By Ruan Zongze
The US mid-term elections have dramatically changed the domestic political landscape of the United States, with Democrats controlling both chambers of the Congress. This renders George W. Bush a "lame duck" president in the remainder of his presidency.
The tipping of the power balance gives Democrats, the hardliners in particular, more say on China policy in the United States. The US Congress has long been a fertile breeding ground for "China threat" theories.
Democrats are more concerned with human rights and trade affairs and are critical of Republicans' free trade and "outsourcing" policies. They advocate giving more support to US enterprises, raising the minimum wage, boosting US enterprises' competitiveness and are not so passionate about free trade. In view of all this, a protectionist mentality could raise its head in the United States.
US companies used to be the mainstay in maintaining good US-China ties, but they are now becoming increasingly divided over how to deal with China.
The corporate giants are still pushing for better US-China trade ties because they have benefited a lot from doing business with China. Small- and medium-sized enterprises, however, feel more competition pressure from China than just reaping profits. The combination of their influence and the liberal elements within the Democratic Party could translate into pressure on US-China trade matters. Consequently, voices criticizing China on issues of revaluing the renminbi, intellectual property rights protection and the environment could get louder.
Looking back at Bush's presidency, Sino-American relations first underwent ups and downs in early 2001, but were soon back on a normal track and have been faring quite well ever since.
The mid-air collision between a US Navy spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet and the United States' sale of large quantities of arms to Taiwan, which were compounded by the Bush government's intention to distance itself from the Clinton administration in foreign affairs, plunged Sino-US ties into an abyss.
The US decision-makers were treating China as a potential arch rival when the September 11 terrorist attacks came as a telling blow. The assaults made the US decision-makers see that the real threat came from international terrorism, not from China.
The United States and China had many shared interests in staging an anti-terror campaign. Consequently, Chinese-American relations embarked on a road of smooth development. This fairly long period of smooth ties has helped expand the areas on which both sides' interests converge.
Chinese and US leaders have met frequently. Last year, a channel of "strategic dialogue" was opened between the two countries. The mechanism of "strategic economic dialogue" was introduced this year.
It is safe to say that good US-China ties go beyond the bipartisan interests in the United States. During the Clinton presidency, for instance, China and the United States became "strategic partners."
China-US relations today have matured and their shock-absorbing capacity has increased. A particular issue cropping up in a particular area is not expected to mess up the framework of the China-US relationship as a whole. This means the solid foundation for future cooperation is already in place. Cooperative programs and dealings at various levels in a wide range of sectors have bounded the huge interests of the two sides closely together.
China sticks to the road of peaceful development and, as a result, this basic strategy requires that Chinese diplomacy serves domestic progress towards a well-off society. All this signifies that China needs an open international system, stability on its peripheries and good relations with other big countries. This orientation largely tallies with the direction dictated by the basic interests of the United States.
Also, US allies and friends in the Asia-Pacific region are reluctant to see Washington pursue a confrontational China policy. The last thing they want is to be forced to choose between China and the United States.
Stable US-China ties are in the interests of the United States because Washington can thus spare much energy and efforts for other major issues. For example, the United States currently has three hot potatoes in its hands Iraq, Iran's nuclear bidding, and the nuclear issue of North Korea. All these problems, the latter two in particular, need China's cooperation, among other things.
The United States' China policy is likely to be punctuated by a host of questions.
First, how will the United States re-chart its China policy in the face of many uncertainties? This involves: What kind of changes do the United States hope to see taking place in China? Is the United States convinced that China's goal in Asia is to whittle away US strength and influence in the region or drive it out from Asia altogether? Will the United States retain its competitive edge in a world where China is getting increasingly stronger? All these questions point to one thing: The United States harbors profound misgivings about China's development.
A body of opinion in the United States goes so far as to assume that China's rise to the status of a world-class power constitutes one of the two major challenges faced by US diplomacy in the 21st century, with the other being how to effectively stave off violence launched by Islamic fundamentalism.
Preoccupied with all these worries and absorbed in weighing disadvantages against advantages, the United States has ignored mapping out a long-term strategy dealing with China.
It might be against this background that the United States is reconsidering if the statement that "a powerful, prosperous and open China is welcome" should still remain valid. As a matter of fact, Washington does not so much want to see a powerful China as a China enjoying stability. Washington also worries that a powerful Chinese mainland does no good to Taiwan. Hence arms sales to the island.
In addition, the United States has mixed feelings towards "a prosperous China." The good thing is that bilateral trade and investment keep rising. The bad thing is the so-called "unfair competition" from China.
In addition, the Taiwan question will pose a negative factor haunting Sino-American ties for a long time to come. Now and the coming two years will be a crucial period when something very bad could turn up. Chen Shui-bian, for example, is striving to leave his political legacy by trumpeting the creation of Taiwan's "new constitution." He is actually challenging Sino-US ties as well as the Chinese mainland.
Some uncertainties could also have a negative impact on China-US relations. The rise of neo-nationalism in Japan, for one, is a factor that affects regional stability. Also, numerous uncertainties exist in China-Japan relations and the process of reconciliation is bound to be long and painful.
By all accounts, both sides are still mistrustful of one another's long-term goals, despite China-US relations developing to cover wide areas and the two sides' interdependence on each other growing. The mutual distrust serves only to reinforce the argument that the conflicts between the United States and China are bound to occur and that preparations, therefore, should be made for that.
This gives rise to the situation that both sides are pursuing a policy of hedging their bets while seeking constructive engagement. In view of all this, expanding the positive aspects in China-US ties and clearing away suspicion and mistrust constitutes an important task ahead of both sides.
The author is deputy director of the China Institute of International Studies.
(China Daily November 23, 2006)