The China National Center for the Performing Arts Orchestra performs at the Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, the United States, on November 5, 2017 XINHUA
One of China's top economic officials Liu He completed his visit to the United States in early March following an earlier visit by State Councilor Yang Jiechi. Both Liu and Yang are members of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China.
In the history of China-U.S. relations, it is unprecedented for two Political Bureau members to visit the United States in such a short space of time. The two visits are demonstrative of the importance China attaches to this bilateral relationship, given the cracks that are beginning to emerge between the two countries.
Last November, U.S. President Donald Trump arrived in China on a state visit. Academic circles unanimously expected the trip to set the tone for bilateral ties under the Trump administration. In the first 10 months of George W. Bush's presidency and Barack Obama's first four months in office, China and the United States had already determined the largely encouraging orientation of bilateral relations, which played an important role in maintaining stable ties throughout their respective tenures.
However, Trump's visit failed to clearly outline a positive direction for China-U.S. ties over the duration of his term. Shortly after returning from China, Trump delivered the National Security Strategy, the National Defense Strategy and the Nuclear Posture Review. These releases differed from previous reports of the same kind in that they declared a return to an era of competition between major powers for the first time since the end of the Cold War.
Under previous U.S. administrations, these reports would first affirm the benefits brought about by China's reform and opening-up policy and subsequent economic development to the region and the country itself before summarizing the achievements of China-U.S. economic and security cooperation, only afterward making criticisms of China. However this time, the reports omitted the former, and instead were more intense in their condemnation, labeling China a "strategic competitor" and a "revisionist power."
In addition to the reports delivered by the Trump administration, U.S. think tanks have also released the results of their research analyzing China-U.S. economic and technological competition. Some documents exaggerated the possibility of a future war between China and the United States under the pretext of China's increasing military strength. In its most recent issue, U.S. magazine Foreign Affairs published an article titled The China Reckoning: How Beijing Defied American Expectations, co-authored by former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt M. Campbell and Ely Ratner, former Deputy National Security Adviser to the Vice President. Professor Hal Brandz at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies published his latest research report on China titled The Chinese Century? in the U.S. publication The National Interest.
According to the two articles, the theory and practice of U.S. administrations toward China since the Cold War have been wrong. They describe how a sluggish and inadequate response from the U.S. Government toward China's rapid rise has allowed China to grow into the United States' strongest competitor. They also assert that the Trump administration's first National Security Strategy marks a step in the right direction by interrogating past assumptions of the U.S. approach.
These articles are even more unusual as they mark a rare occasion when two former Democratic administration officials openly praise the policy of a Republican president. Today many in Washington paint a grim picture of China-U.S. relations, as playing hardball toward China has become a mainstay of politics on both sides of the political divide.
This trend among U.S. policymakers began many years ago. Around 2010, a U.S. cross-party strategic circle reached a consensus that the biggest challenge toward U.S. supremacy in the coming decades would come from China. In President Obama's 2011 State of the Union address, he held that China's rise "is our generation's Sputnik moment," demonstrating U.S. anxiety toward the evolving international landscape. In an effort to counter the rise of China, Obama initiated the "Pivot to Asia" strategy, deepening the U.S. alliance with Japan, advancing ties with India and increasing U.S. presence in the South China Sea. However, the effects of this strategy were weakened by crises elsewhere including those in Ukraine and Syria. Among academic circles in China, there is an understanding that Sino-U.S. relations have entered a new normal in which bilateral competition is becoming more prominent.
China-U.S. relations remained relatively stable in 2017. However, following developments toward the end of the year, the outlook for 2018 looks less optimistic, particularly on issues such as Taiwan, the economy and trade.
The Taiwan question has long been the most important and sensitive issue concerning the China-U.S. relationship. During Kuomintang leader Ma Ying-jeou's time in office, cross-Straits relations saw a period of peaceful development, which aroused the discontent of conservative forces in U.S. political and academic circles. They criticized Washington's Taiwan policy as an impediment to Obama's "Pivot to Asia" strategy, and called on the Obama administration to strengthen its ties with the Taiwan authorities and sell hi-tech weaponry such as F-16C/D fighters to the island's leadership.
Since taking office, Trump has taken several steps to partly satisfy the demands of the conservatives. Approved last September, Section 1259 of the National Defense Authorization Act for the Fiscal Year 2018 requires the United States "strengthen and enhance its longstanding partnership and cooperation with Taiwan," consider "reestablishing port of call exchanges between the United States navy and the Taiwan navy" and "invite the military forces of Taiwan to participate in military exercises."
These clauses are in direct contravention of the United States' one-China policy. For now some clauses are mere suggestions, but if they are put into effect, they will severely undermine the political foundation of Sino-U.S.
relations. China has shown strong opposition to the U.S. move, declaring that the day that a U.S. Navy vessel arrives at port in Taiwan is the day that the People's Liberation Army reunifies Taiwan with military force based on the Anti-Secession Law. Recently, the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have successively passed the Taiwan Travel Act, lifting bans on mutual trips and meetings between officials from Taiwan and the United States. Though the act is not legally binding, it seriously violates the one-China principle and the three Sino-U.S. joint communiqués. If the United States deploys the Taiwan question as a tool to pressure China, China is likely to respond resolutely.
In recent months, the United States has also sought to confront China on trade issues.
After 40 years of reform and modernization, China is now well integrated into the international system and an important member of the international community. The interdependence of China and the outside world is increasing all the time, with the interests of both China and the United States inextricably interwoven. Each relies on the other for their future development. It is a matter of objective fact that the two countries' economic and trade relations are mutually beneficial. During Trump's visit to China in 2017, the two countries signed $253.5 billion worth of trade deals, demonstrating the commitment of the Chinese side to balancing bilateral trade.
While certain political forces in the United States now threaten to pressure China on trade issues, many in Washington clearly understand that such a policy may backfire. It is worth noting that Washington's tough stance on foreign trade is derived partly from a consideration of domestic politics. As mid-term elections draw near, the Trump administration's hardline on China amounts to political point scoring in an effort to prevent his party from losing control of Congress.
The successive visits of two high-ranking Chinese officials reflect China's sincerity in maintaining the stability of Sino-U.S. relations. Both China and the United States are major powers, and their relationship concerns not only them but the whole world, critical to global peace and stability as well as the effective operation of the international system.
Although recent developments have seen the atmosphere of China-U.S. relations in Washington sour, the general structure of China-U.S. competition and cooperation remains fundamentally unchanged. The notion that cooperation benefits both countries while confrontation can only lead to harm is still pertinent. The two sides must further strengthen their communication and consultation in solving the problems they face, advancing the four cabinet-level dialogue mechanisms established last year. They must also advance cooperation on military, law enforcement, drug control and cultural issues. Only by narrowing divergence through dialogue can China and the United States ensure the stable development of their relations.
The author is a senior researcher at the Institute of American Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Copyedited by Laurence Coulton
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