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China's Top US-China Experts' Hottakes on the Relationship
"Freefall" is over, but the "strategic stalemate" that may last a generation?
The US Indo-Pacific Strategy dropped earlier this month, identifying China as a "particular challenge" for the US and its allies in the future and calling for the familiar 3-Cs triptych of “competition, cooperation, and conflict.”
But what do leading Chinese thinkers think?
China's top experts on Sino-US affairs (including former diplomats and heads of party-state think tanks) gathered for a pre-Chinese New Year tea party had pretty similar takes to the Biden Administration’s. There is general agreement that 2021 has, at the very least, put an end to what they refer to as the "free fall" of bilateral ties.
Most agree that Sino-US ties are now in a state of "strategic stalemate", with some, like CICIR president Yuan Peng, predicting that it will last a generation.
The official summary of the event is translated in full below. Do note the fact that Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy got nods in most of the presentation, and that there were zero female quoted participants.
Written and translated by Chinese security and foreign policy expert Tuvia Gering, a Krauthammer Fellow and research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security (JISS). Follow him on Twitter here. Edited by Callan Quinn. Original text here.
Dá wēi 达巍
Director, Center for International Security and Strategy (CISS), Tsinghua University
Last year should not be viewed as a total disaster for Sino-American ties. At the very least, it put the brakes on the free-fall trajectory of bilateral relations over the previous three years, and currently, they are teetering at a lower intensity, more or less.
What's important is to keep an eye on the Sino-American relationship's current aimless drifting. This gradual ossification of bilateral relations is not in either party's best interests.
From a US perspective, the Biden administration is prepared to deal with China through strategic design thinking, with strategic competition at the core and competitive coexistence as the desired goal.
However, in carrying out his strategic plan, Biden has overestimated his own capabilities while underestimating the high interconnectedness between the US and China, and the same thing goes for third parties that are interdependent with China. These "under and over” estimations have hamstrung the implementation of the American strategy.
From China's perspective, refusing to define the Sino-American relationship in terms of the strategic competition is the right thing to do. However, China needs a deeper understanding and a better distinction of what strategic goals are desirable for bilateral ties and what is feasible to attain in the medium to long term.
At the moment, China appears to be "split" between trying to persuade the US to treat it as an equal (平视外交) and opting for a limited struggle (斗而不破).
As a result, it lacks the capacity to play a proactive role in shaping bilateral relations.
Relations between the US and China are likely to remain relatively stable in 2022. Both countries will be more focused on their own domestic affairs as a result of the US midterm elections and the 20th Party Congress.
Of course, this will make it more difficult for both sides to adjust their policies but neither side would want major incidents or a sharp deterioration in relations. There is still time in the first half of the year for both sides to take the initiative to improve bilateral relations.
Ān Gāng 安刚
Adjunct fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy (CISS), Tsinghua University
The past strategic foundation shared between China and the US has crumbled, and a new one cannot take its place in the near term because both sides are talking past each other and going their own ways.
The US is adamant about engaging in long-term strategic competition with China, while China is resolute about confronting US words and deeds that challenge its interests and dignity (尊严).
Despite the temporary ease of bilateral tension following the virtual summit between the Chinese and US heads of state, the prospects for improving US-China relations remain dim. The "positive list" is simply too short, while the "negative list" is too long.
Both China and the US must deal with big political events on their respective agendas in 2022, leaving little room for compromise and flexibility, which could potentially escalate the rivalry. In the long run, both parties may need to plan ahead and — from a realist perspective — mentally prepare to accept a reality in which competition dominates the relationship.
At the end of 2021, senior Chinese diplomats talked about the emergence of a new paradigm and a new strategic framework for China and the US to jointly explore through dialogue, which could help to stabilize relations between the two countries. Indeed, China and the US must form a new strategic framework, but this could take a decade or two, if not longer.
During that time, no matter how bad the relationship between China and the US becomes, we must never break contact; no matter how the two countries decouple, we must never cut off people-to-people ties and cultural exchanges.
Senior Colonel (ret.) Zhōu Bō 周波
Senior Fellow, Center for International Security and Strategy (CISS), Tsinghua University, and an expert member of its China Forum
Like it or not, this is the beginning of a new Cold War. While the "new" in this concept implicitly involves countless elements that make it different from the "old" Cold War, the [similar] process of increasing competition between China and the US cannot be reversed.
The US focus on the "Indo-Pacific" is an inevitable result of the decline of its global power, and it is clearly directed at China.
But, unlike the Soviet-American Cold War, the Sino-US rivalry is first and foremost a "regional rivalry" (much of which is in the Indo-Pacific, specifically around China). Secondly, rather than a rivalry between two blocs, it's a one-on-one contest in which neither US allies nor Chinese partners will be readily swayed into playing. And finally, there is no partition into spheres of influence.
Ships and planes from the US frequently transit the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea. Because there is no demarcation line between the two sides, the risk of conflict is higher today than it was during the Cold War.
The Sino-US relationship contains elements of both competition and cooperation; the question is one of proportion. Of course, the best outcome for bilateral relations is when cooperation prevails over competition. If this is not possible then in the worst-case [scenario], competition does not [sic] slide into confrontation.
Strategic stability will eventually emerge as the economic and military gap between China and the United States narrows. However, this stability is not the same as the strategic balance that existed between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, best exemplified by their nuclear arsenals.
My ideal scenario for Sino-US strategic stability is through mutually assured coexistence, in lieu of a Cold War hallmark - mutually assured destruction.
[Note: Italics added to indicate where Zhou used English.]
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Táo Wénzhāo 陶文钊
Honorary Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), and Fellow at CASS Institute of American Studies
[The year] 2021 marked the end of the free fall of bilateral relations and the beginning of the "third phase of development of Sino-American relations"; the first has already been completed. Two high-level dialogues and one virtual meeting between the two heads of state were held during this period, as well as several more high-level talks.
Why do we say the first phase of construction was completed? Because the US stipulated its strategic framework with a series of pledges, it is now largely up to us to decide how to engage them.
[We must tell them:] Do not seek more conflict, do not allow competition to slide into conflict, do not seek a new Cold War, do not seek to strengthen alliances against China, and do not support Taiwan's independence - the US has made lip service to these ideas, but actions speak louder than words.
It must not, in particular, seek to alter China's [political] system. This is the most important issue for China and was the most significant point of contention between China and the Trump administration.
If we are to live up to the consensus reached by the two leaders and see it come into fruition in the coming year, the lowest common denominator should be peaceful coexistence; the primary goal should be to improve talks and interactions at the "functional level."
Zhāng Tuóshēng 张沱生
Director of the Academic Committee, Grandview Institution
Since taking office, the Biden administration has not only continued Trump's policy of strategic competition with China, but has also moved to repair alliances in order to collectively suppress China.
Under such circumstances, it is no surprise that US-China ties did not improve and stabilize in 2021, as China had hoped. However, unlike the previous years, bilateral cooperation on international issues has resumed to an extent, and dialogue has increased.
It could be argued that the period of free fall of Sino-US relations has reached a deadlock.
Looking ahead to 2022, the Communist Party of China's 20th National Congress and the midterm elections are major domestic political events for both countries that have the potential to introduce new uncertainties to bilateral relations. The semi-decoupling trend between the two economies will continue to evolve, while cross-Strait affairs will linger as the biggest security risk facing both sides.
Furthermore, both China and the US will face greater downward pressure on their economies in 2022, in addition to increasing global challenges. This means that the only way to avoid new setbacks is to improve communication and dialogue, constructively manage differences, and promote cooperation on bilateral areas of convergence and major international and regional hotspots. This, too, should be done in line with the consensus reached in the (virtual) meeting between the two heads of state.
Ní Fēng 倪峰
Director of the Institute of American Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS)
Sino-US relations appear to have calmed down a bit since Biden's arrival compared to previous years. Biden's calm demeanor stems from his pro-establishment leanings and he approaches China relations in a more traditional manner.
But there are two troubling aspects to his peaceful exterior. Firstly, Biden has chosen to pursue strategic competition with China on a systematic level, and secondly, US perceptions of China in general, and the Biden administration in particular, have continued to deteriorate and turn increasingly negative.
Has the Sino-American relationship reached an equilibrium? What is the competition’s current state of play? To better understand our current situation, we should look to history for insight. A study of past historical experiences of competitions between major powers may provide some perspective into how the Sino-US relationship will unfold in the future.
Yuán Péng 袁鹏
President of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR)
Between now and the next 30 years, China and the US will remain in a new historical stage of bilateral relations. We can call it a state of "strategic stalemate." This notion has been recognized by the Americans as well, though they refer to it as a “long game." [Ed: probably a nod to National Security Council China Director, Rush Doshi's 2021 monograph, The Long Game: China's Grand Strategy to Displace American Order.] To put it another way, the two sides have reached a consensus on the future framework of bilateral relations.
The US will continue to suppress China, but it will not be able to bring it down; and while China will withstand American pressure, it will not be able to shake it off completely.
The US will hope to maintain its hegemony and have the upper hand during the strategic stalemate. China, for its part, will strive to realize within this period the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.
China's goal is to build a prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful country so that its people can have a better life. Consequently, China's policy toward the US is based on mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation. This is what it means to form a “new type international relations” and to “build a community with a shared future for mankind.”
[Ed: The "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" is linked to the realization of what Xi Jinping referred to as the "Chinese Dream" during a visit to the National Museum of China's "Road to Rejuvenation" exhibition in November 2012, shortly after becoming CCP leader. Building China into a “prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious and beautiful” country is the second of two centenary goals delineated by Xi following the 18th National Party Congress in 2012. The first goal was achieved in 2021, according to the official narrative, one hundred years after the founding of the CCP, when China abolished absolute poverty and transformed into a "moderately prosperous society in all respects". By 2049, one hundred years after the founding of the People's Republic of China, the second centenary goal will have been achieved.]
Hé Wěiwén 何伟文
Senior Research Fellow, Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, Renmin University of China (RDCY)
In terms of trade, economics, and technology, there has been little change in Sino-US relations in the year since the Biden administration took office.
Biden, unlike Trump, has focused on three priorities (抓手): The first is the politicization of values, particularly through congressional legislation. The second is using allies to encircle China. And third, there is technological repression. Among the three, the latter is a step up from the Trump era.
Biden’s shift to these priorities is motivated by the things he cannot tolerate about China: the fact that China's values and social system are completely different from his own; the idea that such a different China is growing increasingly large and may become even larger than his own country in the future; and the possibility that China's international influence will continue to expand and affect the US-dominated global order.
The Biden administration's strategic guidelines and policies toward China in terms of trade and commerce, science and technology, and other areas are not enough to change the trajectory of bilateral trade and cooperation. But as China aims to maintain a stable economic and financial relationship with the US, it must not overlook its own problems.
Yán Xuétōng 阎学通
Director of the Institute of International Studies (IIS), Tsinghua University, and Secretary-General of the World Peace Forum
It is pointless to argue about whether we are in a competition or if we should be accepting such conceptual frameworks. For the time being, the only certainty is that the deteriorating trend of bilateral relations cannot be reversed.
The competition between China and the US is largely concentrated in cyberspace. Unlike in the past, where competition took place in both maritime and terrestrial domains, contemporary technological developments have resulted in a competition between the natural space (自然空间) and the cyberspace; this is the paradigm shift.
A trend of growing animosity between the peoples of the two countries is one of the major problems in Sino-American relations today.
From ping-pong diplomacy in 1971 to today, there has never been more mutual hatred between the two peoples, and nothing can be done unless this trend changes.
Wáng Jīsī 王缉思
President of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies (IISS), Peking University
The Sino-American strategic rivalry is primarily reflected in a competition for core technologies, scientific research, and talent, and it is focused on three areas: information technology (IT), artificial intelligence (AI), and aerospace.
Using the US as a benchmark, Chinese technology has “many fields where it is catching up, a few fields where it is neck-and-neck, and an extremely small number of fields where it is leading the race.”
In terms of talent, American universities and corporations employ 59% of the world's top AI researchers, while Chinese universities and corporations employ 11%. European universities and corporations employ 10%.
Of the 59% who work for US universities and businesses, 29% have undergraduate degrees from Chinese institutions. Looking ahead, China is gaining a competitive edge and rapid momentum in a few areas, but its disadvantages remain quite significant in most fields.
Hé Yàfēi 何亚非
Former Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs
The international landscape will remain volatile and unstable in the coming year, as geopolitical competition intensifies, the world economy continues its downward spiral, new waves of Covid recur, internet security risks multiply, and climate change becomes more acute.
Given the tremendous global challenges that China and the US are facing, cooperation is the only way forward.
"There are a thousand reasons to make the China-US relationship work, and none to break it," as the saying goes.
[Ed—this is a quote from Xi's remarks to then-President Donald Trump on April 6, 2017, during the former's visit to the Mar-a-Lago estate.]
It makes no difference whether you call it a "cold war" or a "cold peace," both lead to the same place: a dead end. 无论是“冷战”还是“冷和”，都是死胡同。 [Jordan: man’s got bars!]
Cuī Tiānkǎi 崔天凯
Former Ambassador to the United States
It is critical for China and the US to find a way to get along with each other. The US will eventually have no choice but to take a more pragmatic approach to finding a way to cooperate with China, but this will take time.
Our current state of mutual stalemate will last for a long time, and from a historical standpoint, it is most likely only the beginning.
At the end of the day, China and America are still two distinct cultures, civilizations, and even races. China emphasizes equality and mutual respect, which means that neither party should try to fundamentally change the other.
As a result, more cooperation in terms of common interests and less zero-sum bickering should be the norm. The real test for China and the US should be who can better govern their own country.
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