US-China relations: After 40 years, what next?

January 28, 2019 16:19
China and the United States, which were strategic allies in the early 1980s, no longer view each other as friends. Photo: Reuters

In January 1979, the then 74-year-old Deng Xiaoping, survivor of repeated political purges to become China’s leader after the death of Mao Zedong, met in Beijing with American journalists to mark the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States. As the Wall Street Journal reporter, I asked a question on trade: Was China interested in purchasing weapons from the United States? Deng’s feisty answer was yes, but he didn't know if Washington would be willing to sell arms to Beijing.

At that time, with China beginning to open up, everything seemed possible. Ever since the 1972 visit to China by then US President Richard Nixon, the two countries had been strategizing regarding their common enemy, the Soviet Union. Selling weapons to China was a distinct possibility in those heady days, even though it could pose a grave threat to Taiwan.

But there is little celebrating this year with the two countries in the midst of a trade war.

The US-China relationship was established in a time of great change in China and the world. Within the country, after three decades of relentless class struggle and political campaigns under Mao, there was a fear of chaos and, simultaneously, a deep desire for a better life. The country was one of the poorest in the world because of the suppression of its talented people.

The world outside was marked by the cold war, a contest between Washington and Moscow in all spheres, including the economic, military and scientific. No one knew it then, but the situation would be resolved within a decade by events that led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union.

Today, four decades after 1979, the abandonment of class struggle and the adoption of the market economy have created a new China: a country where abject poverty is close to being wiped out, where the government is stable and confident, with a military whose might can be counted on to defend the country’s interests.

But while China's desire to resume its historic position of dominance is well on the way to realization, American hopes that China would liberalize have been dashed, with the Communist party more entrenched than ever.

Deng urged the adoption of a low international profile but that simply reflected an acceptance of reality. The China he led was poor but that has changed. By comparison, Xi Jinping’s China is assertive because China is now strong. Xi’s policies, too, reflect reality, as it is today.

Despite all the economic and social changes that he inspired, Deng insisted on the need for party leadership, as Xi does today. He also made it clear that China would one day be the equal of the most advanced countries. He knew what China needed was technology, and he was willing to beg to obtain it.

On Jan. 1, Xi Jinping and Donald Trump exchanged messages to commemorate the anniversary. According to Chinese reports, both sides emphasized the need for coordination and cooperation.

The previous day, the Chinese leader exchanged messages with Vladimir Putin to mark the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations and treated Russia as the continuation of the Soviet Union and, hence, China’s oldest friend. Xi’s message was very warm, saying the two sides had deepened mutual political trust and had opened a new era for China-Russia ties.

China and the United States, which were strategic allies in the early 1980s, no longer view each other as friends. On the American side, there is a sense that China had taken advantage of the United States to achieve its current status but refuses to acknowledge this American role. There is a real danger that the relationship may turn into one of enmity, with grave consequences for the world.

In the US-China-Russia triangle, it is the United States that is now odd man out, with China and Russia acting in concert diplomatically and holding joint military exercises.

This doesn't necessarily mean that the US and China will be antagonists, but the future relationship will primarily be one of rivalry. Competition as such isn’t a bad thing and competitors aren’t necessarily adversaries. In the future, as in the past, the relationship will be characterized by both competition and cooperation, but the emphasis is likely to be on competition in all spheres.

Old concepts such as engagement and containment have little relevance when China is the world’s biggest trading nation and engages with more countries than does the United States. Trade disputes – not on weaponry – will arise intermittently but the future relationship, hopefully, will be marked by peaceful competition, a situation acceptable to all sides.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.