US and China: a mutual mistrust endures

Por • 15 jun, 2012 • Sección: Política

Wu Zhong

HONG KONG – China and the United States have become increasingly economically interdependent. This, however, seems to be of little help in removing mutual suspicion between the two countries.

As evident by a spate of recent diplomatic rows, there seems still to be a very long way to go before the two nations will be able to build mutual political and military trust, the lack of which prevents them from fostering some kind of strategic partnership.

Thus, the so-called Group of Two or G-2 (that United States and China work out solutions to global problems together) remains a pipe dream.

This is largely decided by the nature of Sino-US relationship, which has been built and developed on the basis of pragmaticapproaches to serve each other’s national interests and geopolitical strategic goals. When their interests or goals collide, there will inevitably be frictions and tensions.

A brief historical review may cast some new insights into the current status of Sino-US relations.

After the Korean War (1950-1953), communist China and the US became diehard enemies until the late 1960s, when they both began to make efforts to try to improve relations because they were then facing a common enemy – the Soviet Union. The so-called «ping pong diplomacy» in 1971 eventually paved the way for US President Richard Nixon to make his groundbreaking visit to Beijing in 1972.

In late December of 1978, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) formally endorsed Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform and opening up policy. Days later, on January 1, 1979, the United States switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing. The Taiwan issue, a core national interest of China, was shelved.

Deng paid a visit to Washington in January 1979, which marked the start of a «honeymoon» decade for relations between China and US. During that time, the US and China completed a bilateral trade agreement and initiated hundreds of joint research projects and cooperative programs including the Agreement on Cooperation in Science and Technology, the largest bilateral program. There were reportedly even some military cooperation projects between the two countries.

On their flight to US, Li Shenzhi, then vice president of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), asked the paramount leader: «Why should we attach such great importance to relations with the US?» Deng’s answer: «Looking back at the past decades, all countries which have good relations with the US have become prosperous.» [1] Apparently, in the mind of the pragmatic Chinese leader, economic benefits were the major concern for China to develop closer ties.

The «honeymoon» decade in Sino-US relations came to a bitter end with China’s violent crackdown on protesting students at Tiananmen on June 4, 1989. To express its condemnation of Beijing’s violation of human rights, Washington suspended high-level official exchanges and imposed economic sanctions, including the banning of weapons exports to China. American investors’ interest in China also dropped dramatically.

In meeting with visiting Nixon in Beijing on October 31, 1989, Deng talked about the other side of the same coin of Sino-US relationship.

Frankly speaking, the turmoil and counter-revolutionary rebellion that occurred in Beijing not long ago was, in the first place, instigated by international anti-communist and anti-socialist ideological trend. Regretfully, the US has involved too deeply in this issue and incessantly condemned China. China has not done any disservice to US. We can have our different views, but you cannot force us to accept any wrong accusation by others…

I won’t say it about Western governments, but at least some people in the West want to overthrow China’s socialist system, which can only arouse the disgust of the Chinese people… People support human rights, but don’t forget there are also national rights. People talk about personal dignity, but don’t forget there is also national dignity. Especially for a developing country like us, without national self-esteem to treasure national independence, it can hardly stand up.

You please tell President [George HW] Bush that to put an end to the past, the US should take the initiative, and the initiative can only be taken by the US … China cannot take the initiative. Because the US is strong, China is weak and China is the victim. China will never beg. Even for 100 years, China won’t beg [the US] to lift sanctions … Any Chinese leader will be finished if he makes a mistake on this issue, because Chinese people will not forgive him. This is the truth I speak out …

International relations must follow a principle, that is, not to intervene in another country’s internal affairs. The People’s Republic of China will never allow any other country to intervene in its internal affairs. [2]

After such toughly-worded remarks, Deng did not forget to stress on the importance of economic ties with US:

Sino-US relations have a good foundation, that is, the two countries can help each other in economic development and safeguarding each other’s economic interests. After all, the Chinese market is not fully developed, so the US can do a lot in terms of making use of the Chinese market. We welcome American business people to continue their commercial activities in China.

All in all, Deng laid down the very policy principle toward US which the current Chinese leadership still upholds. In short, China treasures economic ties with the US but will never allow any intervention in what is deemed as its internal affairs.

On the US part, its trade and foreign economic relations policy could be said as «value-added» in that, when doing business with another country, Washington also wants to spread its values such as democracy, liberty and human rights. In China’s case, Washington always hopes doing business may help bring changes to its political and social system. So as long as China keeps its door open, the US won’t give up its engagement with it.

As a result, there will inevitably be more friction between China and US as their economic ties become more intimate.

The Sino-US relationship dropped to a low ebb in the 1990s. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 removed a common enemy. The US became the sole superpower to dominate international affairs, but China turned to advocate for a «multi-polar» world. The two countries’ ties were severely strained by a spate of incidents in that decade. In 1996, China conducted military exercises in the Taiwan Strait to intimidate Taiwan’s presidential elections.

Alarmed by the tensions, the US dispatched two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region. Then, there was the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Later in April 2001, a Chinese J-8 fighter jet collided with a US EP-3 spy aircraft in skies near China’s Hainan Island. But the two governments managed to prevent the incidents from ruining their ties.

Sino-US relations changed radically following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. Beijing lent its support to Washington’s anti-terrorism war. Anti-terrorism became a common goal for the two countries to warm to each other again. It was also important for China that the US had to focus on the Middle East and divert its attention to East Asia.

Thus, in the first decade of the 21st century, while the US was occupied with its wars against terrorism in Afghanistan and Iraq, China took the time to concentrate on its economic development. Hit by a financial crisis in 2008, the US economy has remained sluggish while China has kept high-speed economic growth.

Thus when the second decade of this century opened, China already replaced Japan to become the world’s second largest economy, next only to the US. Today, China and the US are the largest mutual trading partners, after the European Union. China is also the US’s largest foreign creditor.

Having become a major economic power, China has also found more common interests with the US in international affairs. Apart from anti-terrorism, China is also willing to cooperate with the US to deal with issues such as nuclear proliferation and greenhouse gas emissions.

All this has not helped remove, and in a sense has even increased, mutual suspicion between the two powers. Frustrated by the little progress China has made in political liberalization, Washington has become concerned that with its growing economic and military muscle China may want to challenge its status as the world single superpower. On the other hand, China is suspicious that the US wants to contain its rise, especially after the Obama administration announced its strategic shift to «return to Asia».

With growing self-confidence boosted by its economic achievements, and under domestic pressure of growing nationalistic sentiments, Beijing has become more eager to take tit-for-tat action in regard to what it considers as US «intervention» in its domestic affairs.

Under such circumstances, this means that diplomatic rows between China and the US inevitably will become more frequent. Recently we have seen Beijing condemn the US Embassy in Beijing for taking in blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng, furiously reject a demand by US Department of State to release more details about the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown, and demand the US Embassy in Beijing’s data about local air quality. Not to mention potential tensions between China and the US over bigger and more sensitive issues such as Taiwan and South China Sea.

It thus can be expected that cooperation and confrontation will be the norm in Sino-US relations for years to come. It can also be said that cooperation is the mainstream in Sino-US relations because of their economic interdependence. As many have said, the relationship between the world’s two largest economies is the most important bilateral relationship in this century. Hopes hence can be placed that Chinese and American leaders will have the political wisdom to handle their conflicts and not let them jeopardize their cooperation.

1. See here.
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