist China, A Nation-State by Construction, Dynamics of Modern Chinese Nationalism, China and the United States: Cooperation and Competition in East Asia and China-US Relations Transformed: Perspectives and Strategic Interactions.


China is the world’s largest emerging economy and the United States is the leading developed country.  Their bilateral relations have significant impacts not only on the future and development of the two countries, but also the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. Living in China and the United States each for three decades, professor Zhao Suisheng has gained a comprehensive understanding of both countries. Zhang Mei interviewed Zhao during his recent lecture in China. He reviewed China-US relations and its history as well.


Zhang Mei: Can you give us examples that illustrate the development of China-US relations since the founding of the People’s Republic of China?


Zhao Suisheng: The relations between the two countries have transformed from confrontation to engagement. China and the United States have interacted strategically and developed their relationship through both cooperation and competition. After 1949, the American policy toward China was defined by the Cold War structure and ideology because the United States considered communism a monster and confronted communist countries led by the USSR. It developed a policy of containment and isolation toward China after the Communist Party of China won the Chinese Civil War and took power. In this context, the two countries remained hostile to each other for 20 years without establishing any diplomatic ties.

The situation shifted in the late Cold War period. The United States felt more threatened by the USSR. Also, it hoped to withdraw from the Vietnam War by resuming relations with China. The Chinese side wanted to participate in the global community. Therefore, the two governments resumed contact and started tough negotiations to establish diplomatic ties following Nixon’s 1972 historic visit to China.

Global factors, including the Taiwan issue, contributed to the progress. China’s proposed principles on Taiwan called on the United States to terminate diplomatic ties and its Mutual Defense Treaty with Taiwan, withdraw troops from the Island as well as recognize the “one China” policy. Leaders from the two sides tackled the barriers and normalized their diplomatic relations with their wisdom and flexibility. Their relations were based on mutually beneficial interests from the very beginning.

The relationship between the two countries went through periodic ups and downs driven by many factors, including domestic political factors in the United States. For example, presidential election that entails the change of the political party in power usually has important impact on the US policy toward China and hence the development of China-US relationship. The global landscape has also shaped bilateral relations. In the Cold War structure, the two countries shared strategic interests against the Soviet Union in the strategic triangle. When the Cold War ended, some Americans advocated viewing China as an adversary because the United States defeated USSR and the overlapping geopolitical interest no longer existed. The past consensus disappeared and neglected issues suddenly stood out and blocked the way, such as the Taiwan issue, American alliance with Japan and trade deficit. Other factors such as the so-called “human rights” and China’s most-favored nation status prior to its entry in WTO have also occured. And some other bilateral issues also dominated the relationship between the two governments.


Zhang Mei: What changes has the United States made in terms of its strategies toward China since the inauguration of Donald Trump?


Zhao Suisheng: Trump’s election can be attributed to multiple factors, but his tough attitude toward China helped him win a considerable number of votes. Some Americans make a biased argument that China is the sole beneficiary of the American relations with China. China’s modernization benefited from the bilateral relationship, but the United States also has advanced its strategic interests and gained economic benefits in the relationship. They are in an interdependent and mutually beneficial relationship. There is a misconception about the role of the United States in China’s modernization that neglects what it has gotten out of the process. The Trump administration is a testament to this view.

Once in office, Trumped changed his tone toward China for the sake of national interests, sharply contrasting the bitter words he spoke during the presidential election campaign. He realized that many of his accusations against China were one-sided. On the campaign trail, he had claimed that the decline of the United States was the result of China’s currency manipulation, unfair trade competition and tariffs, and he vowed to impose punitive tariffs on China. Such arguments are a double-edged sword that will hurt both Chinese and American interests. In the end, Trump scrapped many of the promises made in the campaign trail and began to pursue cooperation with China, especially when it comes to Asia-Pacific issues. His diplomatic policies in the region are narrowly targeted on trade and North Korea. He put aside the confrontational attitude and chose instead to seek cooperation and negotiation with China, which is the key to tackling these two issues. The meeting last year between Xi and Trump at the Mar-a-Lago resort was important. It created an opportunity for the two leaders to build up a close personal relationship.


Zhang Mei: What’s your view on the outlook of China-US relations?


Zhao Suisheng: Relations during the Trump administration will generally remain stable enough that major conflicts over strategic interests are unlikely to escalate into major crisis. Controversies concerning trade can be handled through negotiation. The United States has a deficit with China in terms of commodity trade while, in fact, China has a deficit with the United States in service sectors. Given my teaching experience in the United States, the massive amount of Chinese students studying in the country supports the American universities  and also economy. Through this prism, the trade negotiations between the two sides need to stay rational.

In the future, China-US relations will focus on collaboration if the same trend can be maintained. In fact, while there is a mixture of cooperation and competition, the two governments have tried to use cooperation to define the competition in their relationship. However, maintaining this trend largely depends on whether China can achieve peaceful development and rise. In addition, domestic political factors in the United States matter as well. Trump, as the president of the country, faces many domestic controversies. He encountered media criticism on his state visit to China and even to the entire Asian trip last year, meaning that his diplomatic policies are not well received within the country. The debate between internationalism and isolationism never ends and may have important impacts on his foreign and China policies.

The forces of nationalism, including those supporting foreign interference, remain strong in the United States, even though Trump adopted more isolationist policies after taking office. His diplomatic policies even face opposition within the Republican Party. He has an array of political issues to tackle, and there is no sign that he will reverse the situation during his administration. In circumstances like this, I assume that his presidency will probably to end after this term. Changes in domestic political factors will affect China-US relations, but the framework of cooperation will endure since the two countries have shared interests across various domains. The United States is the world’s largest economy while China is the second largest and continues to grow. They have conflicts, but they share mutual interests in an increasing range of fields. Leaders of the two sides can contribute more to regional peace and global governance.

In my opinion, China is not ready to supplant the United States to reshape the world order. All it seeks is to change its own status and have greater voice on the global governance, so that it could contribute Chinese solutions and wisdom. In fact, China’s goals fit into the demands of the United States. I have a strong feeling after living in the United States for so many years that the United States welcomes China to play a bigger role and take on more responsibilities in the existing global system, because some Americans consider China a free rider. They argue that China has benefited from the international free trade system by taking advantage of its cheap labor and the abroad market while contributing little to global public goods and performing few responsibilities and obligations. Now, China is willing to shoulder greater international responsibilities and obligations. Many Americans have realized that China’s new role will help the United States. What matters the most is how the two governments engage in negotiations to find their right positions in the context of competition.


Zhang Mei: However, the White House released the 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States, which referred China and some other countries as its “strategic competitors.”


Zhao Suisheng: In my opinion, the United States must change its mind-set of maintaining itself a preeminent power position in the world at all costs. It needs to treat a rising China equally and share responsibilities together, which will help pacify the isolationism within the country. 

Negotiations, rather than conflicts or containment, are the best options for tackling the series of problems between China and the United States, thus adjusting their positions in the international system, as well as in the bilateral relationship. Both countries are facing domestic challenges. Chinese leaders are bound to make tremendous efforts to achieve the goals proposed in the 19th CPC National Congress, such as improving quality of life and resolving domestic contradictions of the new era. The argument that China intends to replace the United States will prove wrong, becuase China cannot afford to replace the United States. I think it is important for the two sides to work out the rules of the game through negotiation and find their status based on their respective national capabilities, thus establishing a new model of major country relations between China and the United States.

Cooperation between the two countries is not the solution to all global problems, but many global issues can’t be tackled without their cooperation. Therefore, China and the United States should pursue cooperation. Contentious issues notwithstanding, the leaders in both countries currently heading in this direction to sustain the mutually beneficial framework. The administration of any US president or political party ought to acknowledge this point.


Zhang Mei is an associate professor from Cadre School of Overseas Chinese Affairs Office under the State Council.