A Win-win Path for China-US Relations

Tao Wenzhao
Recently, the differences between China and the US on the South China Sea issue are acute, which creates the impression that bilateral relations are going downward. The debate on China policy is still going on in America. Some hold that the US policy to engage China since the 1972 visit by President Nixon has failed; that “China represents and will remain the most significant competitor to the United States for decades to come”; and that the US should reduce its cooperation with and contain, balance against and fend off China still further. Some Chinese scholars maintain that China-US relations have entered a “new normal” which highlights competition. But my view is different. I maintain that although China-US relations have undergone some changes, the fundamental is sound and cooperation remains the mainstay.


The two economies are becoming increasingly interdependent. In 2015, bilateral trade approached US$560 billion. Even with sluggish global trade, China overtook Canada as the largest trading partner of the US for the first time. And China remains the largest overseas creditor of the US. Financial markets of the two countries interact frequently and are highly correlative. Economically, China’s weight to the US is increasing. China is not only the production center of transnational companies of America, but also an important market for many American businesses. General Motors’ car sales in China have already exceeded its domestic sales. Iphone is both assembled and sold in China, as China has become its largest market. Such changes in China-US business relations will not only benefit American businesses, but also Chinese consumers. China’s investment in the US also skyrockets, hitting a record high of US$15 billion last year, covering multiple industries such as manufacturing, real estate and entertainment. Now both countries are focusing on domestic matters, especially economy. China aims at both stable growth and economic restructuring, while the US faces daunting tasks such as revitalizing manufacturing, creating jobs and cutting fiscal deficits. The two countries should help each other grow and transform the economy, because helping the other is helping oneself and should either side fail, the other will likely be made the scapegoat. The US will probably accuse China of manipulating the exchange rate and engaging in unfair trade, whereas China may accuse the US of denying its market economy status, adopting anti-dumping and anti-subsidy policy against it, etc. However, only cooperation brings win-win outcomes. This is most evident in business relations.

In terms of security, it is equally true. In July 2015, after marathon negotiations between the “P5+1” (five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany) and Iran, especially intensive negotiations in the recent three years, a comprehensive deal on the Iranian nuclear issue was sealed, accomplishing “a mission impossible”. This is a significant event in that it champions the international nuclear non-proliferation regime and averts a nuclear race in the Middle East or even the ominous prospects of a regional war. China, the US and the international community collaborated sufficiently on this issue. The Iranian nuclear issue has been high on the agenda during the summit and high-level meetings as well as strategic and economic dialogues in recent years. By promoting peace talks, China has implemented its due international responsibilities and obligations. On the one hand, it is committed to resolving this issue through diplomatic and political means; on the other hand, it maintains that Iran should respond to the concern of the international community. So on this issue, China has always been a contributor to progress and talks. China participated in the whole process of the negotiations on the comprehensive deal in a constructive manner, providing useful solutions and ideas of such thorny issues as uranium enrichment and removal of sanctions. After the comprehensive deal was reached, China worked actively with all parties to prepare for its implementation. In particular, China contributed to the signing of the official document and memorandum of understanding on the redesign of the Arak heavy water reactor through effective cooperation with the US, Iran and other parties, thus paving the ground for the implementation of the deal. At the Nuclear Security Summit in early April this year, President Xi Jinping put forth important propositions on establishing an international nuclear security system, stressing that China has kept its promise on nuclear security and fulfilled its international obligations and political commitments. On many other security issues such as dismantlement of chemical weapons in Syria and peace and national reconciliation of Afghanistan, China-US cooperation is instrumental to regional stability.

The Obama administration has emphasized time and again the importance of joint response by the two countries to global challenges. A compelling example of this is the Paris Agreement signed on the 2016 International Mother Earth Day (22 April). Climate change is a common challenge for mankind. The Green New Deal is a banner of the Obama administration. Over the years, climate change and energy cooperation has been a highlight in China-US relations, and fruitful outcomes have been reached in successive strategic and economic dialogues. The “night meeting at Yingtai” in November 2014 during President Obama’s visit to China and the “autumn talk at the White House” during President Xi’s visit to the US in 2015 have witnessed two joint statements on climate change by the two heads of state and their solemn commitment to the international community. They show that China and the US, as large energy consumers and greenhouse gas emitters, are conscious of their international responsibilities and obligations and have set an example for the international community in establishing a new international mechanism. China-US cooperation is key to the international efforts which culminated in the success of the Paris Conference in November 2015. When the two heads of state met again in late March this year, a new joint statement was announced which identified domestic efforts for the early accession to the Paris Agreement and its full implementation. The joint efforts by China and the US on climate change will become a lasting legacy for their partnership. It is a vivid example of how win-win cooperation at the bilateral level contributes to that at the global level and the significance of bilateral cooperation to global governance. As President Xi Jinping observed, if China and the United States work together, we could achieve many major undertakings conducive to both countries and the world.


In the debates on China-US relations in recent years, the “Thucydides Trap” is an unavoidable topic. Some American scholars, citing examples from the history of international relations in which emerging powers have challenged established powers leading ultimately to conflicts and wars, deem that China and the US are destined to fall into this trap. Some Chinese scholars doubt China’s ability to rise in the current international system and argue that the strategic showdown between the two countries is inevitable. From my point of view, the key lies in understanding China’s relationship with the international system.

In its reform and opening-up over the past three decades and more, China has undergone two stages: changing itself to adapt to the world and changing itself to influence the world. Till early this century, China’s reform and opening-up had basically been integrating itself into the international community. China’s slogan is to “connect with the international community”, which means changing itself to adapt to the world and taking advantage of the existing international system to serve its modernization. In the process of accession into the World Trade Organization (WTO), relevant departments of China readjusted or abolished thousands of major and minor policies and regulations that violated WTO rules. The US did not shut China out of the international community. After the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1979, Mr. Deng Xiaoping made an immediate historic visit to the US, a high-profile event which signaled China’s start of integration into the international community. In March and September 1980, China resumed its membership of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank respectively and began its effective cooperation with these two international financial organizations. It was significant for the US that China, a country of 1.3 billion people, became a full member of the international community, because it restored integrity and legitimacy, which had been absent in the previous thirty years, to the US-led international system, and thus maximized, in a certain sense, the legitimacy of American dominance.

China is the beneficiary of the current international system which basically ensures a relatively stable security environment and a sound economic environment for China’s modernization. China is also the champion, facilitator and contributor of this system. A typical example of China’s efforts to safeguard the current international order is that it champions the nuclear non-proliferation regime. In May 1998, India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests successively, which was likely to spark a nuclear race on the South Asian Subcontinent and undermine the international arms control system. China and the US reacted jointly and swiftly, coordinating their policy positions and initiating a meeting of foreign ministers of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (on 4 June). The joint communiqué issued by the five permanent members of the Security Council on the nuclear tests in South Asia was adopted as Resolution 1172 of the Security Council, a guidance document for subsequent South Asian issues. China-US cooperation on Indian and Pakistani nuclear issues contributed to the international efforts to effectively contain nuclear races in South Asia and safeguard regional peace. Another example is the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula. China played triple roles as the host, the participant and the mediator between the US and the DPRK, which was widely acclaimed by the international community. President Bush and US senior officials expressed their compliments and appreciation time and again for the role China had played. Given the inherent complexity of this issue, it only becomes thornier now. Yet, China, the US and other countries are still committed to the Joint Statement reached by relevant parties on 19 September 2005 and peaceful settlement of this issue through negotiation.

China’s development is in itself a major contribution to the realization of the UN Millennium Development Goals and the world economy. As a responsible major country, China actively tackled the East Asian financial crisis in 1998 and the world financial crisis in 2008 together with the international community. Even in the most difficult year of the crisis, China contributed as high as 50% to world economic growth. Although China’s growth moderates now, it still contributes 25%.

In this century, China’s influence on international affairs is growing in tandem with its national strength, and China has become an important variable bearing on world politics and economy. Policy-makers in the US have noted such changes and the immense potential of China, but they are not so sure about how China will use its clout. In September 2005, then Deputy Secretary of State Zoellick put forward the concept that China and the US were “stakeholders” in the international system. Dr. Kissinger commented that, “Zoellick’s speech amounted to an invitation to China as a privileged member and shaper of the international system”. China accepted this concept. When President Hu Jintao visited America in April 2006, he remarked that China and the US were not only stakeholders, but also constructive partners.

The Chinese side frankly points out that there are inequitable and unreasonable elements in existing international system, in particular, inequity towards developing countries. As the world evolves, the international system should evolve accordingly to adapt to the changes of the world. However, China does not seek to overturn the current system or set up another system to challenge it; rather, it seeks to work with the international community to reform, replenish and improve the current system. By initiating the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and putting forward the Belt and Road Initiative, China is fulfilling its international obligations as a responsible major country, providing the international community with public goods as well as supplementing and improving the current system. China will neither topple it nor start all over again. China’s initiatives and the current system are complementary and mutually beneficial instead of contradictory, confrontational or mutually exclusive.


China-US relations do witness a lot of frictions, differences and competition. Actually, in the last thirty years and more since the establishment of diplomatic relations, differences existed all the time. It is only that they vary in different periods, such as the three “T” issues (Taiwan, Tibet and textile), human rights, the most-favored-nation status, intellectual property rights, trade deficits, so on and so forth. These were once acute problems in certain periods, let alone the blow on bilateral relations brought by the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and the plane crash which led to the death of Pilot Wang Wei. However, the mainstay of China-US relations is in constant progress: some problems are solved, some made less serious, and some shelved. It is fair to say that in the past thirty years and more, the two countries have gained a wealth of experience in handling differences and controlling crises. Take the South China Sea issue, the hottest one at present, as an example. Sometimes, it is hyped up to the extent that some media views hold that the South China Sea is the most dangerous area in the world, but actually, it is not that serious. First, the South China Sea issue is not the entirety of China-US relations. The two countries are developing their relations in full swing, and the weight of this issue in bilateral relations should be viewed in an objective light. Cooperation should not be taken for granted, nor should differences be exaggerated, still less overstatement or hype. This issue is not the entirety of the relations between claimants either. Business relations between China and Viet Nam and between China and the Philippines are still growing rapidly. For instance, trade between China and the Philippines increased from US$27.7 billion in 2010 to US$43 billion in 2015, which fully testifies to their shared interests. So the South China Sea issue should not be exaggerated. Second, starkly different from regions where wars and turbulence are frequent, this is a region of peace, stability and vitality where commercial navigation and freedom of overflight are guaranteed. Besides, economy of surrounding countries is burgeoning, making it one of the fastest-growing regions in the world. Third, although the positions of claimants differ considerably, none of them is willing to resort to force and all stand for peaceful resolution of disputes. Fourth, neither China nor the US wishes to fight over the South China Sea issue. China would not want to go to war with the US, because its policy of peaceful development does not allow. Does the US want a war? Not necessarily, because it has already waged three wars since this century in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, but none of them solves the problem. Instead, the Middle East and North Africa have been thrown into disorder and long-standing, endless turbulence. The US has also paid a huge price in personnel and resources and become debt-ridden. The US intends to contain China through the South China Sea issue, demonstrate its presence in the region, in particular military presence, and dominance in regional affairs to honor its commitments to its allies and friends. Yet, it cannot afford head-on confrontation with China.

The difference between China and the US on this issue is controllable. At present, communication between the two countries from the summit meetings all the way down is sound. In the recent three or four years in particular, military-to-military relations are warmer than any time since the Cold War. The two sides established the “notification of major military activities confidence building measures mechanism” and “the rules of behavior for safety of air and maritime encounters”. All of these efforts indicate the willingness of both sides to avoid military conflicts. This said, new ways also need to be explored to manage this difference in a better and more constructive manner.

One area that is easily overlooked is the remarkable development in cultural and people-to-people exchange and cooperation since the establishment of the China-US High-Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange mechanism by the two governments in November 2009. Now, tens of thousands of people fly across the Pacific each day. The number of Chinese students in America exceeds that of any other country, accounting for one third of the total. People-to-people exchange has facilitated the understanding between the two countries. According to the 2016 US-China Public Perceptions Snapshot Survey recently released by the Committee of 100, an elite organization of Chinese Americans based in the US, 63% of the interviewees say China is a very important partner to the US and 57% of Americans  say they have a favorable impression of China, both reaching a historic high since 2007. Yet, 75% of the interviewees call China a serious or potential economic and military threat. This shows the new type of major-country relationship between China and the US is supported by the public, albeit still hindered by the lack of trust. To overcome this, the two countries must step up cooperation to achieve win-win results.

China-US relations have always been driven by interests. What is different is that cooperation is now developing in width and depth, interdependence is growing, and the two peoples are more approachable to and dependent upon each other in their daily lives. The win-win cooperation between China and the US is bound to bring win-win cooperation of the international community.


The US has been the dominator of the international system since the end of World War II and the only superpower since the end of the Cold War. China’s development makes the US believe that it is being chased and will be surpassed by China. In his State of the Union Address in January 2011, President Obama called this “our generation’s Sputnik moment”. Such anxiety is only prevalent in the US now.

To address this anxiety, avoid strategic miscalculation, promote bilateral cooperation across the board, and reign differences and competition within the sound range, President Xi put forward the proposal for building a new type of major-country relationship to President Obama and both sides reached important agreement on this at the Sunnylands meeting in California in June 2013. President Xi summarized this relationship as: non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation. The first bottom line is that if conflicts and confrontation break out between China and the US, they will bring unbearable catastrophe to these two major countries and the whole world. To this, both countries agree. And to avoid this, China and the US must respect each other’s core interests and major concerns, and at the minimum extent, not challenge them. As for win-win cooperation, this is both the pathway to and outcome of this new type of major-country relationship. As stated above, the mainstay of bilateral relations in the past thirty years and more was win-win cooperation, from which both countries gained enormously. Win-win cooperation was and remains to be the sheer right choice of China-US relations.

For China, cooperation with the US is a strategic choice rather than tactic consideration. Mr. Deng Xiaoping, when mapping China’s modernization path, considered US cooperation an inherent step and a stable and positive bilateral relationship the primary external condition for a strong and prosperous China. After more than thirty years of development, a lot has changed. Yet, there has been no substantial change to such strategic thinking. China’s rise is not aimed at replacing the US as the world’s superpower. Though China’s strength has aggrandized, the absolute gap between China and the US remains huge. For China, the task of development remains daunting. It will stay at the primary stage of socialism for a long time to come. China’s peaceful development is both its solemn commitment to the international community and the call of the time. China has neither the capacity nor the intention to challenge America’s global pre-eminency. In fact, no country is capable of doing so for the time being.

It is a plain fact that China-US relations are not decided by single-sided efforts, but rather attitudes of both sides. As some American scholars observe, if the US considers China a rival, it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The US should change its mindset and come to the realization that China’s rise is a historic trend necessitated by its own long-term development as well as economic globalization and multi-polarity in international politics. No one could stop this. China and the US need to adapt to, fit into and accommodate each other, so that the giant ship of China-US relations always stays on the course of a new type of major-country relationship.