Ni Feng's Stocktaking of China-U.S. relations After San Francisco Summit
The director of American Studies at CASS says no one has any illusion over the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world now.
The following is translated from a WeChat blog post by Shanghai Development Research Foundation, a non-profit organization, aiming at development research and decision-making consultations. I don’t know much about it except its website and blog, but I am a big fan of its simple slogan:
Respect Common Sense, Defend the Bottom Line.
The Shanghai Development Research Foundation and the Shanghai Foreign Investment Association recently co-hosted the 182nd Shanghai Development Salon.
Mr. 倪峰 Ni Feng, Director of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, delivered a speech at the salon titled "U.S.-China Relations after the Xi-Biden San Francisco Summit." He noted that the San Francisco meeting between the heads of state was effective, attracting international attention and receiving positive overall reactions. The main demands of the U.S. were to stabilize the international environment, control fentanyl, restore military dialogue, and maintain the current policy towards China, focusing on the upcoming U.S. election. Both the U.S. and China should strive to maintain the current stability. Below are the main points of his speech.
I. Evolution of U.S. Policy Towards China in Recent Years
Since Trump took office in 2017, U.S.-China relations have undergone the most extensive and profound changes since President Nixon visited China in 1972. I believe this shift began precisely on December 18, 2017, when Trump announced the National Security Strategy report. In his speech for the report, Trump declared the start of a new era of great power competition. The last such competition close to our times was the Cold War that began in 1947, a classic example of great power rivalry, especially between the U.S. and the USSR. After the end of the Cold War in 1991, great power competition still existed but wasn’t the main focus. What was the main trend after the Cold War? It was the era of economic globalization. But in 2017, the U.S. underwent a significant shift in perspective, re-entering an era of great power competition.
The report's main tone was about how to compete in this new era of great power rivalry, and it presented three major perceptions and judgments about China. First, China is America's primary strategic competitor. For the first time in the history of U.S.-China relations, the U.S. identified China as its foremost strategic competitor. Second, China is seen as a revisionist state, posing a challenge not just to the U.S. but also to the U.S.-led international order.
Since 2015, there has been a major discussion about China in the U.S., particularly within its strategic community. The discussion was sparked by Robert Blackwill's [Zichen’s note: co-authored with Ashley J. Tellis] article "Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China," which stated, “—China is and will remain the most significant competitor to the United States for decades to come.” Americans tend to be arrogant, thinking many countries' developments are related to the U.S. and because of U.S. policies. Trump gave a definitive answer, stating in the National Security Strategy report that the U.S. policy of engagement with China since 1972 had failed. This signified a major shift in U.S.-China relations and U.S. policy towards China.
On October 12 last year , Biden released a strategic report, taking a step further than Trump. He considered China the only strategic competitor with the ability and willingness to challenge the existing international order. At that time, a war had already started in Europe, with Russia heavily engaged in Ukraine. Under these circumstances, the U.S. viewed China as the only capable and willing challenger to the international order.
II. Efforts by Both Sides to Manage Competition Risks
The situation of being primary competitors is unprecedented for both countries, which also have significant cultural differences. The competition in breadth and depth has been expanding continuously over these six years. The risks in this unknown territory are immense, and both sides are aware of the severity.
The competition began in 2017, and both countries have made efforts to manage it. At the G20 in Buenos Aires, the heads of state met, aiming to manage this relationship. On January 15, 2020, both countries signed the first phase of the economic and trade agreement. After the outbreak of the pandemic in 2020, General Secretary Xi and Trump did not meet.
After Biden took office in 2021, he was also aware of the risks in this relationship, so the heads of state kept in touch through video calls. Before the meeting in Bali last year, the heads of state had five video or online meetings. The Bali meeting in November last year was the first formal meeting between the heads of state since Biden took office. Although not much was achieved practically, there was a consensus that this dangerous relationship needed to be managed.
After 2020, government interactions between the two countries nearly ceased. In this context, restoring government-to-government exchanges was a key element in managing this relationship. After the Bali meeting, Blinken visited China. He was originally scheduled to visit in February this year but was postponed to June due to the unexpected balloon incident. Then came visits by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, John Kerry, Gavin Newsom, and Chuck Schumer. Finally, Wang Yi also went. These were all part of the preparations for the heads of state meeting, the most extensive such preparations since 2018. Both governments attached great importance to this summit, with both sides making thoughtful preparations.
III. Main Demands of the U.S.
The recent San Francisco meeting attracted international attention and received positive overall reactions. The demands of both sides in this heads of state meeting were more substantial. The U.S. had several very concrete demands.
The first was about the international environment. The U.S. faces two main issues internationally: a gray rhino and a black swan. The gray rhino refers to the Russia-Ukraine conflict that erupted in February last year. Although the U.S. wanted to focus on China, the conflict has consumed enormous U.S. resources. It is the most brutal war in Europe since World War II, involving huge military and financial aid from the U.S., which also invested significant diplomatic resources. The U.S. has led its allies in supporting Ukraine. Any country, no matter how powerful, has limited resources. If more is used here, less is available there. The Russia-Ukraine conflict is essentially in a stalemate, with predictions that it won't end until at least next year, with some saying not before 2025. The situation now seems to slightly favor Russia, evidently putting great pressure on the U.S.
Another issue is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that erupted in October, requiring U.S. resources. The U.S. is already struggling with these two conflicts and sees no immediate resolution. If another major conflict arises in Asia, the U.S. would be overwhelmed. Therefore, stabilizing U.S.-China relations is a practical need for Biden.
Another urgent and concrete need is the upcoming U.S. election next year. We used to think Trump was out of the picture, but recently he has gained momentum again. According to polls, if the election were held now, Trump would win. From the Biden administration's perspective, it faces a tough battle. If they lose the election, what policy can they talk about? Therefore, they must focus mainly on domestic issues. From the Biden administration's point of view, they don't want trouble next year. Their primary task is to win the election, which will keep Biden busy enough. Next year's election is too unpredictable. U.S. elections are the longest, running from January to November. American voters are so emotional; why would they vote for you if you don't engage with them every day?
The issue most emphasized by the U.S. this time is actually fentanyl. Fentanyl might be a prominent topic in next year's U.S. election. The U.S. middle class is declining, many are using fentanyl, and now fentanyl-related deaths top the list of causes in the U.S. This year, 100,000 people in the U.S. died from fentanyl use, surpassing traffic accidents, which used to be the leading cause of death.
Another desired outcome for the U.S. is the resumption of military dialogue, which relates to the international environment. With the war ongoing there, the U.S. obviously doesn't want problems here, so it wants to resume military exchanges between the two militaries.
IV. Both Sides Should Strive to Maintain the Current Stability
In any competition between two countries, one is stronger and the other weaker. Under such circumstances, almost all spectator costs are borne by the weaker side.
It's like a boxing match with two fighters, A and B, and many spectators. Some like A, some like B, and some are just watching for entertainment. If A lands a punch on B, A's supporters cheer. If B lands a punch on A, B's supporters cheer. But when betting on who will win, it's completely different from cheering during the match. Almost all spectators will make a rational choice, not based on who they like, but on who is stronger because that's how they can win money. Betting has nothing to do with preferences. Over these six years, a large extent of the spectator costs have been borne by us, the weaker side. From the perspective of spectator costs, the U.S.-China rivalry might be a normal state, unchangeable. But stabilizing this relationship is also an important prerequisite for creating conditions for our great rejuvenation.
Compared to previous times, both sides indeed have more substantial needs for stabilizing U.S.-China relations. Looking back, although these needs are substantial, they are tactical, expedient, and targeted. Fundamentally, no one believes there will be significant changes in the U.S.
So, on the one hand, this improvement is real; on the other hand, it's also tactical and temporary. How will U.S.-China relations develop in the future? Everyone is clear now. The U.S. has locked us in this position as the only capable and willing challenger to the current international order, and there won't be fundamental changes for a considerable time. Meanwhile, we are in the process of our great rejuvenation, with our goals set and moving forward. This keynote won't change fundamentally because of this meeting. However, both sides should strive through various efforts to maintain this achievable stability for a relatively long period.