China and US: Partnership and Rivalry of Opposites*

*Editor’s note: On March 4, 2022, Russia enacted a law that criminalizes public opposition to, or independent news reporting about, the war in Ukraine. The law makes it a crime to call the war a “war” rather than a “special military operation” on social media or in a news article or broadcast. The law is understood to penalize any language that “discredits” Russia’s use of its military in Ukraine, calls for sanctions or protests Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It punishes anyone found to spread “false information” about the invasion with up to 15 years in prison.

Things are slowly but surely moving toward China and the U.S. becoming the world’s “big two.”

The outcome of the Nov. 15 China-U.S. summit in San Francisco a few weeks ago cannot be measured simply in terms of success or failure. Yes, on the one hand, the talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden, as expected, did not lead to any sensational breakthroughs in bilateral relations. The two leaders’ positions remained virtually unchanged or changed insignificantly, which can be regarded as a setback.

On the other hand, the very fact of the meeting, its impeccable conduct, and several agreements reached by the U.S. and China in various areas allow us to interpret the summit as a step toward stabilizing the complex set of Chinese-American relations, a path that others may follow in the future. In fact, this idea was echoed by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a conversation with reporters immediately after the talks, who noted that the meeting “enhanced trust and removed suspicions,” contributed to “managing differences,” and “expanded cooperation.” At the same time, he emphasized that San Francisco should not be the “finish line,” but is intended to become a “new starting point” in the development of relations between the two countries. In other words, the Chinese regarded the outcome of the meeting as, perhaps, a limited success.

If we analyze the results of the summit in an unbiased manner, we should mention the tensions in the lead-up to the meeting. The road to San Francisco was winding and complicated. One can think of the first face-to-face meeting between the Chinese and American leaders in Bali a year ago as the starting point of preparations for San Francisco. Judging by the general tone of the Bali meeting, it certainly set some expectations for positive developments in Chinese-American relations. However, the parties could not seize this opportunity properly for various objective and subjective reasons.

In the first months of this year, China-U.S. relations again went downhill. Political rhetoric on both sides became increasingly harsh and hostile; mutual suspicion became manic, and sanctions followed one after another, while dialogue and channels of mutual communication were paralyzed or blocked for the most part. Relations between China and the U.S. came dangerously close to entering free fall, and the likelihood of not just a cold war but, to put it mildly, an outright conflict between the two powers increased dramatically.

In this nervous and tense atmosphere, Chinese and U.S. leaders found the political will, in some ways defying their own rhetoric, to begin the difficult search for acceptable compromise once again, taking past mistakes into account. The sides did not rush and emphasized the meticulous preparation for the leaders’ meeting, which was not announced in advance but had been planned. Indeed, it’s a tribute to the work of diplomats of the two countries that planning was done so professionally.

After the May meeting in Vienna between Wang, then director of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee Foreign Affairs Commission Office, and U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, the two sides set out to restore and intensify bilateral communication in many areas. A succession of visits, meetings and talks by senior U.S. and Chinese officials followed in the summer and fall including working groups on economic, financial and trade issues that were formed or reinstated, and the joint climate group resumed its operations. In essence, in a very short period, China and the U.S. have informally restored the essential elements of strategic and economic dialogue that functioned during Barack Obama’s presidency and that Donald Trump destroyed.

Of course, these consultations and negotiations alone could not resolve the strong disagreements, but the process of restoring the living fabric of relations has moved forward. The leaders have had an opportunity not only to see a holistic picture of the current situation, but also to define the limits of acceptable compromise soberly and, perhaps most importantly, form realistic expectations. Thus, in terms of content for discussion, the meeting between Xi and Biden was very well prepared.

Much attention was also paid to protocol, to which the Chinese side is always, and now especially, sensitive, since it was Xi’s first trip to the U.S. since 2018. The trip’s status assumed the level of nearly a state visit. The American side sent Xi a special invitation separate from the invitation to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, as if to separate the two events. This approach was clearly to the liking of the Chinese. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs went even further: The official notice of Xi’s trip to the U.S. stated that, “President Xi Jinping will be in San Francisco from Nov. 14 to 17 for a China-U.S. summit meeting and the 30th APEC Economic Leaders’ Meeting,” meaning that the meeting with the U.S. president had priority. It is no coincidence that Wang shared these details with the press, making it clear that the status of the leaders’ summit was qualitatively different from other bilateral meetings during the trip.

At the talks themselves, the sides weren’t shy in speaking. The two leaders were united in the view that the relationship between their two countries is the most important bilateral relationship in the world.

Xi said the future of humanity on a global scale would depend on the direction of China-U.S. relations in the future.

However, the two sides differed significantly in how they assessed their current relationship. While the U.S., recognizing the usefulness and importance of cooperation in several areas, still placed greater emphasis on competition, the Chinese, without denying the existence of contradiction and competition, tried to bring the idea of cooperation to the forefront. Interestingly, after his talks with Biden, Xi brought up the nature of relations between China and the U.S. in his speech at a crowded reception with American businesspeople and the public the same evening, which echoed the official discussion that had just ended. Xi said, in particular, that the world needs China and the U.S. to work together, emphasizing that the most important question to be answered first is whether China and the U.S. are partners or rivals. China itself, as its leader assured, “is ready to be a partner and friend of the United States,” with the fundamental principles of “mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation.” From Xi’s point of view, if the other side is viewed “as a primary competitor,” “it will only lead to misinformed policy-making, misguided actions, and unwanted results.”

At the same time, these peaceful, conciliatory statements did not mean China was ready to agree to follow American propositions unconditionally in all cases. Xi’s words made this clear: China has interests to protect, principles to uphold and red lines to observe.

In particular, China tried to demonstrate a tough approach when discussing trade and economic issues, where the parties’ contradictions are particularly strong. Xi said that export controls, investment restrictions and sanctions imposed by America on Chinese companies are attempts to strike a blow to China’s science and technology sectors, ultimately aimed at “depriving the Chinese people’s rights to develop.” In response, however, Biden asserted that the U.S. “will continue to take necessary actions to prevent advanced U.S. technologies from being used to undermine our own national security.”

So, at first, it would seem that there is a complete stalemate. Nevertheless, this did not prevent the first meeting of the China-U.S. trade and economic group, comprising the two countries’ leaders of trade policy, two days after the summit. It also didn’t stop the sides from reaching a consensus to begin negotiations on extending the scientific and technological cooperation agreement. Therefore, even from this generally isolated example, it’s clear that China-U.S. relations will continue to combine elements of rivalry and partnership, and the ratio of these elements will not be static but may change dynamically in one direction or the other.

In sum, the meeting in San Francisco again showed that despite all the talk about a multipolar world, the degree of influence of the two major powers of our time continues to grow. Evidently, things are slowly but surely moving toward China and the U.S. becoming the world’s “big two,” regardless of whether this arrangement will ever be formalized. Under these conditions, China and the U.S. have a vested interest in forming alliances with trusted partners. Therefore, we predict that China’s interest in developing cooperation with Russia will continue.

About the author: Sergei Tsyplakov is a professor at the Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs, National Research University Higher School of Economics.

About this publication

About Nikita Gubankov 100 Articles
Originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, I've recently graduated from University College London, UK, with an MSc in Translation and Technology. My interests include history, current affairs and languages. I'm currently working full-time as an account executive in a translation and localization agency, but I'm also a keen translator from English into Russian and vice-versa, as well as Spanish into English.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply