China-US Relations Remain the Most Important Bilateral Relationship

By Li Junru

Disruption ofdialogues between China and the US is very dangerous, as this relationship continues to be the most important bilateral relationship in the world. 

I. The downturn of China-US relations must be curbed.

A stable China-US relationship did not come by easily. It is easy to break apart, and difficult to restore. Despite twists and turns, the two countries have got along quite well since the normalization of diplomatic ties.  

In the past few years, however,the political landscape in Washington has changed together with its China policy, resulting in increased bickering and worsening of relations between the two countries since the US launched the trade war against China. The rapid downturn of China-US relations have become a serious concern for people both in China and the US and around the world. When the international community asks “what is going onwith the world” and “what shall we do about it”, they also have the current China-US relations in mind.

China is the largest developing country in the world, and the US is the world’s largest developed country. They both have important global influence. As the two largest economies, they are both closely engaged with the rest of the world economically. Politically they are both permanent members of the UN Security Council. These factors have made China-US relations the most important bilateral relationship in the world in which every issue has an overall strategic implication. The cost for failure in curbing the current deterioration of relations will be very high. The friendship between the two peoples will be undermined; the international community will have to face a much grim prospect and even an unstable world. And it will take quite some time to undo the harms it has inflicted on the US, China and the entire world.

II. China-US relations should feature cooperation instead of confrontation.

Will China and the US benefit from mutual cooperation or confrontation? This is the question that one needs to answer in addressing the downward spiral of China-US relations. We in China have come to the conclusion that cooperation is better than confrontation.

Looking back, China fought side by side with the US in winning the war against Fascism. A couple of years ago, I participated in the filming of a documentary about the true story of how Lt. Donald W. Kerr, a US war pilot, was rescued by guerrillas led by the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) in Guangdong Province. Lt. Kerr parachuted after his jet was shot by the Japanese army over Hong Kong. He was found by the guerrillas who risked their lives to send him back to the US military base in Guilin. Mr. Kerr recorded his experience in his diary and kept five cartoon pictures he drew along the way. In 2005 his second son David Kerr came to work for a company based in Shenzhen where he found the guerrilla member who rescued his father. It is a true and heart-warming story that not only testifies to the friendship between our two peoples, but also shows that the troops led by the CPC and the US can work together. It is true that there were times of confrontation between the two countries in the past, including direct clash in the Korean War in the 1950s and indirect stand-off during China’s civil war between theChinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the US-backed Kuomintang (KMT) troops as well as the Vietnam War. But did those wars help the US in any way? The answer is no. It proves that only cooperation benefits both countries.

Over the past 40 years since China launched the reform and opening-up program, China and the US have been working together in the spirit of win-win cooperation. This is clearly in the interests of both countries, and also beneficial to world peace.It has been once and again proved that disagreement between the two countries on issues arising from different histories, cultures and social systems can be managed and should not stand in way oftheir peaceful coexistence and common development. In his congratulatory message to the US President-electJoe Biden on November 25, Chinese President Xi Jinping emphasized that a healthy and stable development of China-US relations not only serves the fundamental interests of the two peoples, but also meets the common expectation of the international community. He expressed the hope that both countries will uphold the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, focus on cooperation, manage differences, advance the healthy and stable development of China-US ties, and join hands with other countries and the international community to promote the noble cause of world peace and development.

The nature of China-US relationship is non-confrontational. It should feature peace instead of “competition”. In recent years, “competition” has become the most frequently cited word inpredicting where this relationship is heading, economically in particular. The market economy, in essence, is about competition. As most of the countries are market economies, competition is a natural part of their relations. But if onewidens the scope of competition from the economic realm to all areas, and label them with “strategic competition”, or even approach the relationship from a competitor’s point of view alone, it will affect the overall growth of state-to-state relations and gradually push countries into confrontation. Even in the economic field, China-US relations are not all about competition, as the two economies are in many ways complementary to each other. Cooperation is the best choice for both.

III. The peaceful rise and national rejuvenation of China will, instead ofsqueezing the international space of the US, expand it through win-win cooperation.

Those who stand for containing China inside the US and some other countries, as we have noticed, are followers of the “theory of limitedinternational space” in international relations. They argue that, given the limited size of the international space, more space occupied by one major power means less space left for others, and the space taken up by an established power may shrink as it may have to be shared or partially taken away by an emerging power. The zero-sum game emphasized by realpolitik in international relations, the much-talked Thucydides Trap, various versions of the “China threat”theories and the act of quitting international organizations and treaties can all be traced to the “theory of limitedinternational space”. It underlies rising clamour in support of these arguments in recent years in the context of China’s rapid development. But the “theory of limitedinternational space” itself is a pseudo-proposition.

The Big Bang Theory of natural scienceillustrates that space is anything but limited. Due to interaction of particles, the universe is forever expanding. The same is true for the worldwhere we live and relate to each other. Since theIndustrial Revolution, both the industrialized world and the global market have kept expanding. Industrialization started in European countries each with a population of tens of millions. It was later embraced by the US and the Soviet Union whose population were about several hundred million. Then it swept across countries like China and India that were home to over 1 billion people. The size of the world market was a mere 1.3 billion people before 1978 when China launched its reform and opening-up program. It was doubled when the market economy was established in China. Another 50 to 60 million people have entered the market in recent years as the country forges ahead in poverty alleviation. With the expansion of the global market, the space for other elements of international relations have become much wider too. It well proves that the “theory of limited international space” is a fallacy and that international space has kept growing instead of being limited.

The same is true for China-US relations. The peaceful rise of China has enlarged the US international space rather than squeezing it. American entrepreneurs have flocked into the Chinese market since the start of the reform and opening-up forit represents half ofthe global market. The problems that have occured in the US economy have been the result of its own economic policies and not the fast growth of the Chinese economy. There are voices in the US trumpeting for unilateralism and protectionism andcalling for decoupling with China in the economic, technological and financial fields. Such thinking is far from realistic. Even if the decoupling takes place, will the USenjoy a larger international space and have its own interests served? Definitely not. Therefore, only when China and the US refrain from confrontation, manage well their differences and strengthen cooperation can there be momentum for international space to further expand.

IV. The top priority for China and the US is to restart dialogue and draw a red line on issues of their respective core interests.

To steer China-US relationsaway from deterioration back to the right track of development, an early resumption of dialogueis a must. We hope that the new US Administration willtake into consideration the fundamental and long-term interests of the two peoples when handlingsuch key issues as its relations with China.

First, a list of topics for the dialogue should be made as soon as possible. Based on the experiences in the past few years, it should cover at least 12 areas: Covid-19, climate change, commerce and trade, studentsexchanges, media coverage and cultural exchange, cooperation in science and technology, IPR protection, issues related to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet andXinjiang, and military cooperation.

Second, a red line must be drawn as soon as possible on issues concerning the core interests of both sides, andan emergency crisis management mechanism must be in place.

In brief, complex as they may have been, China-US relations remain the most important bilateral relationship in the world and must be treated with utmost seriousness.

Li Junru is Executive Vice Chairman of China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy and Former Vice President of the Party School of the Central Committe of the Communist Party of China.