Time for US to show goodwill in China ties

By Ren Yuanzhe Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/31 19:28:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Compared with the progressive China-US interactions of 2017, the most critical and consequential relationship of the modern era is pervaded with a strong flavor of pessimism. Many observers foresee the end of the honeymoon period between China and US President Donald Trump, if it existed at all. 

On December 18, 2017, the Trump administration released a new National Security Strategy (NSS), in which China is mentioned 23 times and seen as a "competitor" in the political, economic and military spheres, and a "revisionist power" seeking to "shape a world antithetical to US values and interests." Many analysts perceive it marks a hawkish turn on China.

The Trump administration is gradually showing real teeth. On January 17, the guided missile destroyer the USS Hopper sailed within 22 kilometers of Huangyan Island in the South China Sea. This is the first so-called freedom of navigation operation in months and the first such passage near Huangyan Island. It also took place on the eve of the release of the National Defense Strategy - a document replete with warnings about China. In the document, China and Russia are regarded as the top threats to US national security, which indicates the Trump administration is taking a hard line against the two countries.

Trade is an even bigger challenge for China and the US. Many are still catching up to the reality of the shifting deep forces in US-China economic relations. The Trump administration is putting a lot of emphasis on its launch last year of a "Section 301" investigation into China's intellectual property practices. Trump and his economic adviser Gary Cohn said China had forced US companies to transfer their intellectual property to China as a cost of doing business there.

An increasing proportion of American intellectuals believe 2018 is going to be largely about China. Last week, as influential voices within the US business community warned China that the Trump administration is "deadly serious," a senior White House official said, "The president's advisers are unified on this. Across the board everyone sees China as a major threat that needs to be dealt with."

A survey by the World Economic Forum found that more than nine in 10 experts polled are worried about worsening economic or political confrontations between world powers, amid a trend toward "charismatic strongman politics." In this context, the outlook for this year is quite pessimistic.

It is hard to say that the Trump Administration is making a 180-degree turn against China. Clearly, the Trump team has chosen to stay true to its campaign rhetoric in executing its China policy. These policy positions and ideology are not necessarily revisionist. In fact, they largely align with many long-standing Chinese policies. The US wants a prosperous and secure China that acts as a responsible stakeholder in the world system and a good neighbor in Asia, under the premise that the US maintains the only hegemony in the world. However, as China moves closer to center stage in the world, US elites are becoming more worried about the power transition or power sharing and feel regretful about ushering China into the international system.  

Last week, the US Trade Representative released annual reports on China's and Russia's WTO compliance. The Trump administration became the first to declare that letting China join the WTO in 2001 was a mistake, using a long report to Congress into China's membership to issue a list of complaints about Beijing. That is a remarkable departure from past US policy, which has always argued that bringing China into the global fold had been good for the world.  

Although it is not clear whether or not a broad spectrum of American sentiment toward China has changed significantly, to the degree commensurate with those government documents and provocative actions, we still have enough reason to worry about China-US relations in the short term. What Trump starts now could quickly devolve into full-blown strategic competition, with dire implications for the management of many issues regionally and globally, including the East and South China seas, Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula.

Until now China's reaction toward the Trump administration has been quite restrained, rational and forward-looking. Instead of prioritizing the short-term nationalistic interest, China unswervingly works toward building robust, steady and sound economic relations. Of course, now China has every right and capability to retaliate if the Trump administration even gets tougher on China for its domestic politics.

Due to their shear wealth and influence, US-China strategic interactions may be the most important for the future of the world. Perceptions of security and insecurity matter even more so when nations already perceive their strategic goals to be in competition with, or in opposition to, the goals of others. Without clear-eyed understanding from each side, strategic interactions between China and the US appear likely to end in confrontation, which would be far more severe than the Cold War between the US and the USSR of the last century.

Last year, China and the US successfully realized two summits and nine phone calls were made between the two leaders, which injected big incentives and stimulus amid big uncertainty over bilateral relations. At present, we should embrace more positive interactions and reinforce strategic trust, rather than emphasizing strategic competition. In this sense, US Defense Secretary James Mattis' first official visit to China in the spring is very critical. It is time for the US to show some true goodwill.

The author is an associate professor, Department of Diplomacy and Foreign Affairs Management, China Foreign Affairs University and a research fellow at the Collaborative Innovation Center for Territorial Sovereignty and Maritime Rights. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn



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