The Sino-American Relations in the Future

von Pan Zhenqiang
Online Info-Dienst Ausgabe 6/2004

During my long military career over 40 years, 1971 was the year of particular significance. It was still in the middle of Cultural Revolution in China. Then on one early summer morning, I, a junior military officer at PLA headquarters, was called to the office of my boss. After exchange of a few greetings, he informed me that I had been assigned a new job, which was primarily concerning the United States affairs. That was the beginning of my involvement with that country. From that day on my professional major interest, whether as a defense official or scholar, has invariably been associated directly or indirectly with America and China's relationship with it over the past several decades. What is interesting though is the fact that it was in his office that very morning, he and I learned from the radio broadcasting that Dr. Henry Kissinger had just finished a secret visit to Beijing, and that President Nixon had accepted an invitation to visit China early next year. My involvement with American affairs coincided squarely with the thawing of the Sino-American relations.

Why are Sino-American relations always at a crossroads?

Witnessing the path that the Sino-American relationship has traversed ever since, I have, however, mixed feelings. I feel excited that ties between the two great nations have been strengthening since 1971 despite numerous impediments and interferences as a result of change of both domestic and world situations. At the same time, I feel also uneasy about and even disappointed at so much uncertainty still persistent today in this relationship that there seems always a possibility that a sudden and unexpected crisis may pull back again the two countries to the old rut of deadly confrontation. Indeed, the fragility is so visible that it has almost become a pattern of ups and downs in the Sino-U.S. relationship for every four or five years. This feeling has been greatly reinforced by the countless conferences or workshops that I have attended on the Sino-American relations during the past several decades. In all these meetings, participants almost always like to elaborate one same belief that for this most important bilateral relationship, there are opportunities as well as challenges. And at the end of the day, the conclusion to be announced has always been: "Ladies and gentlemen, Sino-American relations are now at a crossroads."

The same remark today seems still relevant to the present situation, which has become almost a cliché. But the question is for how long we shall repeat it. Will a new situation arise, in which the two countries are able to break the cycle of vicissitude in this bilateral relationship, and that they are able to embark on a road towards sustained cooperation?

To achieve this end, one has to find a solution to a central issue that has been perplexing China and the U.S. ever since the rapprochement in early 1970s. The issue is how the two countries should look at each other in their bilateral relations.

Tragically, we don't seem very smart on the solution of this issue. Are China and the U.S. friends or partners? Are they adversaries or enemies? Or are they something between? Or are they friends for now but will be destined to be adversaries in the future? There have been never clear answers to these questions, and opinions are divided in both countries. But it is also clear that unless the issue of the nature of Sino-American relations are clearly defined and accepted, this relationship will always be on the ad hoc basis, a marriage of convenience during the time of mutual needs, but evidently questionable to survive the test of the change of time in the end.

Now why so hard to achieve a better understanding on this issue? Some people say it is because the two countries lack true common interests. Others suggested that they have enormous unsolvable differences. But it is only too natural for any two normal countries, let alone two major powers like China and the U.S., to have common interests as well as differences. Thus, in my view, what is really at the core of the issue is the inability of the two countries to put their relations on a solid foundation based on mutual trust, equality and mutual respect.

During the Cold War, the two countries were deadly enemy in the Korean War in 1950-53. The intense hostility continued until the rift between China and the Soviet Union had become obvious in late 1960s, which became the driving force for both Washington and Beijing to shelf their antagonism aside and approach each other in order to be in a better position to deal with what they believed as their common threat from Moscow. Due to President Nixon's visit to China the beginning of the political reconciliation between the two countries started. But then the two countries still differed on many vital security issues despite their pragmatism to start cooperation against the Russians. The Shanghai Communiqué released as a result of the Nixon visit faithfully incorporated the specific divergent views of either side. But the Communiqué, for the first time in the history of the two countries, also contained important paragraphs defining common grounds they shared. Particularly, they agreed to use the five principles of peaceful coexistence and the political commitments the two sides should undertake as the basis to normalize their relations. The significance of this agreement, if truly implemented, should never be over-emphasized even today. Thus, it is perhaps still useful to recall these paragraphs when we are now trying to seek a better bilateral relationship between the two counties more than three decades later. The Communiqué stressed:

"There are essential differences between China and the United States in their social systems and foreign policies. However, the two sides agreed that countries, regardless of their social systems, should conduct their relations on the principles of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states, non-aggression against other states, non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. International disputes should be settled on this basis, without resorting to the use or threat of force. The United States and the People’s Republic of China are prepared to apply these principles to their mutual relations."

With these principles of international relations in mind the two sides stated that:

  • Progress towards the normalization of relations between China and the United States is in the interests of all countries;
  • both wish to reduce the danger of international military conflict;
  • neither should seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific region and each is opposed to efforts by any other country of group of countries to establish such hegemony; and
  • neither is prepared to negotiate on behalf of any third party or to enter into agreements or understandings with other directed at other states.

Both sides are of the view that it would be against the interests of the peoples of the world for any major country to collude with another against other countries or for major countries to divide up the world into spheres of interest (1).

Unfortunately, when people talk of the Shanghai Communiqué, they seem always to remember the famous assertion that "the United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that positio" (2). This commitment is of course important. But to me, the above quoted general political common understanding and their commitments that they had agreed to undertake are probably of equal, if not greater, importance as both serve as a truly propitious basic framework for a sustained cooperative Sino-American relationship no matter how situation changes.

From all signs, Washington, however, has never seemed to see it that way. Instead, a double standard has become the "norm" in the China policy of all the U.S. administrations since Nixon particularly with regard to the Taiwan issue, which in Beijing's view has been "the crucial question obstructing the normalization of China and the United States". When the two countries agreed to sign the second Communiqué, on December 15, 1978, deciding to establish their diplomatic relations, the U.S. Congress immediately passed a Taiwan Relations Act, giving Washington a self-assigned right (obligation) to protect Taiwan when it thinks it necessary. When Ronald Reagan came to Power in 1980, he had even threatened to establish diplomatic relations with Taiwan and degrade the U.S. Embassy in Beijing into a liaison office, and declared a plan to dump large-scale military arms to that island. The act triggered a real crisis in Sino-American relations again. But again, the shadow of the Soviet threat seemed to have sobered him up. Reagan backed off. After a few rounds of hard negotiation, the two countries finally worked out the third Communiqué on August 17, 1982, aimed at regulating the U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. It specified that the U.S. side "does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan, that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, and that it intends gradually to reduce its sale of arms to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution (3)." The subsequent records showed that Washington has never been serious about this promise.

The end of the Cold War didn't provide more incentives for a better relationship. On the contrary, the endless debate as how the two countries should look at each other in the post-Cold War era when the former Soviet Union had disappeared became even more heated in both the countries. The vicious cycle of ups and downs has stood out even more persistently.

This situation was aggravated when the Bush administration came to the White House in 2001. It is the most ideological and most conservative U.S. administration ever since perhaps the Reagan time, primarily comprising a group of neoconservatives of Cold War warriors. Designing to augment the U.S. hegemony in the 21st century, these people had naturally regard China as an ideal strategic competitor rather than a strategic partner, which the Clinton administration had once claimed and tried to be engaged with. There was a virtual suspension of all the Sino-American military relations. Efforts were stepped up to further expand alliance and military arrangements in addition to its enhanced deployment in the Asia-Pacific region to augment its hedge policy against China. Japan was in particular to be encouraged to expand its role in Washington's war planning. With regard to the Taiwan issue, the administration seemed to try to shift the long held strategic ambiguity into a sort of strategic clarity, threatening to protect Taiwan once there was a conflict, whatever its cost. Accompanying this changing position, Washington boosted its arms sales to the island and upgraded its official relations with the Taiwan authority. At the same time, military preparations for the contingencies in the Asia-Pacific were also strengthened, with China apparently as the primary target in the war scenarios. Military reconnaissance and spying activities were dramatically increased, leading to the collision of a U.S. EP-3 spy plane with a Chinese fighter in early April last year. China lost a pilot, and the EP-3 was forced to land unlawfully on China's territory. The event plunged the China-U.S. relations into a worst crisis since the Cold War was over.

Then came the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The event suggested that the world community faces security problems that are very different form those in the past. One American official even told the Chinese that the terrorist attacks had fundamentally changed the threat perception in such a way that all the past theory or doctrine on security would no more be relevant any longer. Whether this is true or not one should perhaps wait and see. But evidently a naval action does take place in the U.S. security perception as well as its security strategy. The new outlook seems to focus on those immediate threats like international terrorism and spread of weapons of mass destruction rather than a potential "China threat" as top priority at least for some time in the future. Based on these changes, the neocons have now termed China as a partner. In addition, events like the political setbacks that the U.S. suffered in its war on Iraq and the nuclear crisis of the DPRK are all making the administration more inclined to seek cooperation with Beijing. Dick Cheney has stressed that the common interests are far more and far more fundamental than the differences between the two countries. Colin Powell said that the China-U.S. relations are in its best period of time. However, in the meantime, signals from Washington have been mixed and confusing. Behind all the fine gestures towards China, Beijing perceives increasing wariness, suspicion, mistrust and even hostility against China in Washington in the security field. Particularly with its rapid economic development and its growing influence abroad, the U.S. seems uneasy about the rise of China. Its ambiguous and self-conflicting policy towards Taiwan has especially been a showcase. Under the circumstance, the old fundamental argument seems to remain in force, that is, the seeming change of the U.S. policy of the Bush administration towards China may be most probably just another marriage of convenience rather than a real change of the U.S. strategy.

Should we allow the Sino-American relations adrift forever?

People ask if the U.S. election this year will bring any important incentives for any significant changes in the U.S. China policy. With the election barely three months away, the prospect of who is going to win out is still unclear as the two presidential candidates, George W. Bush and John Kerry, are so close in their contention. But whatever the result, it looks highly unlikely to expect such a change.

First of all, China policy has never become a top issue in the hot debate during the campaign for 2004 election. Security and economy are said to be the two most central issues which will probably decide on who is going to win out. Differences in the security realm between the two candidates, and indeed in the whole nation, are clearly centered on the policies towards Iraq war, anti-terrorism and the way in which America should ensure its security in general. Views on all these issues seem so polarized in the U.S. today that it leaves little room for the attention of the nation to other issues like the China question.

Secondly, as a result of the blowback of the Iraq war and the prospect of the United States continuing to be bogged down in that country, Washington has evidently no interest in seeing instabilities in other regions. In the Asia-Pacific in particular, Washington seems still to count on the great assistance that only China can offer to bring the nuclear issue in Northeast Asia to a satisfactorily peaceful solution. In economy and trade field, despite the increasing frictions between the two countries around issues like the revaluation of the Chinese currency and the role of China in the U.S. outsourcing problems, etc, which, like the issue of human rights, could be nasty occasionally, can hardly overturn the overall bilateral relations. In Washington today, it seems that not even the most vicious anti-China die-hards have the stomach to use the "China card" for the partisan benefits. Thus, the mood seems: better just to let the China policy alone for better or worse.

Last but not least, there seems a fairly large consensus on China policy between the two major parties in the United States today. With respect to the Taiwan issue, it seems that with gradual modifications in its attitude towards China in his first term, the policy of the Bush administration has little difference now in comparison with that for example of the Clinton administration. In the current campaign, both the candidates claim to pursue "one China policy" on the basis of the three Communiqués and the Taiwan Relations Act, but would oppose any change of the status quo across the Strait unilaterally. Both vow to continue the commitment to protect Taiwan but would rein in Chen Shuibian and his independence groups going too far beyond the U.S. control. So, if the policy is so far so good, why bother to change.

If the above analysis makes sense, then it might be safe to say that continuity would be far greater than any major changes in its China policy of the next U.S. administration, be it Bush's second term or John Kerry's new administration. Basically, it would remain an engagement plus containment policy. As with regard to Taiwan issue, the new administration will almost be certain to continue to send mixed signals of being harsh to the mainland on some occasions, but to Taiwan on the others. John Kerry was reported to have made some remarks to the effect that he would support the two sides across the strait to negotiate and that he even supported a solution of unification on the basis of "one China, two systems" formula. This position, if true, is surely welcome news to Beijing. But given the unpredictable political atmosphere in Washington, President Kerry would find far greater obstacles in implementing his view into real policy than the presidential candidate Kerry.

Under the circumstance, the Sino-American relations would most probably continue to be adrift, subject to going up and down depending on the development of the situation. But the challenges are neither country may have the luxury to allow this most important but most sensitive bilateral relationship going adrift forever. There is a saying in China, that sailing against the current, either you keep forging ahead, or you keep falling behind. In a fast changing world today, in which all the nations are trying to readjust their policies to build new state-to-state relations, progress of the Sino-U.S. relationship is just like sailing against the current. Particularly on the issue of Taiwan, the two countries are facing a new situation across the strait that is simply different from that when the two countries were working on their three Communiqués in the Cold War. Complacency as if nothing has changed and that the status quo could be maintained permanently will be very likely to make both Beijing and Washington hostages to an uncharted path in their future interactions, and worse, to breed further mutual strategic mistrust, escalation of measures and counter-measures, and eventual confrontation.

The new situation calls for the two countries, taking advantage of the coming election in the U.S. as a window of opportunity, to think seriously if it is time to take appropriate actions in order to put their bilateral relationship on a more sustained and solid basis. To that end, one will perhaps come to the very question again raised at the beginning of the article, namely, how we should look at each other in the dramatically changing situation. To address properly this issue, I would like to take the liberty to suggest the following points, which I hope to be in order:

1) Both the two countries, particularly their top leaders, need a new strategic vision as well as political courage to build anew a constructive and cooperative relationship to adapt to the changes of the strategic situation. If history is any guidance, the Shanghai Communique has provided some exemplary experience in laying out the basic principles to guide the normalization of the relations between the two countries at the outset. These principles, based on a new vision and political courage by Nixon and Mao Zedong at that time, include, inter alia, recognition of the importance of cooperation between them; emphasizing that the bilateral relationship need not be of a game of zero sum nature, and that both should avoid ideological interference in their interactions; acceptance of the legitimacy of the values of the other side; agreement to build their future relationship in accordance with the five principles of peaceful coexistence, and the renouncement of seeking hegemony. All of these principles are still of great value in today's situation although one must perhaps also keep with time and give these principles new content.

2) Both the two countries should have a better appreciation of and take into consideration the core interests of the other side in their specific actions. Indeed, it is almost impossible to envisage a long-term constructive partnership in the future if either side is indifferent to the core interests of the other. On China's part, Beijing should perhaps be more sensitive to the security concerns of the United States worldwide in general and in the Asia-Pacific in particular, respect the leading role that Washington intends to play in maintenance of peace and stability in the region, and be more proactive in their cooperation to strengthen nonproliferation regime and against international terrorism. For Washington, it is significant to recognize the paramount importance for Beijing to maintain its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to insure a sustained peaceful and stable international environment for its domestic economic development and social progress.

3) Both the two countries should perhaps need a new agreement on the code of conduct in the post-Cold War era, particularly on issues involving their core interests. No doubt, there is first of all a need of an agreement on such a code of conduct on Taiwan, owing to the rapid changes taking place across the Taiwan Strait. The need arises not only because the issue has consistently been bothering the two countries in a most devastating way, it is also because there is virtually now no basic common understanding on the criteria to gorge which acts are right and legitimate and which are not by either side. Those agreements as enshrined in the three Sino-U.S. Communiqués in the hope of regulating the behavior of both countries have either remained only on paper, or simply quietly shelved. The U.S. insists on the adherence to the Taiwan Relations Act as the primary pillar to it Taiwan policy, whose importance is claimed to be even more legally important than the three Sino-U.S. Communiqués. But the U.S. position has understandably been consistently rejected by China. The situation is thus most dangerous as actions by both sides on the basis of miscalculation and misunderstanding could easily occur that lead to a scenario neither really wants to see. Under the circumstance, although the election holds no great hope for a new administration to change fundamentally its policy towards China, it does provide a window of opportunity for the White House rethinking the validity of its Taiwan policy and if it is in its own interest to seek an agreement on the code of conduct acceptable to both sides, aimed at stabilizing the situation across the strait. Whether it should be in the form of the fourth Sino-U.S. Communiqué does not matter. What is important is the availability of such an agreement, which will not only be helpful to pacify the situation across the Taiwan Strait, but also go a long way towards building greater trust and confidence between the two countries for a general relationship in the long future.

4) Both the two countries should do a better job to prepare a more propitious domestic environment for a better Sino-U.S. relationship. This is particularly important on the part of the United States as its China policy has been more often than not victimized by domestic partisan competition. In addition, ideological bias is also another inhibiting element for the U.S. to have a rational and fair perspective on what is going on in China, and on a more balanced and positive policy towards it. On China's side, it seems that Beijing should refrain perhaps from being excessively allergic to anything done by the U.S. as if it was deliberately designed against China's interests. For example, one keeps hearing in China quite often about the so-called U.S. containment policy against China for whatever reasons. But however justified on many occasions, this fear of being encircled, could become a self-fulfilled prophecy if not properly placed in context. Further, the oversensitivity about the U.S. motivation against China could generate the rise of unhealthy nationalism in China, which will then easily be turned into blind anti-American sentiments. It is perhaps for this reason, that it is of great importance to encourage better communication not only on the official level, but also at various unofficial levels and among average people between the two countries.


For short and mid-terms, the Sino-U.S. relations will perhaps greatly hinge on the U.S. policy, as the discrepancy in terms of strength between the two countries gives the world-only-superpower far more freedom of action while China is generally only in a position to react. Much will depend on, therefore, if and how the future U.S. administrations act. So far, it seems that pragmatism characterizes the U.S. China policy. To be fair, pragmatism itself is not necessarily a bad thing as it has after all been playing such an important role in maintaining the Sino-U.S. relations and preventing quite a number serious crisis from escalating into confrontation during the past decades. But pragmatism is at its best only able to make the bilateral relationship adrift, and is certainly not good enough to lead to the building-up of a relationship on a more sustained and solid foundation for a long term constructive partnership, which is so essential in helping shape a more secure world in the future.

It is thus high time for both sides, Washington in particular, to think of a new start of the bilateral relationship based on equality, mutual respect and mutual benefit. The Shanghai Communiqué had in fact started such an exploration and had provided a basic framework for such a benign relationship at least in theory. What is needed now is to continue where it has left off, and give it new content in the changed situation.

For a long run, the Sino-U.S. relations will as much depend on China itself because a balanced positive relationship between any two major countries should also be eventually based on an accepted balance of power. China today is simply too weak to be of adequate strategic value in the security calculation at least in the perspective of many people in Washington’s decision-making circle. This is not suggesting that when China develops and becomes stronger, it should challenge the U.S. supremacy like the former Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Rather, as long as China continues its development, and when its weight in the US strategic calculations grows; Washington will take China more seriously; and the two countries will perhaps find greater incentives for cooperation and avoid confrontation then. It is in this sense that a better and cooperative Sino-U.S. relationship should depend on China’s future development as well as a wise policy accompanying its rapid growth towards Washington. In short, to stabilize the Sino-U.S. relations, what is important for China is its continuing ability to focus on its long-term economic development, to make effort to promote social progress, and strengthen the national cohesion regardless what is being happening outside. Meanwhile, China should also maintain a continued good faith in seeking constructive cooperation between the two countries. That way, a real firm basis for the two countries getting closer and closer will materialize and be consolidated in the future. And it is perhaps only then that there will be a truly bright prospect for the better China-U.S. relations.


(1) See the Shanghai Communiqué,Beijing, February 27, 1972, http://www.nti.org/db/china/engdocs/commk72.htm.

(2) ibid.

(3) The Sino-U.S. Communiqué, August 17, 1982, http://www.nti.org/db/china/engdocs/commk82.ht

The Author:

Major General Pan Zhenqiang (retired) is Professor and Deputy President of the Shanghai Institute for International Strategic Studies

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