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A "New Era" for the Sino-US relationship? A view from China
2017-11-07 16:46:00

A "New Era" for the Sino-US relationship? A view from China

Chengyi Peng
02 novembre 2017


In a few days, the US President Trump will start its first visit to China. Would this officially called state visit usher a "New Era" of Sino-US relationship, to borrow the currently hot notion in China? I would answer it in a positive direction, despite the fact that the hot notion may not be used. At least, it will be a very important and constructive visit for the development of the relationship between the two countries.

There are several reasons for the positive outlook. First of all, as President Trump’s first visit to China comes at an important moment – when China just concluded the 19th Congress of the ruling party – its main task certainly will not be a quarrel with China over issues such as the North Korea nuclear or trade disputes, but to set up the direction for the relationship in the following years as well as to keep the relationship on track amid increasing tensions and frictions. Strategic dialogue at the highest level certainly could help to reduce misunderstandings and efficiently manage the challenges.

Secondly, the high mutual-dependence between the two economies in a globalized world serves as the main ballast for the relationship. It serves no side’s interests to have a deteriorating relations between the two giants, and a win-win cooperation situation is not only desired by all sides, but also necessary for the peace and stability of the world. Despite the fact that the Trump administration has adopted nationalist economic policies as well as hard power politics regarding security issues, the tensions as well as frictions caused by this shift are not enough to change the fundamental ballast of the relationship.

Thirdly, Trump administration’s diminished attention or sensitivity towards ideological issues and its shy-away from “club-mode” of containing China would ease the potential structural tensions, at least in the ideological realm. Indeed, a major obstacle for the Sino-US relationship to improve in the past has to do with the deeply entrenched ideological concerns, which are even harder to resolve than concrete issues. Behind the US’s grand strategy of engaging China in the past, there has always been the hope (or hidden agenda?) of transforming China politically. However, given China’s rapid rise within the international order yet retaining a largely intact political infrastructure, the Obama administration with its strategists has shifted to a sort of compulsion to contain China, such as through building up the TPP, etc. Now the giving-up of this mode by the Trump administration certainly greatly eases the strategic tension between the two sides and increases the room for strategic cooperation.

Fourthly, there are no fundamental conflicts between the two sides’ global strategy as well as domestic priorities. Globally, the Trump administration has adopted a “slimming” or isolationist strategy towards its global obligations. This withdrawing move surely reduces the possible frictions with a rising China which is expected to make greater contributions on the global stage. Meanwhile China’s global goal has been to build up a shared destiny for all mankind and a stable and prosperous world through initiatives such as the One Belt One Road. This goal certainly serves the US interests as well. Domestically, the Trump administration faces significant barriers for realizing his election promises. These barriers come not only from the Congress, but also the bureaucracy as well as the constituencies. The mid-term election is also likely to preoccupy Washington, hence less attention for external competitions or disputes. Furthermore, Trump’s constituency is largely concerned about economic issues, such as growth, unemployment, etc., whose solutions may benefit from China’s cooperation as well. China has also issued its strategic plans as well as specific steps for realizing the two “centenary anniversary goals” (one is for the centenary anniversary of the CPC in 2021, and the other is the centenary anniversary of the PRC in 2049). These goals certainly require a peaceful external environment as well as a win-win cooperation with the US.    

Fifthly, after two meetings and eight phone calls, as well as multiple letters exchanges, the two leaders have strengthened working relationships, built up personal friendship, and established certain mutual trust. A state visit of Trump right after the CPC’s 19th Congress certainly would push the relationship further towards this bright direction. A deeper understanding of the Chinese culture and reality by the Trump administration could also reduce certain pre-conceptions or prejudices. The two leaders may also feel more empathetic towards each other for their shared rejuvenation missions as well as significant challenges each faces.     Of course, given the Trump administration’s turn towards economic nationalism and bilateral realpolitik, as well as the unpredictability associated with Trump’s idiosyncratic personality, we may witness more tensions and frictions between the two countries. Nevertheless, these challenges are still manageable and we may well expect Trump’s visit to China could usher a new era for the world’s most important bilateral relationship. 
 
Chengyi Peng, Research fellow at the Institute of World Economics and Politics, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences