The Dynamics of US-China Relations

President Donald Trump and Xi Jinping
Photo: Xinhua

China-United States relations or Sino-American relations refer to international relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States of America. The relationship between the two countries is quite strong though complex.

The United States and China have a very extensive economic partnership. A great amount of trade between the two countries necessitates positive political relations of some magnitude. Yet significant issues exist. It is a relationship of economic cooperation, hegemonic rivalry in the Pacific and mutual suspicion over the other’s intentions.

Consequently, each country considers the other as a potential adversary and an extremely strong economic partner at the same time. It has been described by world leaders and academics as the world’s most important bilateral relationship of the century
Recently, US President Donald Trump said that he was ready to impose tariffs on all Chinese imports coming into the United States. In response, China’s Foreign Ministry said: “As to the US being bent on provoking a trade war, China does not want a trade war but is not afraid of a trade war,” Geng said when asked about Trump’s threat to impose across-the-board tariffs on Chinese goods. “When necessary, China will fight. Threats and intimidation will not work on the Chinese people.” The world’s two largest economies face a potential full-blown trade war after the United States imposed 25 percent tariffs on $34 billion of Chinese products, drawing a tit-for-tat response from Beijing.

The relations between the two countries have generally been stable with some periods of open conflict. Prominent among them were during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Again, in 2017, the relation took a severe beating when the US and North Korea (China’s key ally) were at each other’s throat amid the North’s nuclear programme.

Currently, China and the United States have mutual political, economic, and security interests, including the proliferation of nuclear weapons. At the same time, there are unresolved concerns relating to the role of democracy in China and human rights in both the countries. Each country accused the other of the rights violation but find it next to impossible to stay away from each other’s influence in the global affairs. An example, the US needed China’s support to make North Korea to toe the line. China tightened sanctions on North Korea and put some investments there on hold.

The mutual public opinion of the two countries tends to fluctuate around 40 to 50 percent of favorability. As of 2015, China’s public opinion of the US is 44 percent, while the United States’ public opinion of China is a bit lower – 38 percent. The highest recorded favorable opinion of the United States was at 58 percent (2010) and the lowest at 38 percent (2007). On the contrary, the highest recorded favorable opinion of China was at 52 percent (2006) and the lowest at 35 percent (2014). This statistics shows that the people of the two countries have developed the understanding of each other’s culture and civilization. So confrontation will prove disastrous for both the countries.

American relations with China began under George Washington and the diplomatic agreement known as the Treaty of Wangxia was signed in 1844. The United States allied with the Republic of China during the Pacific War but broke off relations for twenty-five years when the communist government took over until Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit of China. Since Nixon, every successive US president has toured China.

Relations with China have strained under Barack Obama’s Asia pivot strategy, US support for Japan in the Senkaku Islands dispute and Donald Trump’s threat to classify the country as a “currency manipulator” as part of a potential trade war.

In April 2017, the maritime disputes in the South China Sea have strained relations between the two. America has conducted freedom of navigation patrols in the region to underscore the US’ position that the artificial islands constructed by China are located in international waters.

On 8 July 2018, two US destroyers sailed through the Taiwan Strait. The US Navy said that it had sailed two of its warships through the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan’s defense authorities said the destroyers- USS Mustin and USS Benfold moved north through the strait. The ships were based at the US naval port in Yokosuka, south of Tokyo. USA and Taiwanese media said it was the first time in 12 months that US warships have passed through the strait.

In 1979, diplomatic relations were formally established between the two countries. Since then, American leaders and policymakers have pursued a policy of constructive engagement with China. That has fostered robust economic and academic ties, advanced peace in Asia and brought China into the international community.

Today, however, fear and mistrust on both sides of the US-China relationship are causing some experts and political pundits to doubt the very concept of constructive engagement.
The US National Security Strategy regards China, along with Russia, as a strategic competitor. Although, it is America, not China that has withdrawn from the Paris climate deal, UNESCO and the Iran deal, yet the report dubs China a revisionist power.

Among other things, it proposes tariffs on the Chinese goods, the restrictions on the Chinese investment in the US, limits on the Chinese students and a large increase in military expenditure.

Currently, the US administration is beset with several complex issues such as North Korea, fight against terrorism, nuclear proliferation, long-term economic and financial issues. The issues might force it to treat China in a less antagonistic manner but a genuine change of perspective would presuppose the realization that, in an increasingly interdependent world, what has really to come first is not the immediate interest of a single country but the long-term equilibrium of the entire system.

Moreover, in a century marked by complex and unprecedented interconnectedness, one can’t expect to unilaterally win at the expense of the world’s most populous country – China and, soon what will be the world’s largest economy.

Beijing needs to adopt a posture characterized by strategic patience and to reaffirm her responsible and proactive internationalism through new initiatives for trade, the fight against climate change, a renewed support for the United Nations and the acceleration of the “One Belt, One Road” transnational development project.

What is important to note is that China is the third-largest destination for American goods and services and the major purchaser of American agricultural products. Trade with China supports 2.6 million American jobs.

China’s burgeoning middle class not only means that its people are living far better lives; it also creates a huge and growing market for American goods and services. US exports to China will rise to more than US$520 billion by 2030. Chinese investment directly supports over 150,000 American jobs. China provides the largest number of UN peacekeepers among the permanent five members of the United Nations.

Its “Belt and Road Initiative” and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank are providing much-needed development financing. As China becomes more prosperous and powerful, it naturally wields greater influence in the world. This does not make it a strategic competitor but a productive member of the global community. It can play a pivotal role in fighting hunger, diseases, and other global challenges. For that, the US can well seek cooperation, not confrontation with China.

Regarding China as a strategic competitor and a revisionist power will legitimize the spending of hundreds of billions of dollars for the military-industrial complex (MIC). President Dwight D. Eisenhower once said:”Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

Twenty-first century’s big issues such as economic crisis, climate change, the use of artificial intelligence and big data to serve humankind, peace on the Korean peninsula and peace in Asia -cannot be achieved if China is branded as an enemy. They can only be solved if China’s cooperation is sought.

The increased competition between the US and China has become a cause of concern for the countries in the Asia-Pacific region. They have fears of the possible conflict between the two great powers because the conflict may force them to choose sides. The US has been dominant militarily in the Asia-Pacific region since the end of World War II. This dominance, together with the US-led international order that provides the rules for trade, investment and security have afforded the peace and stability that allowed many of the region’s countries to develop and prosper.

However, since its reforms and opening up in 1978, China has been reaching out to East and South-east Asia economically. This outreach intensified in the 1990s after the Tiananmen Square incident which led to sanctions against it by the US and other Western countries.
China’s economic transformation during this time benefited the regional economies greatly as its manufacturing sector was heavily dependent on imports from them to feed its factories churning out goods destined for the West. Many ran trade surpluses with China.

As trade burgeoned, China and economies of the region began to build institutions including free trade agreements to support their trading relationships, pulling them closer together. The “Belt and Road Initiative” kick-started in 2013 is China’s ambitious project. It is covering three continents and is aimed at enhancing China’s image and influence across the globe. The US will be wasting its endeavor to prevent China’s rise or its global reach. China’s rising economy is attracting customers from across the globe which is enhancing its influence in the international affairs. In such a situation, it would be in the interest of the US not to seek confrontation with China. Cooperation is the need of the hour. Any miscalculation may cause catastrophe in their relations.

Therefore, considering all the aspects of their relations, political acumen demands that the United States and China must work together. If they compete and confront each other, a violent conflict may errupt to threaten the entire world. Let the two powerhouses resolve their differences, not plunge the world into a Second Cold War.