China-U.S. relationship at juncture after balloon puncture
Top Chinese IR expert on future of China-U.S. relationship
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In Late February, Peking University’s Jia Qingguo spoke with China Review News on the state of the China-U.S. relationship.
Jia Qingguo is a professor and former dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University. He is also a delegate at the CPPCC, China’s top political advisory body.
Below is a translation of his interview.
The Need for Transparency and Pragmatism in Sino-US Conversations
Q: The recent balloon incident has cast a shadow over Sino-US relations again. What’s your opinion regarding the impact of this incident?
A: This incident itself is not such a big deal. Even if the balloon is used for intelligence gathering as the US claims, as its capacity is very limited since the information it can gather can also be collected through satellites, Google Earth, and other means. Not to mention that the Chinese government has clarified that it is a civilian meteorological balloon. This incident has been hyped up unnecessarily, especially by some extreme figures in the US who seized on this opportunity and repeatedly hyped up China’s image as a threatening power, eventually forcing the Biden administration to take on a tough stance on this issue and sending military aircraft to shoot it down. Of course, extreme voices in China also exaggerated this matter. It should be said that this matter has caused a much larger impact than many on both sides expected.
As for Sino-US relations, I think the biggest impact is primarily on the public opinion of each country for the other. The public, led on by the media, perceived the other side as unreasonable without fully understanding the issue. This perception can cause long-term damage to the bilateral relationship. Secondly, it has an impact on the official interaction between the two countries. Due to domestic politics in the US, the Biden administration decided to postpone the visit of Secretary of State Blinken to China, which set back the efforts to implement the consensus between Xi and Biden on stabilizing and improving Sino-US relations.
Q: The balloon incident seems to indicate that the mutual suspicion between China and the US is difficult to resolve. In the current situation, how do you think China and the US should strengthen communication and resolve their differences?
A: Now, China and the US may need more communication than ever before to avoid more intense confrontations on conflicts in specific issues. First, both sides must take a more proactive approach to stabilize and improve the situation rather than wait for the other side to act. Since stabilizing and improving Sino-US relations are in their own national interests, they should take the initiative to do so. Doing so may invite criticism at home, but I believe that both sides need to withstand domestic political pressure to do the right thing for their respective national interests. China and the US have many issues that need to be clarified, many things that need to be negotiated, many differences that need to be resolved, and many common interests that need to be maintained. Both sides need to make greater efforts to stop the continuous decline in bilateral relations.
Q You just mentioned the need to stop the continuous decline of the Sino-US relationship. How do you think both sides can avoid negative interactions in the current situation?
A: First, both sides need to increase transparency. Their policies and actions should be more in the open. Second, when issues arise, timely communication with the other side is necessary to explain the situation and control the problem at an early stage. Third, explaining and clarifying to the public as soon as possible when issues arise is important to avoid giving extreme voices the opportunity to manipulate the issue and exploit the hostility between the two countries. Fourth, when both sides make public statements, they should try to take into account the other side's position and avoid making statements that would embarrass the other party or lead to a vicious cycle of interaction. This is especially important in the current situation with the uncomfortable political climate in Sino-US relations. Both sides face various political pressures domestically, so to stabilize the relationship between the two countries, we need to learn to put ourselves in the shoes of the other side, consider their perspective, and interact based on this foundation. If this approach applies to interpersonal relationships, it applies to international politics. No one should expect to solve problems through humiliation and blame.
贾庆国：首先，双方都需要增加透明度，双方的政策、做法都需要更加公开透明。第二，出现问题要及时与对方沟通，向对方说明情况，尽早把问题控制在萌芽状态。第三，出现问题也要尽早向公众说明和做出解释，避免让一些极端人士炒作这个议题和以此绑架两国关系。第四，中美双方公开表态时，在坚持原则的前提下，要尽可能照顾对方的处境，避免说一些让对方难堪的话，避免恶性互动。这在两国政治气氛非常不好的情况下，尤其需要这样做。双方在国内都面临各种政治压力，所以要想稳定两国关系，就需要学会换位思考，英文是叫“Putting oneself in other's shoes”，多从对方的角度想一想，在此基础上进行互动。处理人与人之间关系要想有积极的结果需要这样，处理国家与国家之间的关系也是如此，谁也不要指望通过羞辱和指责对方来解决问题。
Q: How do you think the consensus reached by the Chinese and U.S. leaders can be implemented?
A: The results of the meeting between the Chinese and U.S. leaders were good, and some important and beneficial consensus was reached on managing bilateral relations. However, it also exposed a problem: the relationship between the two countries has deteriorated to the point where it requires the personal intervention of the two leaders to manage it, which is not normal. Sino-US relations involve various aspects, and many agencies at all levels of both governments are responsible and obligated to manage this relationship. For various reasons, many people now feel that they cannot manage the part of the relationship they are responsible for and can only solve problems through summit meetings. Some of the consensus reached in Bali has been reached before. The responsible agencies should have taken the initiative to handle the relationship between the two countries according to the consensus rather than waiting for specific instructions from leaders every time.
Another problem is that some officials at all levels of both sides have overrated domestic political risks when dealing with Sino-US relations, especially when the domestic political atmosphere tends to be extreme. They tend to adopt a more aggressive attitude when dealing with the relationship between the two countries because it is politically safer. However, when both sides adopt a tough attitude, it is difficult for them to handle the problems pragmatically.
Despite Washington’s Tough Attitude, Cooperation is Inevitable
Q: Based on your observation, is there a high degree of consensus in the US between Democrats and Republicans on anti-Chinese topics?
A: Yes, a high degree of consensus may exist in Washington on the tough attitude towards China, but there are different opinions on their respective motives. Based on political realism, the first view believes that China's rise will inevitably challenge the interests and privileges of the US as a dominant power. The US must resist such a change, so conflict between the two countries is inevitable. This is the view of containment. Policymakers who hold this view have long advocated for containing China, believing that the US cannot allow China to rise. The containment camp had been a minority in the US until not so long ago.
The second view stems from ideology and values. After years of engaging with China, some are frustrated that they failed to change China in the way the US expected, and that China is becoming a country that is fundamentally at odds with the US in terms of values, a so-called “rogue state”. The existence of a rogue state itself is a threat, not to mention its rise. For example, North Korea is not particularly powerful, but it is seen as a rogue state, and many countries consider it a threat. Now, some of the people who used to believe in engagement with China in the US believe that China is becoming a rogue state, and with China's rise, it is becoming a huge threat to American values and its way of life. They also advocate being tough on China and hope to find a way to push China to change in the direction the US desires.
The third view is a racist view, which believes that China, as a so-called inferior state, should not be allowed to become powerful. Therefore, China's strength threatens the US as a country ruled by a so-called superior race, and measures need to be taken to contain it. This group of people is not large in number, but they have a lot of energy.
In summary, although there is a consensus to be tough on China, the reasons behind the consensus are vastly different, and most Americans still hold moderate views on China. In their view, China and the US should not be in conflict but should cooperate in areas of common interest. These people go with the flow on Sino-US issues because being tough on China has become a politically correct thing to do, and not going along with the flow is risky. For example, when the US Congress votes on bills and resolutions related to China or Taiwan, they are usually passed with a super high percentage or even a unanimous vote. This is very abnormal because the US Congress is usually divided on any issue, and it is hard to imagine that a major bill would have a support rate of over 60%. However, when it comes to bills related to China and Taiwan, one may be isolated and attacked if one does not vote as the consensus dictates. Therefore, although many legislators may not privately agree with more radical measures, they still vote in favor in the end.
Q: In this situation, how can Beijing effectively communicate with Washington?
A: Although taking a tough stance on China is a consensus among policymakers in Washington, there are many practical issues that their decision-makers cannot ignore. First of all, China and the US are two superpowers and nuclear countries that cannot afford to go to war. If they do, both sides will suffer, regardless of who wins or loses, and if it escalates to nuclear war, it means mutual destruction. Therefore, avoiding war is a core interest for both sides, which is a reality that both sides must face.
Secondly, the economic relationship between China and the US is very tight. Both sides have significant trade and investment in each other, and both benefit greatly from an open and free international economic order. Therefore, maintaining the economic and trade relations between the two sides and upholding an open and free international economic order are common interests of both sides. This is also a reality that both sides cannot ignore.
Thirdly, the US is a superpower in terms of both power and influence, and China is also becoming a superpower. Unlike other countries, superpowers cannot protect their interests by hitchhiking the international order but can only do so by maintaining it. Therefore, both China and the US have significant interests and responsibilities in maintaining the international order and promoting global governance. There are many problems and challenges in the world today, such as protectionism, terrorism, the proliferation of nuclear and mass destruction weapons, climate issues, public health, etc. These problems cannot be solved by a single country or a few countries but require the cooperation of all countries. International cooperation cannot be achieved without the leadership and promotion of these two superpowers, so there is still a strong demand for international cooperation between China and the US. This is also the reality faced by both countries.
In the face of these realities, China and the US must manage their relationship pragmatically from their respective interests. So although there is a so-called consensus on taking a tough stance on China in Washington, the US government cannot ignore these realities and needs to deal with China responsibly. In this context, there is a mutual benefit for the two countries to cooperate and manage conflicts.
Taiwan Strait Crisis: A Call for sturdier guardrails
Q: In one of your articles, you described the Taiwan Strait Crisis as a "perfect storm." If Kevin McCarthy, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, was to visit Taiwan in the near future, would this add to the already precarious situation?
A: If McCarthy goes to Taiwan, it will certainly have a significant impact on Sino-US relations. How should the Chinese government respond? I believe that first, China must resolutely oppose and protest the decision; second, China should respond with diplomatic or even military means. We have already seen a military response during Pelosi's visit to Taiwan. The reason for doing so was to signal that if the US resumes official relations with Taiwan, China will resume a state of war in the Taiwan Strait. Currently, the relationship between China and the US faces a significant challenge as the US has hollowed out the Three Joint Communiques through a series of schemes. Against this backdrop, if McCarthy visits Taiwan, there is the possibility of recalling ambassadors and downgrading diplomatic relations. Some people in the US always have various considerations and are determined to impose their will on China and the US, pushing for confrontation. I think that such behavior is outrageous.
Q: Biden administration's approach to the Taiwan question is becoming more uncertain, and its interpretation of the One China Policy is becoming more hollow. What do you think China should do? How can both sides prevent conflicts on this issue?
A: The US has proposed that the two countries should establish a guardrail through negotiations to avoid full-scale military confrontation or even war due to accidental conflicts. Some people in China believe that the US proposal to establish a guardrail is a trick to restrict China's countermeasures against US provocations. In their view, in a situation where the US is stronger than China, the establishment of a fence limits what both sides can do to some extent, but the US has more ability than China to do other things that are unfavorable to China. This argument has some merit, but I still think it is necessary to establish a guardrail. As I mentioned earlier, China and the US have a common core interest in avoiding war, so the two countries must formulate some rules to prevent accidental military conflicts that neither side is prepared for nor willing to see.
Of course, I also think that the US definition of a guardrail is too narrow and cannot fundamentally solve the war risk faced by both countries. The guardrail currently being discussed only helps to prevent certain military actions from leading to war between the two countries. Still, it cannot prevent other actions from leading to war, such as Taiwan's declaration of independence, the development of WMD and visits by high-level members of the US Congress to Taiwan. Therefore, in order to avoid war and maintain other interests of both countries, China and the US should also consider setting up a guardrail politically. Both countries should not allow things like visits by senior officials to Taiwan to happen again. As individuals, they are entitled to their own political preferences, but as representatives of their countries, they must be responsible and think twice about their actions. Continuously stirring up the Taiwan question, creating crises, and hurting the feelings of the people of both countries pose a serious threat to the security of both countries. Therefore, both sides should also negotiate to establish a guardrail politically and regulate how both sides engage politically.
Q: The US has actually been making a lot of small moves regarding the situation in the Taiwan Strait in recent years. Do you think the US is aware of the consequences of provoking China where it concerns its core interests?
A: I think a considerable number of people in the US understand how important the Taiwan question is to China and how sensitive and explosive it can be. However, more and more people, especially young people, do not understand or refuse to understand. Both sides need to help the youths understand their respective interests. For China, the Taiwan question is not a question of whether to retrieve or not retrieve a territory. From the perspective of territorial sovereignty, after the end of World War II, when Japan was forced to return Taiwan to China, Taiwan has always been a part of China's territory. Therefore, the Taiwan question is not a question of China retrieving the territory that was separated from China in history. Rather, it is a problem of the Chinese people not allowing Taiwan's independence and foreign forces to split it from China's territory. Our Anti-Secession Law reflects that Taiwan is a part of China's territory. The current state of cross-strait separation is a continuation of the civil war. China’s aim is to end the state of separation as soon as possible, preferably through peaceful means. This should not be understood as an issue of China reclaiming territorial sovereignty.
The US intervention in the Taiwan question could lead to the splitting of Taiwan away, so we must resolutely oppose it. The DPP wants to promote "Taiwan independence," so we must also oppose it. In short, the Taiwan question at this stage is a question of opposing separation, opposing "Taiwan independence," and opposing interference. At this stage, our main means is to promote peaceful development to ultimately achieve the reunification of the two sides on the issue of governance.
China and the US are unable to decouple completely. China needs to think harder about how to breakthrough choking points
Q: Currently, the US is “choking China’s neck“ in many places and rigorously calls for decoupling with China. What do you think of this issue?
A: This issue is relatively complex, involving at least several layers of problems. The first layer involves technological competition. The US is concerned that exporting high-tech products from the US to China will help China surpass the US in high-tech research and development. Therefore, it restricts the export of some high-tech products to China. The second layer involves security. The US is also concerned that China's electronic products and software exported to the US have been bugged. Therefore, it restricts some electronic products and software produced by Chinese companies from being exported to the US, including Huawei's electronic products and some software. Some hardliners in the US even want to ban TikTok and WeChat from operating in the US for the same reason. The US also restricts Chinese companies from investing in certain fields in the US, such as those related to security and high tech. The third layer involves supply chain security. The US is worried that the global production of goods is overly dependent on China, so it advocates diversifying the production locations to reduce the potential impact of China's policies on its production supply chain. It is actively pushing some companies producing goods in China to move at least part of their production capacity outside China.
Of course, the decoupling promoted by the US government also has limits. After all, China is a very large market, and completely decoupling from China would cause not only serious harm to the Chinese economy but also cause huge losses to the US economy. Therefore, in the field of high tech, the US implements a policy where it mainly restricts the export of some cutting-edge technology to China while generally allowing the export of high-tech products to China. In terms of imports, it mainly restricts enterprises that it believes are associated with the military and intelligence agencies, not all Chinese enterprises. In terms of investment, it restricts fields related to high-tech research, development and security, not all fields. After all, it hopes that US companies can maintain their market share in China and import those goods that are high in quality, cheap and irreplaceable from China while hoping that Chinese companies can invest in the US to develop the economy and increase employment. This is also the fundamental reason why, despite the decoupling being so popular in the US in recent years, the total volume of trade between China and the US is still increasing.
Of course, the US decoupling policy also poses a very serious challenge to China, especially in terms of the impact on our high-tech development, which has caused so-called "chokehold" issues. One domestic view about this is that we need to increase investment to solve all the chokeholds and achieve independence from the US. However, can we solve all the chokehold problems? Will a large amount of investment achieve the expected results? Unfortunately, it is unlikely. The advantages of the US and some Western countries in many fields are the result of long-term accumulation, and China is unlikely to surpass them in the short term. Second, there are many chokeholds for various reasons, and our resources are insufficient. In this situation, the probability of success is even lower. Even when the US was at its strongest point, it was still unable to solve all the chokeholds it faced. Today, our chance to achieve it is even slimmer.
Even if a miracle occurs and we are able to produce all products independently and self-reliantly through hard work, what would the result be? The most likely outcome is that other countries will no longer have economic relations with us, which means we will be cut off from the rest of the world. If China does not have external connections, Chinese companies will lose the global market, lose economies of scale, and reduce production efficiency, leading to a decline in our global competitiveness. This is not what China wants.
Therefore, to address the chokehold problem, we still need to think of better solutions. For example, we can identify one or several of our best products and technologies in every production chain or within main high-tech research clusters and make them the best in the world, rendering it impossible for others to replace them. This way, we can form a kind of deterrence against other countries and greatly increase their cost of implementing a chokehold on us. This may be relatively easier to achieve and can maintain our economic and trade relations with the rest of the world, allowing us to utilize our comparative advantages and maintain our corporate competitiveness fully. Of course, further study is needed on how to achieve this.
Promoting People-to-People Exchanges: Governments Can Offer More Support
Q: In the post-pandemic era, where quarantine is no longer necessary, how do you think China and the US should strengthen people-to-people exchanges?
A: In the past few years, people-to-people exchanges between China and the US have been greatly hindered due to epidemic prevention and other reasons. For a period of time, the number of students and teachers from each other's countries has decreased significantly. This situation is abnormal and has a negative and long-term impact on the bilateral relationship. Without face-to-face communication between people, both sides can only rely on media that fall short of objectivity, rampant rumors on the Internet, and personal imagination to understand each other. Against the background of different ideologies, different political systems and hostile political atmospheres, both sides tend to speculate about each other negatively, which is very detrimental to the development of the bilateral relationship.
Now that the pandemic has entered a new stage and both sides have made significant adjustments to their epidemic prevention policies, it is time to actively promote people-to-people exchanges between the two countries. Specifically, I hope that first, both sides can cancel unreasonable travel restrictions that hinder exchanges and allow citizens and young people from both sides to visit and communicate with each other's countries easily. Second, both governments can take measures to encourage exchanges with each other and provide financial support for experts, scholars, and students to visit and study in each other's countries.
On the Chinese side, the government can consider taking measures to encourage experts and scholars to go abroad for exchange and research. With China's rise and increasing influence in the world, our experts and scholars need to have a deeper understanding of the world and provide more and better suggestions for our country based on better understanding, helping our country play a more responsible, constructive, and effective role in world affairs. In addition, the government can relax its restrictions on experts and scholars speaking out, including the restrictions on attending various international conferences, accepting foreign media interviews, and writing articles in overseas media, giving our experts and scholars the opportunity to tell China's story and let the world hear the voice of China. Moreover, the government can consider setting up a special fund to support experts, scholars, and students in their foreign exchanges.
Q: Do you have any stories to share with us during your exchange at Stanford University?
A: I think there are two main points. First, American universities also face domestic political pressures when dealing with China, including some forces accusing them of being too close to China. For example, I saw an article in a small American newspaper accusing Stanford University of being too close to China, citing Stanford’s invitation of Chinese experts to participate in the international forums they organized, including myself. Second, although the relationship between the two countries is not very close now, there are still many people in the US who hope for stability and improvement in Sino-US relations. Among the experts, scholars, and students I have contacted, many people still believe that stability and improvement in Sino-US relations are in line with the fundamental interests of both countries.
Disclaimer: This is an official translation of Jia’s interview. Please refer to the original text for its precise meaning.