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Talking out of trouble

《中国日报》 2023-05-11


Dialogue on multiple levels is the only way for China and the US to manage their relations

   From the Donald Trump administration to the Joe Biden administration, the United States has maintained a China strategy that focuses on containment and suppression, and regards China as its main strategic rival. This strategy has been continuously strengthened in both concept and practice during the two administrations. In response, China has continued to adjust its US strategy. As a result, the strategic competition between the two sides has become more intense, and China and the US have developed increasingly negative perceptions of and narratives on each other. The two sides are also more and more confrontational in their behaviors, leading to a more obvious trend toward a vicious circle. Moreover, this strategic competition and confrontation are increasingly driven by international and domestic structural factors.

  With the Biden administration now into its third year in office, the strategic competition between the two countries has became fiercer, and the administration's China strategy and policies face a series of problems for their implementation.

  First, China is an important part of the global economy, and is of great importance to the stability and development of the US economy. So, although the US regards China as the greatest geopolitical challenge and a major rival, pursuing a policy of containment and suppression against China in the name of competition, it has to cooperate with China in responding to global challenges such as climate change and public health crises. Managing the two aspects of the relations with China is the biggest challenge for Washington's China strategy and policy.

  Second, the US, out of economic and security considerations, has put in place measures against China, such as trade protectionism, a technology blockade, investment restrictions, and the decoupling of industry chains. Such measures, while hurting China, have also imposed huge costs on the US itself, arousing dissatisfaction and opposition from the US business and tech communities.

  Third, the US has said that it does not seek confrontation or a new Cold War, highlighting the need to manage risks and crises, while on the other hand taking across-the-board containment and suppression actions against China in economic, trade, science and technology, diplomatic and military affairs, particularly in building up military threats against China and pushing up the hostility and confrontation between the two militaries and nations. This is essentially an unsolvable paradox. In fact, the US' China strategy is leading to an increasingly stronger Cold War atmosphere between the two countries, with political mutual trust decreasing, and the risk of confrontation growing.

  Fourth, due to the extremely negative and irrational political atmosphere in the US on China issues, the Democrats and Republicans are competing to play the China card, and Congress has been more active and tougher than ever on China-related affairs. This, coupled with the weak capacity of the Biden administration to handle domestic politics, has severely constrained its stated efforts to manage competition in a responsible manner.For example, the presidents of the two countries had a telephone conversation on July 28, 2022 and reached some important consensus on the development of bilateral relations, but just three days later, then US House speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, a trip that gravely damaged China-US relations.

  Fifth, the Biden administration is actively drawing its allies and other countries into its efforts to contain China's development. However, the trade and technology wars that the US has initiated against China have seriously damaged the international economic and trade rules and disrupted the global industry and supply chains. Its Indo-Pacific strategy has exacerbated regional tensions as it relies too much on security measures. And the increasingly prominent protectionism in the US economic and trade policy has eroded the interests of many countries, including its allies. These factors have affected the willingness of other countries to embrace its China strategy.

  In just a few years, the overall win-win relationship between China and the US that had developed over decades has turned into a lose-lose one. Neither side has reaped benefits from the worsening of bilateral ties in recent years, and both are continuing to pay the price for the deteriorating relationship. Washington continues to promote decoupling and confrontation and exert economic, political and security pressure on China, while Beijing, in turn, is firmly and tenaciously resisting the pressure. China-US relations are facing huge uncertainties and there is a growing risk of severe conflicts. Considering the current momentum of the bilateral ties and structural factors behind it, it is unrealistic to expect any significant improvement in the relationship between the two countries in the foreseeable future, and it is imperative to determine the boundaries of their strategic competition — what will be the extent of the decoupling and confrontation.

  There are two main paths to explore the boundaries: one is to draw experience through handling incidents and crises, and the other is to gain inspiration through policy and strategic dialogues. The tensions between China and the US and across the Taiwan Strait caused by Pelosi's visit last year showed the importance of not breaking the bottom line when dealing with major issues in bilateral relations. And the negative impacts on bilateral relations by the overreaction of the US to a Chinese meteorological research balloon that strayed into its airspace in February due to force majeure showed the importance of maintaining composure in handling emergencies and accidental events and exercising caution despite the domestic pressure. In addition, assessing the cost and effectiveness of the US trade war with China as well as its technology decoupling and blockade will also help the US correctly understand the limits of its unilateral coercive measures in its economic and trade relations with China.

  Meanwhile, sustained and high-quality policy and strategic dialogues will help the two countries form a principled consensus on how to handle this extremely important and complex bilateral relationship. Such dialogues should be based on the following basic understandings: it is impossible for the two countries to completely decouple from each other in the fields of economy, trade and people-to-people exchanges; there will be long-term strategic competition between the two sides, but no side can completely outcompete the other; it is necessary for the two countries to conduct cooperation and coordination in many fields; preventing major conflicts is in the interests of both sides; other countries should handle their relations with China and the US based on their own interests, and taking sides is not the policy preference of most countries.

  Consensus reached through dialogues will enable the two sides to better balance between competition and cooperation, exchanges and restriction, rivalry and compromise in bilateral relations. Policy and strategic dialogues can be held through multiple channels. Dialogues at the government level are more problem-oriented and more substantive; track 1.5 dialogues — conversations that include a mix of government officials who participate in an unofficial capacity and non-governmental experts — or track 2 dialogues, meaning informal and non-official communication between individuals or groups, offer greater flexibility; and dialogues between experts and scholars will provide academic support for understanding the bilateral relationship. In view of the complexity of China-US relations, it is highly necessary for the two countries to carry out multi-channel and multi-level policy and strategic communication on a regular basis.