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July 10, 2019

Responding To: The Future of U.S.-China Relations: Friend or Foe?

U.S.-China Tensions are Bad for Everyone

Chang Fan

Since January 1979, U.S.-China relations have witnessed enormous levels of both positive and negative changes, with most of these changes resolving themselves in an agreement based on mutual understanding. However, 40 years after the establishment of diplomatic ties, the United States and China are currently experiencing the most intimidating challenge in their bilateral relations. To be more precise, U.S.-China interactions are clearly worsening in the long run, with increasingly negative consequences for all global actors. Their relationship is transforming itself, shifting from one that is beneficial overall, to a set of controversial connections that are progressively hostile and mutually damaging. The beliefs, mutual trust and willingness for mutual understanding that held U.S.-China bilateral relations together over the past 40 years are now giving way to excessive pessimism, endless suspicion, and a zero-sum mindset, all of which are appearing more and more.

The political plight faced today is rooted deeply in the different policy assumptions of the two countries. For the United States, a fundamental assumption of Chinese behavior is that by introducing market capitalism and gradually liberalizing its politics and culture, China would become more Western. According to Clinton's Speech on the China Trade Bill, the agreement made in the W.T.O. agreement would move China in the right direction and advance the goals America has worked for in China over the past three decades. By joining the W.T.O., China is not simply agreeing to import more U.S. products; it is agreeing to import one of democracy’s most cherished values: economic freedom.” However, when China proved to be less pliable than anyone anticipated, American observers started to question the virtues of the engagement.

However, from the Opium War to the establishment of PRC, China has endured a “Century of Humiliation”, which mainly caused by Western countries. Therefore, a sense of resentment toward the West became fully ensconced in China. There was little doubt that China barely trusted an international order established and managed by western countries, even though they benefited from them considerably too. As the Chinese economy continued to not only grow but rapidly so, Beijing could no longer remain satisfied with the current global system. It could no longer sit silently in the passenger seat, expecting a smooth ride; instead, the country looked to discuss and even decide which direction the train should and will go in. With its Belt and Road Initiative, alternative international institutions, and efforts to become a global leader in the technology field, China has gained enough power to control the wheel – as opposed to simply sitting in the back seat. From here then, Beijing began to use its newly-built power to restructure the system of the world.

Beijing’s ambition made Washington feel betrayed and disillusioned. Therefore, in contrast to its predecessors, Donald Trump’s National Security Strategy described China as a “revisionist” power that wanted to “use technology and information to accelerate these con-tests in order to shift regional balances of power in their favor.” This strategy clearly indicated the threat of hostility from Washington, assertively announcing that wherever China is active, the United States will push it back.

On the one hand, the foreign-policy elite in the United States have shifted away from being moderately inclined people who were generally positive about U.S.-China relations to, on the other hand, all becoming somewhat more hawkish. So far, there are no U.S. public intellectuals, no matter whether they are liberal or conservative, standing up for Huawei against Trump or for the values they claim to hold so dearly: due process, fair competition, and/or the free market. Now they only seem to agree on one thing: containing China. This change in the elite consensus has now extended further: reaching Congress. The Taiwan Assurance Act, which almost tore the Three Joint Communiques apart unilaterally, was passed with 414 votes in favor, 0 against and 17 abstentions.

A complete break-down in U.S.-China relations is not inevitable. However, with bilateral competition sharpening over markets, resources, and geopolitical advantage—Beijing and Washington may succumb to a toleration of irreconcilable differences in the future.

Even if the conflict doesn’t lead to an unthinkable world-war, a sharp downturn in U.S.-China relations could mean a global economic crisis, the unraveling of the multilateral order, the failure of the last best effort to stop climate change—or a combination of all three possibilities. The two largest economies in the world have different views on how it should be structured. If they can’t reach agreement on trade, the environment, and global regulations, the breakdown in U.S.-China relations will devastate what remains of the international community.

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