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February 16, 2017

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Sino-US relations remain on solid footing despite Trump’s foreign policy posture

A lot has been written about Sino-US relations, arguably one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world.

A recent addition to the voluminous body of literature on this topic comes from noted America scholar Tao Wenzhao and his work “A History of China-US Relations,” published by Shanghai People’s Publishing House.

Coming in a new, revised edition — the first edition was released in 2004 — Tao’s book is divided into three volumes that chronicle the development of bilateral ties from the 1911 Revolution that ended centuries of imperial rule, to 2000, one year before China’s entry into the WTO.

Speaking at a seminar held on February 10 at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS), a government think tank, Tao discussed the content of his book and shared with fellow Chinese students of America his perspectives about the future of Sino-US relations now that Donald Trump has taken office as President of the United States.

Although bilateral relations have witnessed many vicissitudes over recent decades, a consensus of sorts has taken hold: no matter how times change, China and the US need each other as much as — perhaps even more than — they did before the reestablishment of diplomatic ties in 1979.

Strong as ever

But this consensus was open to debate in the early 1980s, when Tao was a student studying in the US. Back then, there was a heated debate about whether the US needed China more or vice versa, he recalled.

And the subsequent demise of the former Soviet Union added more fodder to the debate, with many casting doubt over the future of a symbiotic US-China relationship after the common Soviet threat was eliminated.

History has proven wrong skeptics who belittled the role of Sino-US relations, said Tao, because Americans soon came around to the idea that their country could not go it alone in coping with security, economic and multiple other global challenges. That China, an important partner, was still needed sank in deeper in American minds.

In spite of the frictions, tensions and conflicts that have affected the bilateral ties over the past 37 years, Tao said areas of common interests have never ceased to expand.

What’s more, he believes that China is steadily evolving into a more proactive partner in the relationship.

This is reflected by the considerably smaller gap between the two countries’ strengths, which in his opinion explains China’s newfound confidence in its participation in global affairs.

For example, China’s GDP has grown from an eighth of the US’s at the turn of the 21st century to about 60 percent as big. Militarily, China still lags far behind the US, but Tao said it is widely accepted among Americans that China’s modernization is rapidly closing the gap in military prowess.

The changing balance of power has put some Americans on edge and prompted a slew of policies and strategic posturing designed to “countervail” China — for example, ex-President Barack Obama’s “pivot” to Asia.

However fiercely the two countries squabbled over China’s maritime disputes with certain neighboring countries, Tao argued that the Obama administration maintained a bottom line, which was to avoid taking sides in these disputes, at least in diplomatic maneuvers. As a result, the two countries have managed their differences and prevented the situation from spinning out of control.

Differences may be harder to manage with Trump now in office, as the new US president has stunned the world with his penchant for improvised diplomacy and somewhat quixotic struggle against established rules and norms in international relations, said Tao.

Huang Renwei, deputy president of the SASS, concurred. He said there are signs that President Trump may really follow through on his campaign promise of bashing China economically.

This is quite unprecedented since it has been customary for economic cooperation and trade to thrive regardless of strained diplomatic and military ties between the two countries.

What’s worse, for the first time since the Three Joint Communiqués were signed, there was an American president who once publicly suggested that China offer concessions on other matters in exchange for US acknowledgement of the “One China” principle, which is essentially the foundation of the relationship, said Huang.

According to him, however, the current US government will eventually revert to engaging China, and realize that some basic principles are non-negotiable.


In his speech, Wu Xinbo, director of Fudan University’s Center for American Studies, observed that however unpredictable or haphazard Trump is, the fundamentals of Sino-US relations will remain unchanged.

Economics play a big part in sustaining the fundamentals.

US exports to China in recent years have far outstripped Chinese exports to the US, which underscores the importance of the Chinese market to US corporations. And Chinese businesses are also investing more heavily in the US, with Chinese FDI in the US totaling US$45.6 billion as of 2016, or three times that of 2015.

During his race for presidency, Trump talked tough about China, threatening to label it a currency manipulator if he were to be elected. But upon taking office, he chose a more discreet policy, apparently convinced that any headlong rush into confrontation inevitably does more harm than good.

A notable development in Sino-US relations is that China is steadily learning to set the agenda in global affairs, for example by spearheading institution-building efforts such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, BRICS Bank and the One Belt One Road initiative.

In general, Wu argues that the Sino-US relations are becoming more mature, a big indicator of this is the recognition on both sides that they cannot afford to let the entire relationship be hijacked by altercation over a certain issue.

“Like it or not, the Sino-US relations have roughly developed in the way China had expected. Some US president may wish to rock the boat and indeed has taken steps to destabilize the relationship, but it is almost certain that things will come full circle at the end of his tenure,” Wu noted.


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