Are Improved Relations Possible?

Zheng Yuan (袁征)
(Researcher, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences )

April 08 , 2022
High-level communications between China and the United States have increased 
recently. First, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken surprisingly called 
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi to congratulate China on its successful 
hosting of the Winter Olympics. This was followed by a meeting between U.S. 
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Yang Jiechi in Rome, and a video 
conversation between the Chinese and U.S. heads of state on March 18 ─ 
another cloud meeting after a four-month hiatus. The proximate cause of all 
this is the Russia-Ukraine crisis. Whether the outbreak of the war between 
Russia and Ukraine presents an opportunity to improve China-U.S. relations 
is a matter of great concern for all.

The Russia-Ukraine conflict has shaken the existing order and will reshape 
the global landscape. The international situation has become more complex. 
The war broke out in the heart of the European continent and involved almost 
all major countries of the world today. In the China-U.S.-Russia triangle, 
the U.S. and Russia are completely at odds, and it will be difficult to 
repair their relations for a while. The Biden administration has basically 
continued the Trump administration's hard-line policy toward China, and 
China-U.S. relations have been hovering at a low point. Ironically, it is 
the U.S. policy of containment and suppression of China and Russia that 
has pushed those two countries closer. For some time, the U.S. strategic 
community has been debating the choice between working with Russia against 
China or containing the China-Russia axis, but the view that China and Russia 
are joining forces to challenge U.S. interests has become the mainstream 

The current war between Russia and Ukraine actually has two fronts: one 
is the direct military confrontation between Russia and Ukraine on the battlefield,
 and the other is the sanctions imposed by the U.S.-led Western bloc against 
Russia, which is in some ways more important. The U.S. and its allies want 
to take advantage of the Russia-Ukraine conflict and try to consume and 
weaken Russia through the proxy war model. So, while increasing military 
and economic aid to Ukraine, they continue to escalate comprehensive sanctions 
against Russia. But the U.S. believes that there is still a big loophole in 
sanctions. Its name is China. Without China's cooperation, the U.S. and 
Western economic sanctions against Russia are unlikely to achieve significant 
results in the short term. The Biden administration has tried to pressure 
China to withhold economic or military assistance to Russia. China and the 
United States clearly have different perceptions of the merits of the Russia-
Ukraine war.

As a de facto participant in the war, the United States has to look in the 
direction of both Europe and the Asia-Pacific. Its strategic community also 
fears that while the U.S. is busy with the Russia-Ukraine war, China will 
launch military operations in the Asia-Pacific, especially in the Taiwan 
Strait. Therefore, the U.S. has signaled, through various channels, warnings 
to China not to act rashly.

Perhaps the Biden administration will slow down its pressure on China in 
the short term, but the U.S. will not fundamentally change its containment 
policy regarding China. The adjustment did not happen overnight, but actually 
started with the Obama administration pursuing an Asia-Pacific policy of 
strategic rebalancing. That policy only became more drastic under the Trump 
administration. After the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine war, U.S. warships 
passed through the Taiwan Strait as usual, and Biden sent former senior officials 
to visit Taiwan to continue to support independence forces on the island. 
Even if there is a war between Russia and Ukraine, there will little, if 
any, substantial change in the U.S. hard-line policy toward China, though 
some tactical adjustments will be made.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Richard Nixon's visit to China. 
Today's China is not the same as the China of 50 years ago, nor is the United 
States the same United States. But improving bilateral relations is of great 
importance to both countries, as well as to regional security and even global 
strategic stability. Given the significant changes in the current international 
situation, returning to a stable development track in China-U.S. relations 
will require both sides to make efforts.

First, the United States should change its perception of China. Relations 
have encountered difficulties in recent years mainly because of major deviations 
in U.S. perceptions. China's political system is unique and is in line with 
its actual situation, and the United States should view its rise rationally. 
If the U.S. does not change the inherent Western concept of hegemony, always 
suspicious of China's intentions, it will be difficult to handle relations 

Second, China and the United States should try to find areas where they 
can cooperate and engage in healthy competition. The two have similar demands 
on managing differences, maintaining regional security and preventing strategic 
confrontation. There is still room for cooperation on some issues of global 
governance, including climate change, public health, non-proliferation and 
global economic recovery.

Third, it is important to manage differences and conflicts to prevent them 
from subverting the entire relationship. Since the establishment of diplomatic 
relations between China and the United States in 1979, many contradictions 
and differences have defied resolution. In the face of major differences 
that have become more and more prominent over the years, both sides should 
find ways to effectively control differences in a new context, find a way 
to get along and build a new type of major power relationship.

Fourth, the U.S. should look at China as an equal and not condescendingly 
level accusations, demand certain actions or even demand cooperation, another 
great power, in a threatening tone. The U.S. approach ─ “those who follow 
me will prosper and those who oppose me will perish” ─ is a complete departure 
from the historical trend in current international relations. In the video 
meeting with President Xi Jinping, the U.S. side still said in a threatening 
tone that China cannot give support to Russia or there will be serious consequences.
 Such a tone is highly inappropriate, and the Chinese will never buy it.

Fifth, the U.S. side cannot say one thing and do another. This only exacerbates 
mutual distrust. U.S. policy toward China has always been pragmatic. Nixon's 
visit was designed to get China to work with the United States against the 
Soviet Union. After the demise of the Soviet Union, the U.S. gradually began 
pointing its finger at China. Now the U.S. is asking China to stab Russia 
in the back. One cannot help but ask: After burying Russia, as it hopes, 
will the U.S. lead its Western allies to bury China? The Chinese side attaches 
importance to President Biden's “four nos and one no,” which shows that 
the U.S. side knows where the Chinese side's greatest concerns lie. However, 
the U.S. side is still saying one thing and doing another. It promises one 
thing while doing the opposite. The Biden administration's two-faced policy 
can be seen by comparing the statements issued by the Chinese and U.S. heads 
of state after their cloud meeting. The White House statement, for example, 
did not mention a word about the “four nos and one no.” Not only that, 
the U.S. side continues to threaten China, to intervene in the Taiwan question,
 and launch sanctions against China. The Chinese are not stupid, and they 
are not afraid of trouble. China has always had its own principles and positions.
 If the United States wants China to cooperate, it should not only make 
commitments but also take actions. It should not say one thing and do another,
 which increases China's distrust and does nothing to improve relations 
between the two countries. In response to the two-faced U.S. approach, China 
is bound to have a dual policy.
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