By Chan Kung*
There are many who still continue clinging to an illusion of the future prospect of U.S.-China relations. They believe that if there are some positive factors, then both countries could get back to their former harmonious relationship. The number of people who hold this view or are in a wait-and-see mood is rather high, and most of them are entrepreneurs. In Shanghai which is under lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Japanese diplomatic community pointed out that 11,000 Japanese companies are still in the city, and more entrepreneurs from other countries and regions are based in China, looking forward to the happier days.
In addition to entrepreneurs, there is also a large group of people who have been trapped by certain interests and who have had a long history of harmless cooperation with China, such as those having academic or technological partnerships, or those with financial investment relationships. These relations, initially harmless, have increasingly become dangerous. Apart from that, there are a large number of people from both countries who have family ties and children. The marriages between China and the United States alone involve several hundred thousand Chinese and American couples. All these people are very much looking forward to the normalization, or “rather re-normalization” of U.S.-China relations.
Little is known today that the “normalization” of U.S.-China relations was once a big buzzword before the reform and opening-up of China. In February 1972, President Richard Nixon visited Beijing, Hangzhou, and Shanghai, met with Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai, and signed the Shanghai Communiqué. In the communiqué, both countries pledged to pursue “full normalization” of their diplomatic relations. Indeed, this has been achieved, after the relations between the two nations were frozen for 23 years.
Understandably, many are now eager for U.S.-China relations to be normalized again because they are involved in it.
The question is, is this possible?
The answer is simple. If the U.S.-China relationship cannot get back to normal under the administration of President Biden of the Democratic Party, then it will not be normalized in the future. There are two reasons for this, one is China, and the other is the United States.
China has maintained good relations with the U.S. for a long time, and it is more willing to deal with the pro-establishment American Democratic administration. For instance, when Barrack Obama was the President, Michelle Obama and her mother Marian Robinson during their visit to China were said to “bark” at the hotel staff, so much so that the hotel employees complained about the entourage. Michelle’s brother Craig Robinson had his shares of controversies too. China tolerated all these, as long as the overall situation was acceptable. When President Biden took office, many in China had expectations that relations between the two countries would improve, but unfortunately, due to the overall system and the constraints of the U.S. Congress, Biden was unable to make any major adjustments. All he can do is to ensure the U.S.-China relationship would not further deteriorate from that of Donald Trump’s presidency, but that is as far as it goes. Therefore, China’s expectations of this Democratic administration have been lowered to almost zero, and the coldness between the two sides remains the same.
On the U.S. side, the process of decoupling in U.S.-China relations has always continued. There are various reasons for this, among them the strength and rise of China’s economy, the increase in competitiveness, the beginning of the contest for international discourse, and its desire for the international order to change in a direction favorable to China. Of course, there is also the issue of the Hong Kong protests and demonstrations, the issue of democracy and human rights, the Taiwan issue, China-Russian relations, and many other issues that are troubling. All these issues are seen as a threat and a challenge for the U.S. from China. Therefore, the positioning of China in the United States has changed from being a collaborator to being a competitor. This will remain so, even with the change of ruling party in the U.S. The reason for this is not due to any individual in the U.S. leadership but because of geopolitical competition in the international order. At the back of this issue are numerous points in question, such as currencies, exchange rates, capital, armaments, alliances, regional stability, etc. None of these can be changed easily.
In fact, the window of opportunity for change in U.S.-China relations is in the Biden administration. If no changes can be done, it will be even less likely that the next U.S. administration, whether Democratic or Republican, could accomplish anything further. The replacement of the non-establishment Trump administration by the establishment Biden administration provided a major opportunity for a fix. It has to be admitted that the Biden administration did change quite a few of Trump’s policies, such as immigration policy, transatlantic partnership, global climate issues, etc. That said, the only thing that Biden has not fixed or adjusted is the U.S.-China relationship.
In such a scenario, would it be possible for China to take the initiative to promote the normalization of U.S.-China relations in the future? The possibility of this is also rather thin.
Although China’s economic growth is to a large extent dependent on net exports, which are very much linked to the U.S. market, there are certain limitations to China’s growth potential. Now that China’s economic growth rate has been declining year on year, gradually falling back from the double-digit rates of the past, and basically fluctuating around 5%, the economic element in political achievement is becoming less and less relevant. The only thing that can replace economic achievements in the political structure is to stimulate more and stronger nationalist sentiments, such as anti-U.S. hostility. This, of course, is the basis for the long-term deterioration of U.S.-China relations, rather than the driving factor for normalizing them.
In other words, in a period when the economy is important, the U.S.-China relationship matters a lot and is a positive bargaining chip. Conversely, in a period when the economy is unimportant, the relationship will not matter much. China is now at a critical stage where the economy is not very important. Instead, what is important is politics. This adjustment of the Chinese society determines that it is almost impossible to normalize the relations between the two countries again.
Therefore, it is probable that U.S.-China relations will deteriorate in the long term in the predictable future, and there should be no more illusion about this.
*Chan Kung, Founder of ANBOUND Think Tank (established in 1993), Mr. Chan Kung is one of China’s renowned experts in information analysis. Most of Chan Kung‘s outstanding academic research activities are in economic information analysis, particularly in the area of public policy.