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Opinion | Connecting on different levels

MAR . 22 2021
Peking University, March 22, 2021: China should seek to build stronger mutual trust with the US. Over the past 30 years, the presidential elections in the United States have become an obvious "institutional constraint" on its China policy to some extent. In the election year, presidential candidates often attack China to appeal to voters when campaigning. In such a manner, China-US relations have moved forward in twists and turns amid constant competition, confrontation and cooperation.

The dust has settled on the 2020 US elections, but the unprecedented institutional changes in China and the US have caused a profound stir in bilateral relations, and it is uncertain how China-US relations will evolve under the Biden administration.

The China policy of the US shifted from carrots-and-sticks to all-out pressure under the Trump administration, which is attributable to the increasingly negative US views of China's political development, as well as the political polarization in the US, and its domestic social problems. With "extreme competition" or even confrontation between the two countries now to the fore, crisis management is a key task for them and will be for quite some time to come.

The Donald Trump administration reshaped the way in which China and the US interacted with each other. Not only did many working-level dialogues and consultation mechanisms cease to function, but also high-level and working-level engagements and exchange programs between the two countries were reduced to a minimum.

Based on urgency, China should consider discussing the feasibility of cooperation with the US in the following areas: containing the spread of the novel coronavirus and vaccine development; consultations on global trade and economic policies including macro-control in the post-pandemic era; reform measures to make the domestic economy more open, transparent, balanced and reciprocal, especially solutions to specific problems arising from the operation of multinationals, including US ones, in China; and extensive cooperation on climate change and clean energy.

There are many other areas where China and the US can cooperate: denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and subsequent peace and development; combating the international production and trafficking of drugs; and peaceful reconstruction of Afghanistan and the resumption of the Iran nuclear talks and Middle East peace-building process.

China and the US can begin to explore the possibility of restarting or furthering the existing cooperation in areas, such as global biosafety, big data use, cyber security and counter-terrorism.

China-US cooperation will not be smooth sailing even in those areas that need absolute collaboration. Take climate change and environmental protection as an example. During the Barack Obama administration, China-US energy and environmental relations were highly interdependent, featuring both cooperation and competition. At that time, China and the US jointly advanced several programs, including in scientific research, building an information network and the continuation of mutual assistance and the twinning of states and provinces, as well as many cities, and implementing the US-China Eco Partnerships Program.

Whether the above-mentioned cooperation between China and the US can be sustained or deepened, and whether the two sides can gain new political trust and work together on laws and agreements will become important issues between the two countries in the Biden era. It is urgent for China and the US to do a good job in legislation and law enforcement in their own countries and align their domestic climate and environmental laws with international practices to ensure consistency and durability. The two governments should constantly raise public awareness of and stimulate public concern about environmental protection and pool resources from all walks of life to achieve environmental governance at different levels.

China's strategy toward the US will not only determine the future of US-China relations, but also affect the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation to a great extent. Compared with the Trump administration, the Biden administration places more emphasis on allies, norms and values in its economic, trade, foreign and security policies toward China, and regards solving domestic problems and restoring the reputation and global leadership of the US as the cornerstone of its China policy. For example, Biden said in a lengthy article published in Foreign Affairs magazine in early 2020 that establishing a "united front" with US allies is the most effective way to deal with the "China threat", but he also said that the US will seek cooperation with China in areas of common concern, such as climate change, nuclear non-proliferation and global health and security. Confronted with the many difficulties and challenges in China-US relations, China should do what it can to ease the tensions in the relationship and promote bilateral cooperation.

Although the China policy of the US will inevitably undergo at least some tweaks under the new administration, it will not be an easy task for China's policymakers to assuage the negative view of China that prevails in Washington and among a large proportion of the US population.

In terms of China's evolving strategic objectives and tactics toward the US, a key factor for the success of China's future relations with the US is whether China can build more mutual trust with the US people, and use more economic attraction, grassroots exchanges and flexible concessions to substantively improve China-US relations, so as to shift from a minimum degree of "no conflict and no confrontation" to "mutual respect and win-win cooperation". Of course, China as an external player is unable to set the direction of US politics.

But it is the rational choice for China to try and find how to best work with the US to resolve the crises in their relations. It will be a true display of China's political rationality and wisdom to advance reforms on deeper levels and further open itself to the outside world as it shapes its new development paradigm, so as to drive comprehensive innovation of the nation's governance system through sustainable development, which will serve as the real driving force behind the China-US relations.

The author is Sun Zhe, senior research fellow with the Institute of State Governance Studies at Peking University and co-director of the China Initiative at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

Photo credit to: Ma Xuejing
Source: China Daily