China-US Relations at a New Era: Striving for Progresses While Maintaining Stabilities

By YangJiemian

The year of 2017 is another eventful one in China-US relations. At the beginning of the year Mr. Donald Trump became the 45th President of the United States with unconventional concepts, principles and plans for American domestic and foreign agendas. At the end of the year, President Trump put forward a New US National Security Strategy for a New Era, that makes China a rivalry to the US. In October the Communist Party of China convened its 19th National Congress (hence “the CPC 19th Congress”) that endorsed Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, that charted a new blueprint for major country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, and that China will promote coordination and cooperation with other major countries and work to build a framework for major country relations featuring overall stability and balanced development. Therefore, the two countries are starting a new leg of the journey of China-US relations.

China-US relations often coincide with major changes in their respective own countries as well as in the Asia-Pacific region and the world at large. China and the United States formally established diplomatic relations on January 1, 1979, which coincided with China’s launching of Reform and Opening-up. Once again, China and the United States cooperated closely against international terrorism in the wake of “9/11” in 2001 and the global financial crisis in 2008, both of which exerted great impacts on international relations at defining times. As the CPC 19th National Congress pointed out, at present the world is undergoing major developments, transformation, and adjustment. Confronting these new developments, China formulated the guideline of striving for progresses while maintaining stabilities to usher China-US relations into a new stage of consultation, cooperation and competition.

While meeting President Trump at Mar-a-Largo, Florida, on April 6, 2017 President Xi stressed that sound China-US relations will not only benefit the two countries and the two peoples, but the world at large, and that there are a thousand reasons to make China-US relations a success, but not a single reason to break it. Therefore, it is of great importance to examine how the two presidents and countries could match up each other under the new internal and external circumstances.

1. The US Presidential election and China-US relations. The US presidential elections often bring turbulence to China-US relations. This is especially so because of the division in America and Trump’s personal factor. To summarize what the China-US relations went through in the US election year, we may draw the following three features.

First, China and the United States have been trying to redefine their relations in the new contexts. In the face of new changes and challenges, China is readjusting its relations with the United States. China continues to stress the very nature of its relations with the United States. China holds this relationship is the one between the largest developing country and the strongest developed one. China further points out that, being the Number One and Two of the global economies, China and the United States shoulder special responsibilities. President Xi Jinping pointed out in his congratulatory message to Trump’s election on November 9, 2016 that as the biggest developing country and the biggest developed country respectively, as well as the top two economies in the world, China and the US bear special and important responsibilities in maintaining world peace and stability, and promoting global development and prosperity, as well as share broad common interests. As a matter of fact, China has been more on a major country’s standing to define its relations with the United States.

Trump’s view on US-China relations are developed on the criticism of his predecessors while gradually building up its own. In the Obama years, the United States tried hard to contain China’s rapid rise by holding to the world leadership and advocating the Rebalancing Strategy in the Asia-Pacific region. While seeing the failure of this dual strategy against China, the American political forces and strategists during the campaign, tried to find a new and better way to deal with China. On one hand, during the presidential campaign, Ms. Hillary Clinton advocated to be firm but wise with China, a rival to the US, and she would work with allies to promote strong rules of the road and institutions in Asia, and press China to play by the rules—including in cyberspace, on currency, human rights, trade, territorial disputes, and climate change—and hold it accountable if it does not, while working with China where it is in our interest. On the other hand, Candidate Trump attacked China for business cheating and job stealing, tried to test the non-negotiability of the one-China principle, and reversed the strategic triangular among the United States, Russia and China by uniting with Russia and pressing on China. But the later developments showed that Mr. Trump and his main advisors made wrong calculation and had to change their original China policy to more realistic and accommodating one. 

Second, China and the United States have been adopting different approaches to the non-interference in internal affairs. China believed in non-interference in internal affairs and reexamined its policies to the United States. Furthermore, China took no position to either candidates and had no interests in exploiting the American political infighting for the immediate gains. Therefore, China was calm enough to react effectively to Trump’s election whereas some governments paid a price for their open declaration of predicting Hillary’s winning the election. This calm and detached approach pays off in the end.

President-elect Trump took a call from the Chinese Taiwan's leader, Ms. Tsai Ing-wen, on December 2, 2016. This is the first phone-conversation in decades between a Taiwanese leader and a US President or President-elect since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States. On December 12, 2016 the President-elect Trump said on "Fox News Sunday": "I fully understand the 'one China' policy, but I don't know why we have to be bound by a 'one China' policy unless we make a deal with China having to do with other things, including trade." China’s reaction was firm but measured. The next day, the Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang strongly reacted and said: “We have noted the report and lodged solemn representations with the party concerned in the US.” “The one China principle is the political basis of the China-US relationship. We urge the relevant party in the US to honor its commitment to the one China policy and the principles of the three joint communiqués, and properly deal with Taiwan-related issues in a discreet manner, so as to avoid unnecessary disruptions to the overall China-US relationship.” 

Third, China and the United States have been able to establish direct and effective contacts. When Mr. Trump was elected, the two sides immediately set in motion for communication. The two presidents expressed their desires to keep China-US relations on the right track. The two sides kept high level contacts with frequent visits and serious talks aiming at stable and effective transition from the Obama administration to the Trump one. Thus, the two countries avoided the initial shock to China-US relations.

2. The trends of China-US relations have generally been stable and cooperative in the first year of the Trump administration. It has been generally believed that China and the United States have avoided a head-on collision overshadowed by Candidate Trump’s bellicose words against China during the campaign. The main reasons are as follows:

First, China and the United States try to look at and deal with China-US relations from a strategic and long-term perspective. The election of Mr. Trump as the US president coincided with the 45th anniversary of the ice-breaking visit to China by President Nixon. At the beginning of his first meeting with President Trump at Mar-a-Largo resort, Florida on April 6, 2017, President Xi pointed out: Since the normalization of China-US relations 45 years ago, though bilateral relations have undergone ups and downs, yet it has made historic progress and brought enormous practical benefits to the two peoples. How to further develop China-US relations in the next 45 years? It is a question requires deep thinking, and the leaders of the two countries should make political decisions and historic commitments. At the welcoming banquet in honor of the visiting President Trump in Beijing on November 9, 2017, President Xi Jinping emphasized that President Donald Trump's visit to China carries important historical significance.“In the past two days, President Donald Trump and I have drawn up a blueprint for the development of China-US relations in the coming years.” 

On the American side, President Trump does not only want to make America Great Again, but also to be a landmark president as such predecessors as George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. President Trump tries to reverse the down-turns of the United States and find effective way to cope with China’s rise. Therefore, the Trump administration echoed China’s calling for long-term visions, but with different perspectives. When putting China-US relations against broader backgrounds, President Trump shows a self-contradictionary duality. On the one hand, he knows that the US needs to cooperate with China. On the other hand, President Trump is concerned about China’s rising to challenge the US global leadership and makes China as a vital and strategic competitor. Before the expanded bilateral meeting with President Xi Jinping in Beijing on November 9, 2017 President Trump made the following remarks: “I just want to thank you for the very warm welcome, and I look forward to many years of success and friendship, working together to solve not only our problems but world problems, and problems of great danger and security.” 

Second, China puts cooperation first but the US does not abandon competition and confrontation. China still takes it as its primary task to create favorable environments for the national rejuvenation and modernization. Therefore, China needs to work with the United States for both domestic and international reasons. China wants and stresses that cooperation is the only correct way for China-US relations. At Mar-a-Largo, President Xi Jinping pointed out that there are a thousand reasons to make China-US relations a success, but not a single reason to break it.  At the CPC 19th National Congress in October 2017, President Xi set a two-stage plan to make China a socialist country that is strong and beautiful by the mid-21st Century. Obviously, cooperative China-US relations would help the realization of China’s historical goals whereas confrontation will be obstructing and damaging. 

President Trump’s position on competition is deep-rooted. He believes that the world is full of competition as stated in the NSS report. Furthermore, his businessman’s background drives him for maximum benefits through financial competition. Therefore, President Trump wants to extract the most in China-US economic relations. He could talk about cooperation when the situation requires him so. But President Trump and his administration would not hesitate to impose pressures on China in such cases as trade negotiation and strategic definings.

Third, China and the United State strove for effective communications to handle their relations. Despite their differences the two countries attach great importance to high level and effective communications between them. The two countries have maintained good communications at summit and high levels. At the summit level, the two presidents met thrice in 2017 respectively at Mar-a-Largo in May, Hamburg in July and Beijing in November. They also have phone calls on a monthly base to exchange views on the matters of mutual concerns. At the summit meeting in Beijing on November 9, 2017, both sides agreed to continue giving play to the strategic leading role of diplomatic activities between the two heads of state in developing China-US relations. 

On the high levels of mutual visits, the Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi paid two visits to the United States respectively in February and September, 2017. US Secretary of State Tillerson visited China in March and September, 2017. All of their visits were aiming at making preparation for the mutual visits of the two presidents. According to the Mar-a-Largo decision, Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited China in August, 2017. During the visit, the two militaries signed the framework to build a new communication mechanism for their joint staff departments. The Chinese host arranged him a visit to the PLA's Northern Theater Command whose terms of reference covers the Korean Peninsula.  

As regards the institutional mechanisms, China and the United States agreed to launch four high level dialogue mechanisms. The two sides managed to have the first round of all the four dialogues before President Trump’s visit to Beijing in November 2017.

The first diplomatic and security dialogue. On June 21, 2017, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi co-chaired the first China-US diplomatic and security dialogue in Washington D.C. with Secretary of State Tillerson and Secretary of Defense Mattis of the US. Both sides believed that the first China-US diplomatic and security dialogue is constructive and fruitful. They agreed to continue to make full use of this platform, constantly enhance mutual trust, expand consensus, promote cooperation, handle and control disputes, so as to let this platform play a positive role in promoting China-US relations for greater development. 

The first China-U.S. Comprehensive Economic Dialogue (CED) . It was held in Washington D.C. On July 19, 2017. The Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang and US Treasury Secretary Mnuchin and Commerce Secretary Ross were the co-chairs. A candid and friendly spirit prevailed in the CED. The two sides recognize win-win cooperation is the principle of their commercial relations, dialogue and consultation the approach to problems, and communication on their major economic policies an important way in their dialogue and cooperation. The two sides agreed that their economic teams will take follow-up actions to identify issues in the one-year plan and its early harvest to consolidate dialogue outcomes and give commercial relations a better role to play as the "ballast" and "propeller" in overall bilateral relations. 

The first US-China Social and Cultural Dialogue (SCD). Chinese Vice Premier Liu Yandong and US Secretary of State Tillerson co-chaired the SCD in Washington, DC on September 28, 2017. In their joint statement issued on September 29, 2017 the two sides hold: “The SCD showcases how our peoples can live together for the next 50 years and build a shared future. Together, we can nurture greater connections between our scholars, scientists, students, journalists, and non-governmental leaders for the benefit of our two countries and the world.” 

The first Law Enforcement and Cyber-security Dialogue. Itwas held in Washington, DC on October 4.  The meeting was co-chaired by visiting State Councilor Guo Shengkun, also minister of public security, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Acting Secretary for Homeland Security Elaine Duke. During the meeting, the two sides reached broad consensus on issues of counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, cyber-security, repatriation and immigration.

3. President Trump’s visit to China. Since Mao-Nixon meeting in 1972, summits have always played important roles in promoting China-US relations. However, given the special situation, President Trump’s first state visit to China has the following significances and impacts:

First, rounds of mutual gearing-up helped the visit result insignificant outcomes. President Trump’s first state visit to China on November 8-10, 2017 is an on-going process and its outcomes should be understood accordingly. Actually Trump’s state visit is a result of joint efforts started on Day One upon President Trump’s election with three rounds of China-US gearing-ups. 

The first round runs from November 8, 2016 to February 9, 2017. This round was the initial gearing-up between the two countries as Candidate Trump’s election rhetoric attacking China and President-elect Trump’s phone talks with Ms. Tsai on December 4, 2016, which cast shadows on the future China-US relations. After Chinese strong criticism and persuasion, President Trump finally wrote to President Xion February 8, 2017 to promise on One China policy, thus removing a major obstacle for the two presidents’ direct communication and interaction. The next day, the two presidents had a very cordial phone conversation, during which President Trump stressed that he fully understands the importance for the US government to adhere to the one-China policy and that the US government firmly upholds the one-China policy. At a joint press meeting with the visiting Japanese Prime Minister Abe on February 10, President Trump spoke highly of his telephone conversations with President Xi the previous night by saying: “It was a very, very warm conversation.  I think we are on the process of getting along very well.” 

The second round is between February 10 and April 7, 2017 symbolized by the Mar-a-Largo informal summit. This summit also started the process that resulted in President Trump’s state visit to China. The Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi disclosed the details of the two presidents’ interaction at the Mar-a-Largo as follows: “President Trump said that China owns great and amazing civilization. President Xi Jinping led China to make many achievements, which wins respects of the world. He had a pleasant time with President Xi Jinping and established extraordinary friendship. He is willing to continually cooperate with President Xi Jinping. President Donald Trump accepted President Xi Jinping's invitation for a state visit to China later this year.” 

The third round is from May 7 through to November 10, 2017. This is a period that the two sides tried to carry out cooperation agreed at Mar-a-Largo, and that they worked out more strategic and doable plans for the present and future China-US relations. There saw many meetings include Xi-Trump meeting on the sideline of G20 Hamburg summit on July 8, 2017. Senior officials on both sides were busy preparing the deliverable for President Trump’s state visit to China.

President Trump was the first foreign head of state visiting China after the CPC 19th National Congress. Moreover, he was also the first head of state to call President Xi Jinping at the conclusion of the Party Congress, and it was indeed the first time for an American President to do so. President Trump’s visit to China was constructive and fruitful. During the visit, President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump held in-depth exchanges of views and reached important consensus, which set the tone and direction for our relationship. The two Presidents agreed to stay in close contact with each other to provide strategic guidance for the China-U.S. relationship. The two sides decided to enhance high-level exchanges and make best use of high-level dialogue mechanisms. The two sides agreed to expand mutually beneficial cooperation in various fields and manage possible differences on the basis of mutual respect. The two sides agreed to promote mutual understanding and friendship between our two great peoples and promote even better cooperation at sub-national levels. The two sides agreed to join hands in response to various global, international and regional issues, in particular the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula. The two sides also signed a number of business deals of over 250 billion dollars. 

Second, one should never underestimate President Trump’s back-steps. President Trump made certain back-steps which reduce the visit’s positive and constructive significance. As soon as he left China, he directed the Trade Representative to impose 301 investigations on China. The United States and European Union joined the chorus to deny China’s market economy status. Furthermore, the signed the National Security Strategy that names China as rival and strategic competitor.

These back-steps come from a combination of various reasons. Most of all, the Trump administration stays on the track of rival-driven and paranoid of enemy-pushing. It could not move out of the Cold War mentality and is being driven by zero sum game in its dealings with China. Besides, the Trump administration still deems China as a main challenge to its global leadership and holds that China tries to overhaul the current international system led by the United States. Confronting China’s rapidly and continuously enhanced national strength, the United States is gravely concerned that China’s potential is fast turning into reality. In addition, the Trump administration believes in power, the so-called principled realism. According to its logic, many Americans believe in Thucydides’ Trap and pre-empt China’s rise. Last but not least, the backlashes of the American establishment. The anti-Trump coalition launched large-scale of denouncement against his visit to China. The Trump administration is under great pressure and has to show its toughness towards China. Once again, President Trump’s visit to China became another typical case of US duality in its approaches and attitudes towards US-China relations.

Finally, the summit outcomes gave out many positive signals. Once again, the Beijing summit shows that, so long as the two countries could stay on the right track of cooperation instead of confrontation, China and the United States could find the way to expand their commonalities and reduce differences. 

For instance, the summit reaffirmed the principle of cooperation under the new circumstance. President Xi Jinping emphasized that China-US relations are now at a new starting point in history. China is willing to work with the US to respect each other, benefit each other, focus on cooperation and properly manage differences, so as to bring more sense of gain to the two peoples as well as people of the region and the world. President Trump expressed that the US-China relations are great. Cooperation between the US and China conforms to the fundamental interests of both countries and is of great importance in resolving major global issues. He is willing to keep close communication with President Xi Jinping to promote the in-depth development of US-China relations and push for closer cooperation between the two countries in international affairs. 

Another example is the North Korean nuclear issue. Some people believe that there was little progress on the Korean Peninsula nuclear issue during the visit. But the two Presidents reaffirmed their commitment to a denuclearized and peaceful Korean Peninsula, and their determination to fully implement all the United Nations Security Council resolutions and seek a diplomatic solution to the problem. This is a very important and strong signal, and hopefully a solution to this difficult and sensitive issue can be found and stability on the Peninsula can be restored. 

4. Challenges and Ways Ahead. On December 18, 2017 the Trump administration issued the National Security Strategy report, which named China along with Russia as a rivalry and revisionist power. The report further pointed out: Although the United States seeks to continue to cooperate with China, China is using economic inducements and penalties, influence operations, and implied military threats to persuade other states to heed its political and security agenda. China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations. Its efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability. China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit U.S. access to the region and provide China a freer hand there. China presents its ambitions as mutually beneficial, but Chinese dominance risks diminishing the sovereignty of many states in the Indo-Pacific. 

Many Chinese are wondering why President Trump changed his warm words to sharp criticism so quickly. However, if we compare President Trump and his predecessors, there are similarities. In fact, China-US relations have always been of dualities. On the one hand, there are strong drivers for cooperation. This explains why American presidents would often say some warm or nice words about China-US relations. On the other hand, there are built-in suspicions and oppositions on the American side. Additionally, China-US relations often are victimized by American infighting. Under the Trump administration, these dualities are even more prominent because of the following three main reasons.

The election of President Trump reflects the great division of American society and the tug-of-war between the establishment and anti-establishment forces. This struggle is far from end and will linger on for many years along with the further and fundamental changes both inside and outside the United States. Although the United States will stay as the strongest country in the world for coming decades, its declining trajectory has been increasingly obvious. This is the first time in the past two and half centuries that the United States has arrived at the point of no-return on its relative and absolute decline. Therefore, it is very painful for the whole nation to accept this fact and change its overall understanding of the nation and the world. Likewise, it is equally painful for the ruling group to formulate and carry out the strategies and policies accordingly. The uncertainties and changeable natures make the US side waver between cooperation and confrontation with China throughout this transitional period. Therefore, we must always factor in those negative and obstructive while looking at and dealing with China-US relations.

Then what should both China and the United States do to strive for future cooperation and narrow differences.

First of all, China and the United States should overcome the present difficulties and meet the challenges. The most important guiding principle and practice here is to have a bigger picture while dealing with these differences and challenges. The Trump administration poses uncertainties both at home and abroad. President Trump signed an executive memorandum on August 14, 2016 that will likely trigger an investigation into China’s alleged violation of U.S. intellectual property, a measure that could eventually result in a wide range of penalties as the administration seeks a new way to deal with what it calls Chinese violations of the rules of international trade. President Trump believes that China is a part of the problem on the denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. Given the fact that President Trump’s attention is focused on these issues, the two sides need to find out ways to manage them. Then they could move on to other more comprehensive and important issues.

Second, China and the United States should have a balanced view on the pros and cons in their relations. Again, the most important principle and practice here is to build up commonalities and cooperation so as to reduce the negative and destructive ones in proportion. While some American circles and people would focus on the differences, the real statesmen should fully realize the benefits while making efforts to remove the negative factors. This philosophical understanding of China-US relations becomes extremely important at a historically redefining time. A balanced view would help the two countries see both the trees and forests. This fundamental way of thinking will lead to strengthening the belief that there are more common interests than mutual differences between them and cooperation is the only correct choice. Based on this positive belief, China and the United States could enhance their pragmatic cooperation, improve the current institutions and set new rules both bilaterally, regionally and globally.

Third, China and the United States should work with other members of the international community for better governance regionally and globally. Agenda-setting, rule-making and institution-building are the most important three tasks. Agenda-setting means that the two countries and the others need to single out what are the most important and urgent to do. The issues and problems are enormous but the capabilities of the international community are limited. Therefore, prioritization would become the key to the solutions. China and the United States should take the lead to present a list of priorities. Among others, China and the United States should focus on the development agendas, anti-terrorism and removing extremism, etc. 

Rule-making is an important step to ensure the said agendas to be implemented and fulfilled. China is catching up fast to play its role in this field. The significance of rule-making can never be underestimated. It is related to legal, tangible and intangible fields. They are not only related to economic and financial fields, but also the new frontiers such as cyberspace, outer-space and artificial intelligence.

Institution building embraces the norms, mechanisms and laws governing China-US relations. In the past 45 years China and the United States have made quite some efforts, some are successful and some are not. In the coming 50 years, the two countries need to work harder at strategic thinking and top-level planning so that the institution building would play an even greater role in promoting this important relationship.

Last but not least, China and the United States should stay on the right track of cooperation. The United States is inclined to stress the differences and focus on the competition side of China-US relations. As a matter of course, the Chinese puts cooperation before competition. To conclude, this author agreeably quote the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Ms Hua Chunying’s response to the American NSS report:

Cooperation is the only right choice for China and the United States and win-win cooperation can lead to a better future. As two major countries, it is not surprising for China and the United States to have some disagreements. It is advisable for our two countries to properly handle them in a constructive way on the basis of respecting each other's core interests and major concerns. We urge the US side to stop deliberately distorting China's strategic intentions, and abandon such outdated concepts as the Cold War mentality and the zero-sum game, otherwise it will only end up harming itself as well as others. We hope that the United States can correspond with the trend of the times and the will of the people, put the world and China-US relations in perspective, honor the relevant commitments and join hands with China to uphold the sound and steady growth of China-US relations. This is the right choice that serves the interests of the two peoples and people around the world. 

YangJiemian is former President of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.