Yang Jiemian is President Emeritus of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.
IN recent years, many challenges to the development of bilateral China-U.S. relations have arisen, with impacts being felt throughout the Asia-Pacific region and further afield. Although these two countries were never free from difficult problems and controversial issues in the past, at present both China and the United States are arriving at an inflection point. If policies are misguided or mishandled in the time ahead, bilateral relations could start along a course of confrontations and conflicts resulting in no winners—only losers.
Against this background came Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the United States: it took place at a time when America is going through its sensitive political season of presidential elections. Therefore, a successful summit has been understood as being not only important to the two serving presidents, but also to the advancement of sustainable bilateral relations in the years ahead.
New Challenges in New Contexts
China and the United States are two of the world’s most important actors, and their interactions are both governed and affected by global developments. The Chinese see the world as developing in the direction of political multipolarization, economic globalization, cultural diversification, and information socialization. As such, the general features of current global affairs are characterized by fundamental changes to the configuration of powers, great tests among the various forces of the world, and prominent readjustments of national strategies and policies.
However, different countries have different worldviews. For instance, the 2015 National Security Strategy of the United States calls for advancing that nation’s interests, universal values, and a rules-based international order through strong and sustainable American leadership. This strategy report also stresses that the United States will lead the world with purpose, strength, capable partners, all instruments of power, long-term perspectives, and by example. Furthermore, in this document the Obama Administration makes it clear that the United States is mostly concerned with China’s possible challenges to its global and regional leadership.
Ever since U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historical visit to Beijing in 1972, China and the United States have been confronted by many questions—ranging from the Taiwan issue to human rights. Until recent years, the mainstreams of the two countries shared the view that such questions should not debase the foundations of their vital bilateral relationship. But in present times, the problems are much greater than they were previously.
Nowadays, many Chinese believe that the United States is trying to block China’s peaceful rise in an all-around way. Strategically, America has formulated and implemented its so-called Rebalancing Strategy in the Asia-Pacific region—a clear signal of the eastward shifting of U.S. political and military power towards China.
Besides this, the United States is also taking advantage of China’s maritime disputes with some of its neighbors in order to apply strategic pressure on China. For instance, America changed its long-claimed neutrality on the various territorial disputes by extending biased support to Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam. In the meantime, the United States is squeezing China in the South China Sea, in the context of so-called freedom of navigation and security, whilst turning a blind eye to the fact that there has not been any evidence indicating that these two concepts are at risk. Furthermore, the United States is ganging up with its allies in the Asia-Pacific region by “naming and shaming” China as the most dangerous threat to regional security. Washington has been avowedly worried that an Asia-Pacific version of NATO is emerging, and that bloc confrontation might stage a comeback in the region after an interval period of repose that arose in the wake of the end of the Cold War.
Economically, the United States is trying to use existing norms, rules, and mechanisms to check China’s economic development. There are two most typical cases in point. One is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the other is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).
In terms of the AIIB, the United States tried its utmost, ultimately in vain, to prevent its allies from becoming founding members through open persuasion and private pressure. This failed attempt has led to widespread Chinese resentment and criticism of the United States. Many Chinese criticized the United States for hypocrisy and double standards, because the latter had long urged China to play what it defined as a more responsible role in international affairs, whilst at the same time trying to derail the AIIB.
In the case of the TPP, the United States simply gathered a group of junior partners to keep China from participating in talks to establish the rules of the game; the aim being to force China to accept the fait accompli.
From China’s perspective, the TPP issue represents one of America’s important steps to check China’s rise through the imposition of so-called norms, rules, and laws. By so doing, the United States hopes to be able to maintain a comfortable margin of distance from what has now become the world’s second largest economy, and one of the globe’s largest trading nations. Given that the AIIB and TTP relate closely to two critically important economic aspects, one can conclude that the competitive elements of China-U.S. relations are increasing rapidly.