The future prospects of China-US relations


Despite twists and turns, the China-US relationship has grown from estrangement to deepening engagement in past 35 years. The strategic significance and influence of the Sino-US relations on the rest of the world is becoming increasingly obvious. Where is the relationship headed in 2014?

Seeking more trust, respect and cooperation

Experts have put forward a principle based on mutual trust and respect: China and the US should make clear their strategic goals to each other, pre-set an ultimate demarcation line and formulate their own foreign policy accordingly so that both of them can follow the rules and exercise self-restraint.

In January 1979, Deng Xiaoping visited the US in the capacity of Chinese vice premier. He left a deep impression on the American people by putting on a cowboy hat during an equestrian rodeo. Jeffrey Wasserstrom, Chinese history professor from the University of California, Irvine, said Deng’s act meant he was determined to bring China onto the world stage at that time.

Chinese ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai studied in the US as an overseas student 27 years ago. “The Chinese community didn’t have as loud a voice as they have today,” he recalled. Cui pointed out that China and the US should improve mutual confidence, expand cooperation and strengthen coordination in the process of establishing a new type of great power relationship.

Cui thinks that China and the US will have more common interests and work together on more issues as long as the two countries keep disagreements under control and deal with sensitive issues properly. David Firestein, vice president of the East West Institute, indicated it is normal that disagreements exist between great powers like China and the US, but the relations between the two great powers are developing steadily and positively. In his State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama mentioned “China” twice, which suggests China has become a part of the US domestic affairs. China is no longer a remote country.

Stephen A. Orlins, president of the National Committee on US-China Relations, said the implementation of the Resolution of the Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee will, to a large extent, determine the future of the Sino-US relations. Michael Green, vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that China and the US should establish a relationship of mutual trust and respect through various communication mechanisms.

China has proposed a new type of great power relationship and Chinese President Xi Jinping has sent out the signal for more cooperation between China and the US. However, a recent report jointly released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and China Strategic Cultural Promotion Association shows that only 26% of the US public and one-third of the US elite think that the US can trust China; and the figures on the Chinese side are even lower. David M. Lampton, dean of faculty and director of China Studies, Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, said that the two countries only focus on what they hope the other party should do instead of what they should do themselves.

Challenges in a new era

The development of the Sino-US relations will meet both challenges and difficulties in 2014, according to Zhang Jian, a scholar from Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.

US President Barack Obama is scheduled to pay visits to a number of Asian countries in April, which are seen as “reparative visits” after the government shutdown in 2013. Michael Green indicated that Obama is unlikely to visit China during his Asian tour. Even if he cannot visit China in April, experts say he is expected to come to China and attend the APEC Summit which is going to be held in Beijing in autumn. In addition, the 2014 Nuclear Security Summit to be held in the Netherlands, G20 Summit in Australia and the East Asia Summit in Burma will also be good opportunities for Chinese and US officials to meet and communicate.

However, Michael Green pointed out the North Korean nuclear issue, the dispute on the East China Sea between China and Japan and the US mid-term elections may act as impediments to the progress of the Sino-US relations. It cannot be denied that issues involving Taiwan and Tibet and other economic relationships will also act as impediments to the progress of the Sino-US relations. What’s more, there is not much optimism around the world about the complex situation in the Asia-Pacific Region.  

Most experts predict the China-Japan relations will worsen in 2014. Dialogue is impossible in the current hostile environment. But the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands can only be settled through an effective dialogue mechanism with the proper participation of the US. As far as the North Korean nuclear issue is concerned, China will put more pressure on North Korea, but won’t directly require it to abort its nuclear program.  

Some Experts say the US is friendly toward China only when it needs China’s immediate help. The consideration of both current and long-term interests sways the US attitude toward China, which just reflects the complexity of the Sino-US relationship. Michael Green said he is more worried about the Sino-US relations than ever before. On the one hand, Obama’s China policy is still wavering; on the other hand, Chinese policy is also becoming tougher with growing comprehensive national strength. He said China’s focus on the maintenance of the “core interests” and development of military forces adds to the instability of Asia. Experts say Xi adopts a more traditional style of leadership and governance which is tougher on domestic politics. Despite that, other countries hope China can be “manageable” with more US participation in Asian affairs. The Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TTP) is seen as a good experimental project.

At a recent press conference of the National Press Club, experts from different backgrounds opposed the idea that a rising power can alarm an established power to such an extent that war is inevitable. They agreed that the disagreements between China and the US can be solved by peaceful methods. The Sino-US relations have been developing under pressure, which is caused by some kind of “uncertainty.” But experts say the two countries can reduce the uncertainty to a minimal level through meaningful and effective mechanisms.

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