Why the US has once again requested a phone call between Chinese and US heads of state
Published: Apr 03, 2024 09:52 PM
China US Photo: IC

China US Photo: IC

There are many people who hold a pessimistic view toward ties between China and the US, with countless analyses focusing on conflicts and confrontations between the two. Therefore, in recent years, the most positive development in China-US relations can be attributed to the meetings and phone calls between the leaders of both countries. The communication between the heads of state has played a crucial role in maintaining stability and fostering confidence in the China-US relationship.

The phone call between the Chinese and US leaders on Tuesday is a prime example of this positive development. It has reinforced the strategic assessment that China-US ties have reached a certain level of stability over the past period of time. Despite the existence of significant differences, both sides are hopeful that their relations can be stabilized and improved, at the very least to a plausible level. Both sides hope to prevent a downward spiral.

During this call, the two sides confirmed that US Secretary of the Treasury Janet Yellen and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit China shortly. In addition to the in-depth communication between the two heads of state, this phone call also seemed to be an "opening ceremony" for the high-level exchange of visits between the two countries this year.
This call took place before the scheduled meeting of leaders of the US, Japan and the Philippines in Washington, and before the new leader of China’s Taiwan region, Lai Ching-te, takes office on May 20. Taiwan and the South China Sea are the areas where China and the US compete the most in the field of military security. In addition, the US just revised its semiconductor export regulations last week. This is at least the third time that the US has introduced semiconductor export restrictions in about a year and a half. Each time it becomes more stringent, targeting China. 

During the call, Xi said “China is not going to sit on its hands,” and “China is not going to sit back and watch.” He was talking about the Taiwan question and US suppression of China’s high-tech development. 

The frictions between China and the US, including those regarding the Taiwan question, the South China Sea issue, Chinese high-tech companies being sanctioned by the US, and the US concern over China’s continued development of economic and trade relations with Russia, have strong potential to escalate and worsen China-US relations. Therefore, it’s understandable that there are people in both countries and around the world who are very pessimistic about the bilateral relationship. But what’s the actual situation? 

This phone call was requested by the US side. The US is the attacker in China-US relations. In the all-out trade war in 2018 and subsequent technology war, the US was the instigator, while China was the defender. But now, it is the US that is vigorously calling for “responsibly managing the relationship” to prevent it from turning into conflict. Moreover, Washington is very active in engaging in mutual high-level visits, suggesting that the US is frightened by China's huge size and power, and is apprehensive about the strategic collision between the two sides.

The US wants to curb China's rising capabilities, but American society is far from ready to turn China into a traditional enemy in a full-scale conflict. China and the US still have huge trade relations and intertwined mutual interests. A complete separation is bound to be painful. On the other hand, escalating hostility with a nuclear power over the other's core interests creates terrible uncertainties. The US has established China as its No.1 strategic competitor, but they have no idea how to "compete" with China, so they can only keep testing and "exploring."

This is a process of constant interaction with China. As a force that has somewhat made the US fearful, how China shapes the direction of China-US relations through interaction has become very critical. The US always takes the initiative to dialogue and communicate with China, not only because they are worried that their "excessive competition" may lead to uncontrollable consequences, but also because they ask China for many things. 

This year is an election year in the US. The Biden administration needs to be "tough on China" to compete with Donald Trump's tough stance; but on the other hand, it must maintain the stability of the current level of economic and trade relations between the two countries. We cannot afford to further worsen China-US relations, or even have a direct military conflict. That would be a huge excuse for Trump to accuse the Biden administration of being incompetent in handling relations with China. In addition, on other international issues including the Russia-Ukraine war, the Biden administration wants to stabilize China's attitude and prevent China from using its own power to make the US look bad.

Therefore, although the US continues to put pressure on China in the fields of high technology and geopolitics, the US actually has many weaknesses and China has a lot of room for strategic initiative. Washington wants more from China than we want from the US. Judging from the readouts over the call from both sides, the number of problems that Chinese leaders hope both countries to pay attention to is less than the number of problems US leaders hope that China should cooperate to solve. This is a practical pattern.

Biden reiterated that the US does not seek a new cold war, its objective is not to change China’s system, its alliances are not targeted against China, the US does not support “Taiwan independence,” and the US does not seek conflict with China. The US often fails to fulfill its commitments in its actions, it knows that it cannot break up with China on these issues that China insists on the most.

As I said before, Washington does not know exactly how to deal with China, its top strategic competitor that is both a nuclear power and a super economy. However, when they want to repeatedly tell China and the West that competition cannot be turned into confrontation, it shows that they are willing to avoid all-out strategic hostility and conflict with China despite constant pressure. In other words, they do not want to turn China into an open and real enemy.
For China, we also have no experience in such complex interactions with the US. While we still have room for strategic initiative, stability is undoubtedly one of the most important principles. We probably need to do our best to control the direction of China-US interaction and guide it in a direction that is conducive to China's development and does not further worsen China's strategic environment. 

We must mobilize all our wisdom, demonstrate strategic optimism and endurance, and push Washington's hesitation to a positive direction. We probably need to be more confident that we have the resources and capabilities to realize this kind of initiative. To be honest, it is difficult to define China and the US in the traditional sense of “friend or foe." Who and what the two countries are to each other depends on the results of a series of "explorations" and interactions. 
In short, we must shape China-US relations in a positive direction, which is not inconsistent with our courage to confront the US sharply on some specific issues. Striving for coexistence through struggle is one of the essentials of traditional Chinese political philosophy. We need to have bottom-line mentality, but it is always necessary to make efforts toward a positive direction. The country is doing so, and we, the people, need to keep up.

The author is a Chinese media professional. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn