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China-US Relations: Opportunities and Challenges
Liu Xuecheng

Senior Fellow and Director of American Studies

China Institute of International Studies

Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Sino-US relations have progressed steadily. Chinese President Jiang Zeming and US President George W. Bush have met three times and Chinese Vice President Hu Jintao also paid a visit to the US in April. After President Jiang’s successful visit in October, President Bush’s third China trip is on the diplomatic agenda of our bilateral relations. China is also looking forward to hosting US Vice President Richard B. Cheney early next year. Frequent high-level exchanges of visits between the two countries have contributed greatly to mutual understanding and essential improvement of China-US relations for the past stormy year.

US China policy has shifted to promoting cooperation from seeking confrontation. During the presidential campaign and the early months of the Bush administration, the tendency of Bush’s China policy was to seek fabricated reasons of US-China confrontation. The Bush campaigning team defined US-China relationship as one of “strategic competitor” rather than “strategic partner.” Guarding against and containing China was the principal aspect of its China policy. Such a policy was reflected in the talks on defending Taiwan, the sales of advanced weapon systems to Taiwan, the remarks on the possible rise of a military competitor in East Asia, and the concerns over the threat to the United States the China rise would pose in the 21st century. However, the terrorist attacks have changed the strategic thinking of the Bush administration. According to the recently published National Security Strategy of the United States of America, the Bush administration defines “the crossroads of radicalism and technology” as the gravest threat to the United States, and the global campaign against international terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction as the primary goal of its national security strategy. After the successful war against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda, the Bush team has also recognized that “we preserve the peace by building good relations among the great powers.” Such assessments have paved the way to reshaping the image and role of China in international and regional affairs.

Both leaders have reached consensus that there are more opportunities for cooperation than challenges to be faced in their bilateral relations. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, China firmly and clearly lent support to the United States in its anti-terror campaign. China has repeatedly stated that the United States and China are both the victims of international terrorism, and China opposes terrorist activities in all forms. The US officials also stated that it opposed terrorist activities in China’s Xinjiang and other parts of China. The US Department of State officially defined the ETIM (East Turkistan Islamic Movement) as a terrorist organization. The close coordination of the two countries in the anti-terror campaign has created favorable conditions for stabilizing their bilateral relations.

Both countries have also found the common ground for preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and its delivery systems. The Chinese government has always opposed the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and its delivery systems. China has seen such a proliferation as a threat to international and regional peace. In this respect, China has supported the CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), worked with the United States in coping with nuclear proliferation in South Asia and on the Korean Peninsula. In August, the Chinese government promulgated the Regulations on the Export Control of Missiles and Missile-related Items and Technologies and the attached Control List. Recently, China also strengthened the control on the export of dual-use biological agents and related equipment and technologies as well as dual-use chemicals, chemical equipment and technologies. The Bush administration has made positive remarks on the Chinese efforts in this respect.

As major trade partners in the world, the United States and China have been closely interwoven in a global economy. The United States is the second largest trade partner of China and China is the fourth largest trade partner of the United States. China is the largest developing country and the United States is the largest developed country. The two largest economies in the world are highly supplementary. It is evident that economic and trade interests are the driving force for improving the bilateral relations.

Even on the Taiwan issue, the most difficult one in the bilateral relations, the two countries have more understanding. China has reaffirmed that the Taiwan issue would be settled within the framework of “one China, two systems” and “peaceful reunification.” Following Chen Shui-bian’s fallacy of “one country on each side,” the United States reaffirmed that its China policy has not changed. The United States remains committed to one China policy and it does not support Taiwan independence. During their meeting at Crawford, President Bush reaffirmed this policy.

The China rise has been regarded as a threat or challenge to the US hegemony in the world as well as the Asia-pacific region. The US National Security Strategy states, “We welcome the emergence of a strong, peaceful, and prosperous China.” It also states, “The United States relationship with China is an important part of our strategy to promote a stable, peaceful, and prosperous Asia-Pacific region.” Now China’s rise is regarded as an opportunity for cooperation rather than a challenge to the US interests.

Looking back to the ups and downs in the relations of the two countries, we should remember that the road ahead of the two countries would not be smooth. There are several factors that will affect the healthy development of the relations between the two countries.

The US party politics and power shifts have proved to be an unavoidable factor that has had a negative impact upon the development of the bilateral relations. The new administration usually undertakes the process of reviewing China policy of the former administration with a negative or suspicious attitude. The new administration has always tried to work out a new policy differing from the one of the former administration. But, gradually, the policy orientation would go back on the previous track. However, this process would unnecessarily cause unstable and uncertain relations between the two countries.

In terms of China policy, there are two influent factions within the Bush administration, one is the so-called moderate faction, and the other is the so-called hawkish one. In dealing with the rise of China, the moderate approach is generally engagement, and the hawkish approach is containment. As a compromised approach, the general policy is the combination of engagement and containment. The Clinton administration pursued this policy, and now the Bush administration has come back on this track. Whenever China-US relations develop smoothly, the hawkish faction would fabricate some formidable events that would derail the healthy process. That is why the calm months would always be followed by the stormy days in the relations between China and the United States.

Taiwan’s independent forces have proved to be a destructive factor in the relations between the two countries. The anti-China forces in the United States and the pro-independence forces on Taiwan have collaborated with each other. They have made every effort to hinder the normal development of the relations between the two countries. They believe that they can fish in the troubled water of China-US tensions. Therefore, Taiwan’s pro-independence forces would pose a grave threat to China-US relations and peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

At the beginning of the new century, the two governments of the United States and China have reached consensus that they should work together for a constructive and cooperative relationship between the two great nations in the world. Under the complicated and changeable international situations, the two countries have found many common interests for cooperation. I believe that new common ground will emerge in the joint efforts to preserve global peace, strategic security stability and deal with regional tensions in the Asia-Pacific region. As for China and the United States, if they confront with each other, there would be no winners but losers; if they cooperate with each other, there would be no losers but both winners.

(China.org.cn on November 10, 2002)

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