At a China-U.S. think tanks and media online forum on July 9, Wang Yi, State Councilor and Foreign Minister of China, said China-U.S. relations, one of the most consequential bilateral relationships in the world, is facing the most severe challenge since the establishment of diplomatic ties.
He attributed the challenges to some in the U.S. with ideological biases who were resorting to all possible means to portray China as an adversary, and even an enemy, to frustrate and contain China’s development, and to impede interactions between the two countries.
The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has escalated the strain in the relationship, with the U.S., failing to contain the virus at home, blaming China to divert domestic attention. Hong Kong and Xinjiang have also become clashing spots with the U.S. Congress passing so-called legislation interfering in China’s internal affairs.
Some U.S. politicians have turned to attacking the Communist Party of China (CPC) more, rather than China, while playing the blame game in an attempt to sever the close ties between the CPC and the Chinese people.
The risk of military conflicts in the South China Sea has increased, with the U.S. deploying two aircraft carrier groups there and warships of the two countries frequently engaging in close encounters.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has also kept up cracking down on hi-tech Chinese industries by restricting the supply chains of companies like Huawei, banning Chinese smartphone applications, and even threatening complete decoupling from China. Trump has also said there was no possibility of a phase two trade deal with China.
What has added fuel to the fire is the U.S. curbs on people-to-people exchanges and Chinese students and scholars studying and working in the U.S. In the past, cultural and educational exchanges had prospered even when state relations deteriorated.
A report released by Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at the Renmin University of China on July 7 showed that 62 percent of the Chinese scholars surveyed believe that the U.S. is launching a new cold war against China. Many people worry that even after the pandemic is over, China-U.S. non-governmental exchanges will not return to the pre-pandemic level for a long time.
The China-U.S. competition, which was mostly in the economic and trade realms, is evolving into a conflict between different development strategies, social systems and ideologies. Some are even calling it a clash of civilizations. Radicals and populists in the White House and Capitol Hill have reshaped U.S. foreign strategy, sidelining professionals. While the Trump administration is resorting to every means to discredit China, China has continued to adjust its thinking and ways of dealing with the U.S.
More and more people hold the view that China and the U.S. have actually entered a cold war; at least a technological cold war has become a reality. The focus of discussion on China-U.S. ties is no longer on how to avoid vicious competition, but how to manage and control disagreements and clashes.
There are growing concerns that the deterioration of China-U.S. relationship might drag the world into a systemic confrontation between two sets of standards and institutions, which may first become true in the sci-tech sector. This, if it happens, will bring profound changes to the way of production and life, even though it may not destroy the international order established after World War II and the globalization process.
Specter of confrontation
A lot of countries have realized that the intensified competition between the world’s two largest economies demonstrates the massive change in the international landscape. Caught in the middle of growing China-U.S. tensions, they need to make a cautious choice between a U.S. terrified of being challenged by a growing China and a China yet incapable of leading the world in international affairs.
Wang expressed the wish for the two sides to set things right and get bilateral relations back on track for long-term, sound and steady development, stressing that China’s U.S. policy remains unchanged. He called China and the U.S. to find ways to steer this relationship out of the difficulties and bring it back to the right track by activating and opening all channels of dialogue and focusing and cooperating on COVID-19 response.
However, in a desperate bid to swing voters for the upcoming presidential election, Trump is likely to introduce more dire measures against China, which may further damage bilateral ties or even bring about a military conflict.
There are three prospects for relations with China keeping the 2020 election in mind. First, Trump will adjust his policy toward China slightly and ease tensions temporarily after his reelection. Second, the U.S. will continue to toughen its stance on China and drag the relationship into a confrontation between ideologies and social systems in Trump’s possible second term. Third, Democrat nominee Joe Biden will win and his party may not only try to ease tensions with China, but also work to repair the ties between the U.S. and its allies as well as restore multilateral cooperation. However, if the China-U.S. relationship is wrecked during the run-up to election, the new president will find it hard to adjust the policy toward China.
There is a consensus in the U.S. that it must focus on and respond more effectively to the challenges posed by a growing China, regarding the country as its primary strategic competitor. Whoever is in the White House in the future, containment, rules and reciprocity will continue to be the key words defining U.S. strategies. Both sides need to manage their relationship with a rational, sober approach, leaving the door open for global cooperation despite their growing competition.