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Chinese Scholar: Fundamental Change in the Sino-U.S. Relationship

{Editor’s Note: In April, Yuan Peng, the Deputy President of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, published an article commenting on the Sino-U.S. relationship. In his view, what is happening right now between China and the U.S. is the first serious clash between the two countries in the past one hundred years. The U.S. has concluded that its previous strategy towards China did not work and has fundamentally readjusted it.

The following is a translation of his article.} {1}

The U.S. abandoned its past strategy

Needless to say, the U.S. strategy toward China is undergoing major discussions and debates, major reflections, and important adjustments. This kind of debate has happened three times in history. The current one is the fourth time. Unlike before, the U.S. political, commercial, academic, and military have all participated in this debate.

This time, the whole society has gotten involved. Not only has the government participated in the debate; it has also taken the lead. This is unprecedented. In addition, this debate has another characteristic: The voice is almost one-sided. In the past debates, some people praised China and there were also people who criticized China, but now, the voices praising China have basically disappeared. With all these factors combined, China should take it seriously.

The most important point is that the debates in the past were always within a larger framework—that the U.S. strategy toward China should mainly be engagement plus containment. However, strategists in the current debate believe that the old framework should be completely abandoned. They have basically concluded that, in the past 30 to 40 years, the major framework of engagement complemented by containment has failed.

Direct confrontation in the Asia Pacific Region

If we say that, in the past, China was both a rival and a partner to the U.S. and the U.S. alternated between these two roles, then the current conclusion is that China is just a competitor, and a competitor in all aspects. China and the U.S. are not only competing in the Asia-Pacific region but also globally. This is the biggest difference from the past.

In the past, the U.S. was concerned about China’s challenges in the Asia Pacific region. However, with the launch of “One Belt and One Road” and the Djibouti Safeguard Base project, the U.S. is more convinced that China is a global opponent. With all the backgrounds combined, one cannot rule out that the U.S. is repositioning its strategic direction toward China.

So why did such a change occur? The main reasons are summarized as follows:

The first is a structural reason. The power balance between the U.S. and China has evolved from a quantitative to a qualitative point. At the same time, China and U.S. have shifted their strategic focus. The U.S. has shifted its focus from Europe and the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region. China used to “hide its capabilities and bide its time” but now is working hard toward higher goals.

The second reason is that the U.S. didn’t retreat from its strategic retraction plan. Rather it has stopped at the Asia Pacific region. Neither has China’s strategic expansion expanded much farther. It is still focused on the Asia Pacific region. Therefore, the two sides collide directly, face to face, in the Asia Pacific region.

There is no historical lesson from which to learn

There is no historical lesson from which to learn or an existing path to take in handling the current “collision” between China and the U.S. Both sides are painfully eager to find ways to coexist peacefully in the Asia Pacific region.

The (sides) strength has changed, their strategy has changed, and their foundation has also changed. During the Cold War, there was the Soviet Union. After the Cold War, there was common trade. After 9/11, there was a common fight against terrorism. Now, all of sudden, China and the U.S. wonder, “What support is there for Sino-U.S. cooperation?

The Soviet Union is gone and bin Laden is gone. During the Obama era, the two sides found climate change as a way to work together and try to find the next collaboration point. Now, this connection is gone. Moreover, the problem in the economy and trade showed up. What is the support for such a big relationship? China and the U.S. are just like two people living together without love. It feels like “life can’t go on.” However, even though it feels very painful, they still cannot be completely separated.

It feels worse than the aircraft collision (in 2001) and the (U.S.) bombing of the Chinese Embassy (in Belgrade in 1999).

At present, another characteristic of Sino-U.S. relations is that the bilateral relationship is subject to third parties.

In essence, China and the U.S. do not have so many conflicts but issues in North Korea, Japan, India, Ukraine, and Iran constrain them. The conflicts between China and these third parties and the conflicts between the U.S. and the third parties will ultimately rise to become, without exception, conflicts between China and the U.S. The reason is very simple. China has progressed from a regional power to a global power.

Therefore, the four major changes in power, strategy, foundation, and strength have emerged at the same time, leading to the current Sino-U.S. relationship being different what it was like in the past.

However, although the three Sino-U.S. joint communiques still currently guide Sino-U.S. relations, in reality, their guiding role is no longer working anymore. Therefore, China proposed to build a new type of great power relationship. However, the U.S. did not respond positively.

Therefore, the current Sino-U.S. relationship lacks a new top-level framework, which also leads to specific events in specific areas dragging the Sino-U.S. relationship to move forward. Although there were no vicious incidents such as the airplane collision and embassy bombings, it feels worse than those times.

{1} Phoenix, “Yuan Peng: The First Clash Between China and the U.S. It Is Worse Than the Time of the Airplane Collision and the U.S. Bombing the Chinese Embassy,” April 5, 2018.