Will Sino-US relations ever recover?


Relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) have been in a severe recession since at least March 2020, when Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian sadly blamed the pandemic on American soldiers and that US President Donald Trump has called Covid-19 the “Chinese virus”. Almost two years later, observers are naturally looking for the first signs of recovery in a relationship in which both sides recognize the value of cooperation and the dangers of unbridled tensions. But they may be looking in vain.

After senior officials from the United States and the PRC held a controversial meeting in Alaska in March 2021, the virtual summit between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in November was more commercial. Nevertheless, the summit did not produce the hoped-for breakthrough in defusing tensions. In the days that followed, Chinese warplanes continued to buzz in Taiwan, continuing a campaign of military pressure that was several months old. Likewise, in December, the Biden administration announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing-hosted Winter Olympics, and Biden called the Democracy Summit. Both actions drew strong criticism from the Chinese government.

But this back-and-forth behavior is not unusual. Relations between the United States and the PRC in the post-Mao Zedong era generally followed a cyclical pattern, with setbacks giving way to periods of recovery. The Tiananmen massacre of June 1989 prompted Washington to strike China with criticism and sanctions, to which Beijing responded angrily. However, most of the sanctions were either quickly lifted or not applied. China retained its most-favored-nation trading status, and US-China business boomed in the 1990s.

Another example is the collision of an American EP-3 surveillance plane with a Chinese J8 fighter over international waters near Hainan Island in 2001, which killed a Chinese pilot and led to the temporary detention of the American crew and triggered a bilateral crisis. . Both sides blamed each other for the crash: The Chinese objected to the damaged US plane landing at a Chinese airfield without permission while the Americans accused the Chinese of falsely holding the crew hostage. Nonetheless, four years later, senior U.S. officials said U.S.-China relations were at their best in three decades.

A third example is of an American plane that mistakenly dropped bombs that hit the PRC embassy in Belgrade and killed three Chinese nationals in 1999. The Chinese government considered this strike to be intentional and then requested compensation, but decided not to fundamentally change relations with the United States. Two years later, China joined the World Trade Organization with backing from Washington.

Fortunately, the bilateral slowdowns were brief. Historically, there was a consensus in both countries that preserving a constructive relationship was worth enduring some unfavorable developments. But recovery from the downturns is less certain today as the underlying circumstances influencing US-China relations have changed.

Until recently, the United States enjoyed a huge advantage over China in terms of military and economic power, which has contributed to stable relations.

To clarify, China was not in a position to seriously harm the United States. Thus, Washington has afforded itself the luxury of taking a relaxed approach to China’s military build-up in the early years of China’s growing trade surplus with the United States (which began at late 1980s), China’s South China Sea claims, a continuing threat to force reunification with Taiwan and China’s violations of its international commitments. As a result, US policy toward China was not fully mobilized for competition and deterrence, but included efforts to encourage Chinese integration into international organizations and regimes with the aim of avoiding the appearance of ” treat China as an enemy ”.

For Beijing, the power imbalance that remained strongly in America’s favor in the post-Cold War era meant that it was not possible for China to directly challenge the United States’ strategic position in East Asia, nor to impose Beijing’s will on peripheral states acting against the Chinese agenda. under the guise of the regional order sponsored by the United States. As Deng Xiaoping’s famous twenty-four-character foreign policy orientation recognized, now is the time to strengthen China’s strength through trade and investment with the United States and to avoid confrontation with the United States. unless the United States threatens a vital Chinese interest. Before Xi assumed supreme leadership, Beijing seemed cautious about policies that might spur other states to form an anti-China defensive coalition – all of which allayed US concerns about the PRC’s specific intentions.

Today, however, that power difference has diminished considerably. Although China is not militarily superior to the United States, the People’s Liberation Army is now strong enough to inflict intimidating costs on American forces in a scenario where American forces attempt to deny the Chinese a regional military victory. In addition, China’s massive economic importance gives it strategic leverage. Beijing can militarize its trade to force countries traditionally non-aligned with China to support its goals in political disputes, such as with South Korea and the THAAD issue in 2016-2017. Even more troublesome is the fact that the PRC has a reasonable chance of taking leadership in the development of key future technologies such as artificial intelligence, green power generation, quantum computing, and advanced drugs.

China approaching the level of an even competitor resets the relationship. Washington now sees the PRC as a current potential adversary rather than a future one. Preparing for a possible war and avoiding cooperation that could be to China’s strategic advantage has become an urgent concern for the United States. This antithetical approach runs counter to a return to the kind of historical relationship that prevailed before the United States lost its strategic cushion.

In addition, the domestic political atmosphere in the two countries is increasingly hostile to a return to the old bilateral normalcy.

Although Beijing calls on Washington to “manage the differences” and remove restrictions on American wealth and technology entering China, Beijing is also moving beyond the old relationship. In support of its primary goal of maintaining a monopoly on Chinese political power, the Chinese Communist Party has fueled public expectations that China is now a great power and can impose its agenda internationally. Whether the facts are correct or not, the Chinese government is now focusing on a narrative where China is on the rise and the United States is on the decline.

The narrowing of its power gap with the United States encourages China to push to accelerate the transition of leadership in the Asia-Pacific region from Washington to Beijing, and even to treat the United States as an inferior. The protests include “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy, with Politburo member Yang Jiechi telling senior US officials that “the United States does not have the qualifications to … with lists of demands to cease US policies that China does not like.

While the PRC’s posture is aimed at the domestic audience, it is also reflected in China’s external demeanor, indicating that it is not just a veneer of affected bravado. From the Sino-Indian border to the East China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea and beyond, bullying has become the default mode of Chinese foreign policy. This underscores the government’s conclusion that the period of low-profile accumulation, to which Deng’s advice applied, is over. As a result, the terrain underlying US-China relations has changed.

With the much-publicized US movement towards economic decoupling, the bilateral acrimony linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, US sanctions and China’s criticism of Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the emergence of a quadrilateral security dialogue More solid (the Quad, which Beijing denounces as an “Indo-Pacific NATO”) and the US government’s statements of support for Taiwan, the Chinese believe that attempts to “contain” China are intensifying. For Beijing, Washington prevents China from accumulating national power and accessing regional leadership and global notoriety.

As the Chinese believe that the United States is engaged in a policy of opposing the realization of vital Chinese interests, suspicion and competition will inevitably dominate the relationship. This trend reverses the pre-Xi norm of a predominantly cooperative relationship with pockets of friction.

In the United States, the loss of faith in liberalism makes it possible to have a clearer view of the natural antagonism between China and the United States. In addition, US business leaders, senior officials and politicians argue that deep economic engagement would push China, an authoritarian and highly mercantilist state, to liberalize its economic and political systems. This belief functioned as a one-sided confidence-building measure, assuring Americans that China was meant to be a “stakeholder” in a system of international standards and institutions sponsored by the United States. It was a crucial section in the founding of the relationship between the United States and the PRC after the Cold War. Unfortunately, Xi has convincingly demonstrated that increased economic development fueled by the United States does not make China more liberal, either inside or outside. The Americans are now ready to view China as an adversary; Indeed, it is one of the few issues around which there is a strong national consensus. In fact, the two main political parties boast of being tough on China.

Today, the American business community is not as vigorous or effective a champion of good US-China relations as it once was. US companies have not given up on wholesale China, but they are increasingly likely to complain about unfair or abusive treatment by the Chinese government that they are likely to campaign for friendly relations. They point to conditions such as Chinese protectionism, discrimination against foreign companies, threats to data security, and forced technology transfer that worsen the environment for American businesses in China. Industries that call for ignoring the Chinese government’s bad behavior in the interest of profits are subject to public shame.


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