China-US ties need a new guiding strategic framework in competition
Published: Nov 14, 2023 03:03 PM

Signs welcome visitors to the APEC Summit, Monday, Nov. 13, 2023, in San Francisco. Photo:VCG

Signs welcome visitors to the APEC meeting, November 13, 2023, in San Francisco. Photo:VCG

Editor's Note:

The 30th APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting is being held in San Francisco, US, and will last until November 17. The meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden on the sidelines will grab much attention. Sourabh Gupta (Gupta), a senior fellow at the Washington-based Institute for China-America Studies, told Global Times (GT) reporter Qian Jiayin that this meeting is an opportunity for the two leaders to commit to stabilizing ties. The China-US relationship need a new guiding strategic framework to construct a durable architecture of candid but constructive coexistence in this "new normal" era of the China-US strategic competition.

GT: You referred to the upcoming meeting between Chinese and American heads of state during the APEC meeting in San Francisco as a "window of opportunity." What opportunities do you think this APEC meeting will bring for both China and the US?

: The "window of opportunity" that I refer to is the opportunity for the two leaders to commit to stabilizing ties. At the G20 Bali meeting last November, lines of communication were reestablished and working groups formed across a range of issue areas. Looking ahead, the most important take away from the San Francisco meeting could be the further consolidation of ties and the ability to troubleshoot on short notice any major irritant that might arise in 2024, just as the US enters a raucous election season. If the Republicans carry the White House in November 2024, all this progress can dissipate. But on the other hand, if Biden is reelected, the consensus that was consolidated in Bali and the progress that is made in San Francisco might provide a useful jumping-off point in the mid-2020s for Beijing and Washington to construct a durable architecture of candid but constructive coexistence in this "new normal" era of the China-US strategic competition.

GT: Despite China repeatedly stating that it has no intention to challenge or displace the US, the Biden administration's China policy has consistently viewed China as its biggest competitor, from "decoupling"; and "small yard, high fence"; to "de-risk." Will the series of visits by US officials and the San Francisco summit have an impact on US policy toward China?

The Chinese side has indeed sought to provide assurances to the American side that it has no intention to challenge or replace the US in Asia and the world. China does not seek to change the existing international order or interfere in the US' internal affairs. In fairness, Biden has reiterated reassurances too: that the United States does not seek a new cold war; it does not seek to change China's system; the revitalization of its alliances is not directed at China; it does not support "Taiwan independence"; and it does not seek conflict with China. The fundamental problem here is that the two sides just do not believe each other. It is an unfortunate fact, furthermore, that from a structural standpoint, the economic rise of China is no longer seen as an opportunity in Washington, but as an outright threat. In this atmosphere, my fear is that the size of the decoupling-related "yard" will keep on growing even as the "fence" remains just as high.

China-US relations need a new guiding strategic framework; these assurances and principles could furnish that framework for the next quarter century. Over time, the two sides should endeavor to concertedly craft overarching principled understandings on the basis of these reciprocal assurances and embed these understandings in their conduct of relations via good faith actions that maintain an observable symmetry between words and deeds. And self-restraint rather than behavior modification of the other (especially on the part of the US) must, in the interim, become the order of the day.

GT: How will the US presidential election in 2024 affect the China-US relationship? From APEC to the 2024 election, what are your expectations for the China-US relationship during this period?

First of all, in San Francisco, I hope the two sides will not only stabilize their relationship further but that they will also reach a consensus on small "deliverables." These could include a consensus on initiating a high-level dialogue on artificial intelligence, coordinated announcements on climate change policy, especially with COP28 around the corner, the restart of ministerial as well as senior officials' level military-military dialogue channels, and perhaps a breakthrough on the fentanyl issue. The important point to note here is that the San Francisco meeting needs to show tangible "progress" over and above the "process"-related gains that have been made since Bali. That said, the restart and deepening of the communication channels should not be taken lightly. 

2024 will be a volatile year in US domestic politics, and China will likely be hauled over the coals for vested electoral gains by both parties. The best that can be hoped for in this environment is that bilateral ties remain in a holding pattern through 2024 and that the polemics on the campaign trail do not disrupt ties significantly. In this regard, the restart and deepening of these communication channels can serve a useful troubleshooting purpose in 2024 to cope with any political turbulence that might arise. On a related note, I also hold out hope that the Biden administration will find the courage to renew the landmark bilateral science and technology framework agreement (STA) sometime in 2024. We should not rule out additional "deliverables" in 2024 either. But clearly, the risks to ties are far greater than the potential gains in 2024.

GT: As two important major countries in the world, China and the US face various global issues, including climate change. How do you think the US should cooperate with China?

The world is clearly better off with China and the United States cooperating on global issues. With regard to climate change, both countries are making bold investments domestically. The problem is that the two sides are failing to coordinate their actions in ways that could spur accelerated political change at the multilateral level. 

Furthermore, while the Biden administration talks of climate change as an existential threat to all, it is failing to bear its fair share of financing within key multilateral funding mechanisms, be it the Green Climate Fund or the to-be newly created Loss and Damage Fund, created to compensate for historic greenhouse gas emissions responsibility. Even worse is the administration is actively working towards decoupling supply chains for climate-friendly industrial goods, such as electric vehicles and large-capacity batteries, with the intention of obtaining an unfair competitive advantage vis-à-vis China. 

The Biden administration would do well in this regard to hark back to the historic Obama-era US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change of November 2014. In that announcement, President Xi and former President Obama marked climate diplomacy as a new pillar in their bilateral relationship too. The "rowing together" of the two biggest emitters in the same direction, one a developed nation and the other a developing one, was instrumental to the adoption of the Paris Agreement in December 2015. With China able and willing, the Biden administration must do its part to revive that spirit of joint purpose and cooperation. 

GT: China adheres to multilateralism and actively participates in the reform and development of the global governance system. How do you evaluate China's role in APEC and global governance? What wisdom and suggestions do you expect China to provide for further improving global governance?

First of all, APEC deserves far more credit than it usually gets. "That international trade should be abundant, that it should be multilateral, and that it should be non-discriminatory" was the widely expressed sentiment at the Preparatory Committee gathered in October 1946 to frame the charter for the post-war global trading order. APEC has been an exemplary embodiment of this philosophy, championing the idea of "open regionalism" ever since its birth in 1989. The architecture of regional cooperation framed by APEC has always complemented and strengthened - not substituted for - the multilateral rules-based trading order. This architecture helped anchor China's external liberalization program in the 1990s and 2000s, and today, in turn, APEC is being shaped by China's dynamism at the heart of Asia's remarkable regional integrated supply chains. 

Going forward, the hope and expectation are that China will continue to push for trade and investment flows that are abundant, multilateral and non-discriminatory. This will necessitate reform of its own industrial policy and industrial subsidy regime too. And given the US' recent unfortunate turn toward populism and, at times, outright protectionism, the hope and expectation is that China will step up and play a 'pathfinder' role along with the other advanced member economies to help realize the APEC Putrajaya Vision 2040 of making the Asia-Pacific the most dynamic, interconnected and open regional economic area of the world.