Jun 18, 2020 08:37 PM

Wang Jisi: China-U.S. Ties Today Worse Than Soviet-U.S. Relations During Cold War

The Chinese and US national flags are seen during a promotional event in Beijing.
The Chinese and US national flags are seen during a promotional event in Beijing.

Professor Wang Jisi is president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University. This piece is an edited version of a speech Wang delivered at an online panel discussion about the U.S.-China relations in the post-pandemic era.

The discussion was held by the World Peace Forum of Tsinghua University on Wednesday. Other speakers included Kevin Rudd, former Australian prime minister, and Susan Shirk, professor at the University of California, San Diego.

The heat of summer has arrived in Beijing, and so has fever in China-U.S. interaction. I am not sure whether a post-pandemic era will come anytime soon, or whether any single country can declare total victory over the coronavirus. In the last couple of days, there have been dozens of new infections in Beijing. Universities and schools that were just reopened have been locked down again. Covid-19 appears to be defiant against our political instructions.

China and the United States, as the two strongest powers in the world, should join hands in coping with the pandemic. Unfortunately, the reality today is just the opposite — the two countries are blaming each other for spreading the virus. Even worse, both Beijing and Washington see the other side as a “political virus” that damages its legitimacy at home and its reputation in the world. Washington’s policy toward Beijing seems to be aimed at isolating China in the international community and isolating the Communist Party from the population at large. Beijing’s reaction is likely to be a tit-for-tat approach.

I recently published an essay in the Global Times in both Chinese and English. The essay argues that three bottom lines should be upheld in China-U.S. relations. First, the two countries must avoid a war. Second, they must maintain a certain scale of economic relations and technological engagement, and sustain global financial stability. It is necessary for China to hold a certain amount of U.S. Treasury bonds, and China should also respect the status of the U.S. dollar as the world’s main reserve currency. Third, the two countries must maintain humanitarian communications and educational exchanges.

People tend to draw a comparison between China-U.S. ties today and Soviet-U.S. ties in the Cold War period. In my view, China-U.S. ties today may be even worse than the Soviet-U.S. relationship because the latter was at least “cold.” Moscow-Washington relations remained essentially stable for more than four decades despite a few sporadic “hot” moments like the Cuban missile crisis in 1962. Those two superpowers were separate from each other politically, economically, and socially and were actually unable to influence each other’s domestic affairs. The contact between Washington and Moscow was rather superficial and involved little love-hate emotion.

In contrast, the China-U.S. relationship is now suffering from forceful disengagement after steady progress in engaging each other for four decades. The sentimental and material losses caused by the heated quarrels and grudging decoupling between the two sides, in particular during the pandemic period, are sensationally more distressing than the analogy of the Cold War.

One question is whether the China-U.S. rivalry will last longer and cost more on both sides than the Soviet-U.S. competition. Another is whether an unexpected event alongside the current China-U.S. tensions will escalate into a deadly clash.

In the next four months until Nov. 3, it is almost certain that China policy will be an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. Some Chinese analysts are concerned that the Trump camp may create a few incidents in China relations within this time frame, in order to show its determination in deterring China. That could be dangerous.

At this delicate moment, Beijing should not provide more ammunition or excuses to Washington that could trigger a crisis. But China has its own domestic priorities like security in Hong Kong that may override its consideration of relations with the U.S.

A window of opportunity may occur after Nov. 3, if the majority of U.S. voters take side with the political outlook of Kevin Rudd and Susan Shirk. However, I am still struggling with myself on the question whether a Democratic administration will hold a China policy remarkably different from the current administration.

In the post-Cold War era, the two Democratic administrations, Clinton and Obama, carried out a mission-oriented grand strategy, namely to set up missions like economy and security and not to identify any specific rivals among major countries. The Republican administrations tend to carry out a threat-oriented strategy. In the eyes of the second Bush administration, radical Islamism was regarded as the major threat, and China has become the principal rival for the Trump administration. What kind of grand strategy the new leadership in Washington in 2021 is going to follow will be crucial to the China-U.S. relationship in the coming years.

On the Chinese side, two fundamental drivers have shaped China’s strategy toward the United States. The first driver is the material power, in particular economic and military power, China has been accumulating. In 1979, China’s GDP only accounted for 6.8% of America’s. In 2019, China’s GDP reached 66% that of America. The popular perception that U.S. power has been gradually declining whereas China will succeed the U.S. as “number one” in the world sooner or later has diminished the appeal of adhering to Deng Xiaoping’s policy of “keeping a low profile.”

The second driver is the concentration and consolidation of the power of the Communist Party of China that has been challenged by the United States. Ever since the founding of the PRC in 1949, preserving the leadership of the CPC has been China’s central goal in defending its sovereignty and security, and China’s economic growth in large measure has served this objective. With China reaching out to the global economy and for global influence, strategic competition with the U.S. has to go beyond China’s peripheries to cover the whole world.

In conclusion, it is certain to me that China-U.S. relations, with or without the end of the pandemic era, will continue to deteriorate. The pace and scope of the downward spiral are uncertain. I don’t think I can offer any sensible and practical recommendations for stabilizing the bilateral ties. I only hope that people like us participating in this panel discussion will continue to engage and inform each other of where things are moving and get better prepared for future risks.

The views and opinions expressed in this opinion section are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial positions of Caixin Media.

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