China-US Ties: The Need for Realistic Expectations

During the unannounced visit of Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger to China, Chinese President Xi Jinping said: “We never forget our old friends, and will never forget your historic contribution to the development of China-US relations and the enhancement of friendship between the two peoples.”

Kissinger also met with China’s top diplomat Wang Yi and Defense Minister General Li Shangfu. General Li Shang fu had been sanctioned, in 2018 by the Trump administration for the purchase of Russian weapons.

Kissinger’s role in US-China thaw 

It was Kissinger’s secret meetings with high-ranking officials which had paved the way for, then US President Nixon’s ‘ice-breaking visit’ to China in 1971. For over 4 decades there was a continuity in China-US relations under successive US administrations. Former US President Bill Clinton was amongst those who believed that China’s integration into the global economic system would lead to a more open and democratic society. While delivering a speech in 2000, the Former President commented on the importance of China’s entry into the WTO. “Membership in the WTO, of course, will not create a free society in China overnight or guarantee that China will play by global rules. But over time, I believe it will move China faster and further in the right direction, and certainly will do that more than rejection would.”

Robert Zoellick who served as World Bank President (2007-2012), US Deputy Secretary of State (2005-2006) and US Trade Representative (2001-2005) had in a speech highlighted the need for China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the global system. 

Visits by other Senior officials

US Climate Envoy, John Kerry and Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen did not receive such a warm welcome, and neither of them got to meet with the Chinese President (these highlights the importance which China still gives to Kissinger). 

While Kissinger is hailed in China as a ‘special friend’ — a Chinese read out after Kissinger’s meeting with senior Chinese officials dubbed the former US Secretary of State as a “friend of China”.  Both officials are supposed to have told Kissinger that it is important for US and China to find a middle ground and to avoid conflict. Significantly, the point that China could not be isolated in the global order was also conveyed to Kissinger.

Kissinger’s China policy has drawn criticism from both policymakers and strategic analysts especially since the downward slope of the China-US relationship in recent years. It has been argued that China has benefited more from globalization and that economic and technological relations have also compromised US Security. 

Former US President Bill Clinton’s belief that China’s political system would gradually reform has also drawn strong criticism in recent years. 

Increasing realization for the need for a calibrated approach?

The Biden administration has been repeatedly stated that while competing with China, the US seeks to avoid ‘conflict’. Similarly, given China’s current economic challenges it is keen to ensure that ties with the West do not deteriorate further. Senior Chinese officials including Chinese President, Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier, Li Qiang have been wooing Western investors.

Senior Chinese and US officials have also been reiterating the point that US and China cooperate on issues of global importance such as climate change. Current US National Security Advisor and Kurt Campbell wrote an article titled ‘competition without catastrophe’ published by Foreign Affairs in 2019. Another term which has been used for a working relationship between US and China is ‘competitive co-existence’. Two books, “The World Upside down: America, China, and The Struggle for Global Leadership” (2021) by Clyde Prestowitz as well as “Cold Peace: Avoiding the new cold war” (2023) by Michael W Doyle have also advocated similar approaches. 

US-China economic competition likely to continue

Biden administration’s approach vis-à-vis China on economic issues is a clear indicator that ties are unlikely to improve. One such example is the CHIPS act 2022 which has created a $39 billion fund for incentives for technology companies to build semi-conductor companies in US. Significantly, companies accepting federal funding for the same are barred from building high-tech facilities in China for the next 10 years. 

While announcing the move, the US Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said: “Recipients will be required to enter into an agreement restricting their ability to expand semiconductor manufacturing capacity in foreign countries of concern for a period of 10 years after taking the money.”

While keeping ties with China manageable, US is strengthening economic ties with Asian nations, under the umbrella of the Indo-Pacific via the IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework). The Quad Grouping (US, Japan, Australia, India) is also seeking to revise supply chains.

In the changing geopolitical and economic landscape, a number of US companies such as Apple have expanded their operations in Vietnam, India and other countries. 

Janet Yellen’s visit to Vietnam 

After her visits to China and India, US Secretary of Treasury, Janet Yellen visited Vietnam. During her Vietnam visit, she spoke not only about the importance of the bilateral relationship but also Vietnam’s role in the Free and Open Indo Pacific. Yellen did strike a note of caution regarding ties with China. While she categorically stated that the US was seeking to diversify supply chains, it certainly was not looking at ending trade relations with China.

While Washington and Beijing may be seeking to reduce tensions, in a vastly different economic and geopolitical landscape, and given the style of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s leadership, it is highly unlikely that there are likely to be significant improvements in the relationship. Even achieving the aim of ‘competition without conflict’ or ‘co-existence’ with manageable strains would be a big achievement given the divergences between both countries. The belief that economic reforms in China will pave the way for political change is now passé.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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