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The Current Sino-US Relations: China's Concerns and Expectations

2019-01-20 12:09:39       source:NISCSS

This is a speech of President Wu Shicun at the Conference of “U.S.-China Relations after the U.S. Midterm Election”on January 19, 2019 in Atlanta, United States. This conference is co-organized by Carter Center, Emory University and the Institute for China-America Studies. 


It is a great pleasure to co-host this Conference on “U.S.-China Relations after the U.S. Midterm Election” with the Carter Center and Emory University.


This year marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States. I’d like to take this opportunity to share some initial observations about the current state of Sino-US relations.

 

I. Concerns about Sino-US relations

Sino-US relations went through a series of twists and turns over the past year. Tension and confrontation have spilled over from trade disputes into politics, military, and non-governmental exchanges, leading to increasingly disturbing prospects for its future development.

 

In the past, we have been saying that the Sino-US relations “are going to be neither too much better nor too much worse.” However, as the competition between China and the United States intensifies, swaying Sino-US relations appear to be changing for the worse. After President Trump took office, the US government and military issued three policy reports, clearly defining China as a major strategic competitor. Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, also publicly declared that China would be a ‘major threat’ to US national security. Within the United States, there is a general belief in both political parties and academia that the policies of engagement and playing both sides with China that was adopted over the past 40 years, is no longer working and must be changed. Although still at an initial stage, this tendency is already taking concrete shape. Recently, US academia and the media have frequently been using expressions such as ‘New Cold War’, ‘Thucydides Trap’ and ‘China and the United States are destined for war’ to describe the prospects for Sino-US relations. The prospects thus depicted are obviously gloomy and pessimistic, and the confrontational Cold War mentality lying behind them is very disturbing. Current US doubts about China are in fact unprecedented, and its policies towards China are undergoing a historic shift. Although the direction of the shift remains unclear, this growing approach towards competition and confrontation that has been demonstrated makes China worry.

 

In China, there are also increasing discussions about the changing nature of Sino-US relations, the ‘new normal’ in Sino-US relations, and the need for a ‘new paradigm’ in Sino-US relations. Chinese scholars generally hold that, with the narrowing gap of comprehensive strength between China and the United States as well as the rising doubts in the U.S. about China’s strategies, the United States has turned towards containing China and its rise in various ways. With the simultaneous expansion of China’s interests overseas, the ‘collision’ of interests between the two countries is not only inevitable but also increasing rapidly. Therefore, Sino-US relations are entering a “new era” of frequent confrontation and competition, as compared with the keynotes of engagement and counterbalance and competition and cooperation that underlay US strategies towards China and the Sino-US relationship in previous analyses by Chinese academia and media.

 

We also used to say that economic and trade cooperation has served as the ballast of the bilateral relationship. However, with the ‘tariff war’ waged by Trump and the gradual escalation of Sino-US trade frictions, that ballast has begun to crumble. In the U.S., there are increasing accusations about the Sino-US trade imbalance, China's deficient intellectual property protection, the lack of market access in China, and questions about its market economy status. Meanwhile in China, there is also dissatisfaction with Trump's trade protectionism, his policy actions to suppress the development of China's high-tech industries, the debasing of the Belt and Road Initiative, and his formulation of related ‘poison pill’ provisions.


Moreover, trade disputes have also dragged down Sino-US cooperation in other fields, especially in the area of non-governmental exchanges between the two countries. Earlier this month, the United States issued a level-2 China travel advisory. Before that, the United States wantonly propagated a theory about China's ‘sharp power’, and groundlessly speculated that some Chinese agencies and students in the US were engaged in espionage activities. Similarly, the recent “Meng Wanzhou case” and the restrictions imposed by the Trump Administration on Chinese students planning to study in the US have triggered anti-American sentiments among the Chinese people. A ‘big step backwards’ in non-governmental exchanges between the two countries is unfortunately well within sight.

 

We once believed that the Sino-US contest in the South China Sea was in essence a dispute between China’s safeguarding its sovereign rights and interests of the South China Sea and the United States’ ensuring its freedom of navigation, but now it has turned into a dispute over sea power between the two major maritime powers. The Sino-US military contest over sea power in the South China Sea and their political and diplomatic contest over order building in this body of water will dominate the future of the South China Sea. During the “tug of war” between the two sides, there is still a possibility for skirmishes or regional maritime crisis, even if it is believed that the bilateral conflict in the South China Sea is generally controllable.

 

Previously, we also believed that the United States would have hesitation and misgivings about playing the Taiwan card, but the inappropriate Trump-Tsai call, the Taiwan Travel Act, calls for US-Taiwan joint military exercises, and the passage of US warships across the Taiwan Strait at a sensitive time, all indicate that the United States is stepping on this red line too. Trump's aggressive strategy on the Taiwan issue will greatly increase the possibility of Sino-US relations falling into crisis.

 

II. Expectations for future Sino-US relations

There is no doubt that many of our predictions of Sino-US relations in the past are facing the dilemma of failure. As Dr. Kissinger said, ‘Sino-US relations are never going back to what they were,’ and the future direction of Sino-US relations is still not clear. What choice should we make then when bilateral relations are at the crossroads?

 

I think the top priority is to strengthen confidence in developing Sino-US relations and to reverse the vicious circle within the bilateral relationship. In terms of the current interdependence between China and the United States, the ‘decoupling’ between the two countries is basically nonsense. China and the United States have long formed a community of shared interests, and the connections and cooperation closely intertwined cannot be cut off. Hence it is impossible for the two to start a ‘new cold war’, nor will they fall into the Thucydides trap. At this very moment, academia, think tanks and the media in the two countries should, with exchanges and cooperation, promote engagement and consultations rather than encouraging decoupling and confrontation. They should also place greater emphasis on harmonious and inclusive power-to-power relations, instead of agitating for a ‘new cold war’ - and thereby provide positive energy for sound interaction between China and the United States, sweep away the haze over the Sino-US relationship, and jointly promote the settlement of conflict between the two countries.

 

Secondly, we should deliberate and study the construction of a new paradigm for positive interaction between China and the United States to ensure that bilateral relations steadily move forward. The narrowing power gap, the intensifying interest divergence, and the deepening mutual doubts about each other’s strategies all have made the original interaction model no longer functional. Consequently, it is an urgent task for strategists in both China and the United States to construct a new model of benign interaction. Recently, Chinese President Xi Jinping mentioned in his telephone conversation with President Trump that it is necessary to build Sino-US relations featuring coordination, cooperation and stability. Trump also said that the US is willing to develop cooperative and constructive Sino-US relations. This proves that the leaders of the two countries share a consensus on building a new model for Sino-US interaction in this new environment.

 

From the perspective of China, I believe that this new model of benign interaction between China and the United States should be based on mutual respect, equal consultation, healthy competition and mutually beneficial cooperation. Respecting the important interests and concerns of each other, and negotiating and discussing issues of vital interests to both sides on equal terms, are prerequisites for the positive interaction between China and the United States. China will not accept condescending criticism and preaching.

 

Thirdly, we should properly resolve trade disputes as soon as possible, control potential conflicts in the South China Sea, and maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait to reduce obstacles to the development of the bilateral relationship. At present, the Sino-US trade war is expected to ease somewhat and productive trade negotiations were resumed in Beijing earlier this month. We hope that the two sides will maintain this positive momentum and strive to reach relevant agreements by March 1, 2019.

 

On April 13 last year, President Xi Jinping announced in Hainan the construction of a free trade zone and a free trade port with Chinese characteristics in Hainan, making the clarion call for a new round of deepening reform and opening up of China. At present, the construction of the free trade zone (port) is in full swing. We hope that more American enterprises will invest in Hainan and share the new opportunities arising from Sino-US economic and trade cooperation.

 

We hope that the United States will stop its provocative military actions in the South China Sea and stop the hype of China’s ‘militarization’ of the islands and reefs there. Meanwhile, China should also speed up the launch of the civil service functions of the islands and reefs and provide more public goods to the international community. China and the United States should improve and standardize the operating procedures of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, and cooperate in non-traditional security areas such as natural disaster response and joint search and rescue, so as to avoid potential conflict, enhance military mutual trust and jointly safeguard peace and stability in the South China Sea.

 

Earlier this month, President Xi Jinping delivered an important speech on cross-strait relations, emphasizing the necessity and urgency of reunification, and proposed to explore an up-to-date plan for solving the Taiwan issue based on the  “one country, two systems” approach. The United States should recognize the firm determination and will of the Chinese people to safeguard national unity, abide by the commitments of the three Sino-US joint communiques, stop challenging China's bottom line on the Taiwan issue, and prevent another flare up in the Taiwan Strait that hurts Sino-US relations.

 

Finally, let me say a few words in the capacity as the chairman of the Advisory Board of the Institute for China-America Studies. ICAS, as the first Chinese think tank registered in the United States, has made efforts and obtained certain achievements in promoting exchanges and mutual trust between Chinese and American academic institutions, and thereby enhanced the development of Sino-US relations. It is hoped that in the future, China and the United States will continue to promote exchanges and encourage cooperation between think-tanks so as to resolve misjudgments through exchanges, replace accusations with dialogue, eliminate confrontations through cooperation, and consolidate and enhance the mutual interest and public opinion basis for the steady development of Sino-US relations.

 

With that, I want to wish us all a highly successful and productive conference. Thank you.