By He Jun
While the statement that “the U.S.-China relationship is the most crucial bilateral relationship in the world” may be disputed in the field of diplomacy, when considering the impact of such relations on the world, there is little room for doubt.
Both the U.S. and China are the world’s two largest economies, holding significant influence in terms of market size and trade volume on a global scale. They are also the two most populous nations. When it comes to military strength, the U.S. is certainly at the topmost position, though China’s military power is also at the top tier globally. Regardless of the state of their relationship, be it peaceful coexistence, mutual rivalry, or military confrontation – both countries have an unprecedented and substantial impact on the world.
In recent years, U.S.-China relations have taken a sharp downturn, deteriorating to their lowest level since the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries. This decline not only hampers the development of both nations but is itself a significant negative factor for global economic development. The deterioration of such bilateral relations has been ongoing for over five years since 2018. The question now arises: will this situation continue into the future, and if so, for how long? This is an important and unavoidable issue for countries around the world.
From the Chinese perspective, the fundamental cause of the deterioration in U.S.-China relations has little to do with ideology or political systems, but rather stems from a geopolitical context of national competition. In early 2018, the U.S. shifted its national security strategy’s focus from counterterrorism to competition with strategic rivals. Under this perspective, the U.S. is concerned that China’s development poses a genuine challenge to its global hegemonic status. From the U.S. point of view, Russia does not present a comprehensive and systemic challenge to it. Therefore, China became the U.S.’s top long-term strategic competitor. Researchers at ANBOUND believe that the adjustment of the U.S. national security strategy marks a milestone and is the third significant turning point in U.S. geopolitical strategy, following the Cold War and the era of counterterrorism.
Due to the complexity of great power competition, the deterioration of U.S.-China relations exhibits structural, trend-driven, and long-term characteristics. Despite China’s repeated declarations of having no intention to challenge the U.S.’ global position and the vastness of the Pacific being sufficient for the development of both China and the U.S., it has not changed America’s strategic realignment. From the perspective of national competition, the U.S.’s strategic adjustment has a certain foresight. When considering comprehensive national strength, the U.S. is much more mature, while China is still in the developing stage. If the U.S. does not restrain China while it is still not fully developed, it may become increasingly challenging to do so in the future. Therefore, as long as the U.S. maintains its strategic focus, China is unlikely to back down, and the competition between the two countries is unlikely to cease.
We believe that this U.S.-China relationship pattern formed based on strategic adjustments has its policy rigidity, which serves as a structural impediment to the improvement of U.S.-China relations. Currently, geopolitical competition has become the backdrop of U.S.-China relations and may continue for a few decades.
For the rest of the world, if U.S.-China relations remain in a long-term state of confrontation, it will have a global negative impact. Is it possible for U.S.-China relations to improve? If there is a possibility, what is the extent of the improvement and how can it be achieved? This should be a question of interest to most countries in the world.
Researchers at ANBOUND are of the opinion that U.S.-China relations differ from the U.S.-Soviet relations during the Cold War and are not a hostile state between two major blocs. According to our “pendulum theory” of international relations, U.S.-China relations, while challenging to return to their past state, are similarly challenging to sustain in a state of extreme deterioration for too long. The reason is that U.S.-China relations are not inherently hostile, and the comprehensive cost of maintaining an extreme state of confrontation over the long term is quite high. Another important reason is that China’s strategic goals are different from those of the Soviet Union. China is focused on its own revival and has no intention of challenging the U.S.’ global status, let alone replacing it. Therefore, there is still considerable room for improvement in U.S.-China relations. The pendulum of such relations will swing from an extreme state towards a middle ground, eventually forming some degree of balance in a certain region.
However, even if relations between the two countries improve, it will still be within the framework of the adjusted U.S. national security strategy. This can be described as a “technical improvement” under the “structural constraints”.
Observing the interactions between the governments of the U.S. and China this year, we can see that both sides have been working on a “technical improvement” of their bilateral relationship. Despite the “balloon incident” earlier this year, the U.S. government has still sent several high-ranking officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Special Envoy for Climate John Kerry, and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, to China for official visits. Chinese high-ranking officials have also engaged in talks with U.S. officials on various occasions. This includes Chinese Minister of Commerce Wang Wentao’s visit to the U.S. this year. On September 16 to 17, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a 12-hour meeting with U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan in Malta. From October 26 to 28, Wang also visited the U.S., where he met Sullivan again and had an audience with President Biden. It is widely anticipated that Wang’s visit will prepare for a meeting between the leaders of China and the U.S. at the APEC conference in November.
It is worth noting that on the evening of October 24, the National Committee on United States-China Relations (NCUSCR), an American China-friendly organization, held its annual awards banquet in New York. Both President Xi Jinping and President Biden, as is customary, sent congratulatory messages to the event. President Xi said that “as two major countries in the world, whether China and the United States can find a right way to get along with each other bears on world peace and development and the future of humanity. China is ready to work with the United States, in the three principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation, to advance mutually beneficial cooperation, properly manage differences, jointly address global challenges, and help each other succeed and prosper together to the benefit of both countries as well as the world”.
In his congratulatory message, Biden expressed the commitment of his administration to maintaining cooperation between the United States and China, “both China and the U.S. have a duty to address transnational challenges that affect the lives of our peoples, including strengthening global food and health security, combating the climate crisis and countering narcotics trafficking”. “America will also continue to responsibly manage the competition between our countries as we advance our mutual vision for a free, open, secure and prosperous world, and we remain committed to partnering with any nation that shares our devotion to protecting the international institutions and rules of the road that have helped safeguard global security and prosperity for decades,” he said.
On October 24, Henry Kissinger, who has been long devoted to U.S.-China relations, warned about the current state of the relationship between the two countries. He stated that “a peaceful relationship, a cooperative relationship between the U.S. and China is essential for peace and progress of the world”, and he also added that “they also have a unique ability to destroy the world if they’re not together”. He also expressed his hope that leaders from both sides could hold a bilateral meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders’ summit scheduled for November in San Francisco. Furthermore, he wished that in their meeting, the leaders would issue a joint statement committing to peace and pledging to make every effort to avoid conflict.
Currently, it is in the interest of both countries to improve bilateral relations. China is facing a critical period of domestic economic development and is under pressure regarding the Taiwan issue, necessitating a relaxation of tensions in U.S.-China relations. The U.S., on the other hand, is confronting international pressures supporting two wars, and it also requires an easing of U.S.-China relations. In the current real-world environment, promoting the improvement of bilateral relations from a deteriorating state aligns with the needs and geopolitical logic of both nations. It is possible that a series of “technical improvements” will emerge in the future of U.S.-China relations.
Final analysis conclusion:
After the United States shifted the focus of its national security strategy toward China, the bilateral relationship experienced over five years of deterioration. However, U.S.-China relations cannot remain in an extreme state of deterioration in the long term. With the overall relationship constrained by structural obstacles, there is hope for a technical improvement in the relations, moving from an extreme state toward a more moderate state.
He Jun is a researcher at ANBOUND