During much of the Cold War era, the United States refused to recognise the government of the People’s Republic of China, preferring instead to maintain relations with Taipei rather than Beijing. Beyond this, for the first 26 years of the United Nations’ existence, China had no representation at the international body, owing mainly to US pressure which insisted that Taiwan instead sit in China’s chair. In 1971 this changed when the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 2758 which at long last allowed China to take its rightful seat at the UN, including its permanent seat on the UN Security Council.
The following year, US President Richard Nixon made his first visit to China, thus opening up new avenues of cooperation between Washington and Beijing. Yet it was only in 1979 when the US adopted a One China Policy that established full diplomatic relations with Beijing. Notably, this occurred a year after Deng Xiaoping’s historic reform and opening up of China – thus sending a signal to the US and the rest of the world that when it comes to both internal development and multilateral relations, China’s leadership intended to look to the future rather than the past.
Since 1979, there have been ups and downs in the relations between the US and China. Yet crucially, in a New Year greeting from Chinese Foreign Ministry marking what will be the 40th anniversary of official PRC-USA relations in the year 2019, Chinese officials sought to emphasise the positive aspects of bilateral relations.
“In 2019, we will mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States. Over the past four decades, China-US ties have traversed a tortuous journey and kept forging ahead. The exchanges and cooperation between the two countries have scored historic achievements.
Forty years ago, only several thousand visits were made between the two countries each year. In 2017, over 5.3 million visits were made between the two sides. Forty years ago, the bilateral trade volume was less than $2.5 billion. In 2017, it surpassed $580 billion. Forty years ago, the two-way investment between China and the US was almost zero. In 2017, two-way investment in various forms amounted to over $230 billion in accumulative terms. Over the past forty years, from advancing the proper settlement of regional hot-spot issues to fighting international terrorism, from tackling the global financial crisis to promoting global growth, China and the US have conducted extensive cooperation at bilateral, regional and global levels.
Facts have fully shown that the development of China-US ties has not only delivered huge benefits to the two peoples but also contributed to peace, stability and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region and the world.
The progress achieved in the past forty years has not come by easily and experience should be derived from that. The two sides should view each other’s strategic intentions in a rational and objective manner, step up strategic communication, enhance strategic mutual trust and avoid strategic misjudgment. The two sides should stick to the general direction of bilateral cooperation and keep expanding the areas for mutually beneficial cooperation so as to deliver more benefits to the two peoples.
The two sides should respect each other’s sovereignty, security and development interests and properly manage differences in an effort to avoid disturbing the general picture of bilateral ties. The two sides should expand people-to-people exchanges to continuously cement the social foundation for China-US relations”.
This statement demonstrates several crucial aims of China for 2019:
Embracing openness while accepting that the US might go in a different direction
When Deng Xiaoping made the decision to inaugurate a new era in Chinese openness and reform beginning in 1978, it was neither an experiment nor a capricious move. Instead, it was a clear move to set China on a permanent course for rapid development and modernisation using the people-centred market socialism with Chinese characteristics as a sustainable model for the future.
Since then, China has rapidly developed on its own terms while retaining political sovereignty throughout the process. While China never equates having good relations among multiple nations with a process of sovereignty dilution, neither in terms of an outward nor an inward trajectory (as for example can be seen in the geopolitical relations of many other developing nations), China nevertheless seeks to consummately open new doors to long standing partners while working to consecrate new partnerships with those that formally had few meaningful relations.
In 1979, establishing formal relations with the US was once such outgrowth of this process. The same could be said about Beijing-Seoul relations which have progressed rapidly in a positive direction for both sides since the early 1990s.
Today, China is opening its markets to more imported goods as well as well as to more foreign direct investment (FDI) than at any previous time in the history of the PRC. China will be more than happy for the US to participate in this further trend in China’s historic opening and indeed such a move can help to ease tensions in the ongoing Washington instigated trade war with China.
However, China also realises that there are parts of Washington’s protectionist drive which may become a permanent or semi-permanent feature of American policy. Therefore, while China seeks to lead by an example of openness in a rules based framework, China is also prepared to work with multiple partners including the US on the basis on realism rather than idealism.
China is well aware of the US tendency to stage provocations in the South China Sea, to use its soft power in Asia and Africa in order to spread falsehoods about the Belt and Road initiative and more recently China has made its feelings known in respect of the US ordered Canadian violation of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou’s human rights. In all of these areas, Beijing has and will continue to voice its most robust opposition to US provocations.
However, this does not mean that China cannot see the forest for the trees. China has shown a supreme ability to compartmentalise its relations with multiple foreign partners across many areas ranging from total agreement to areas of tension. This helps explain why during 2018 relations with neighbouring India improved after a stressful 2018 while it also helps to demonstrate why US led assaults on Chinese companies and on the person of Meng have fail to derail bilateral trade talks between Beijing and Washington.
China’s ability to view each specific matter of bilateral relations on its own merits demonstrates a highly rational approach to geopolitical and economic affairs that others would be wise to learn from. China’s New Year message to the US clearly conveys its ability to emphasise positive aspects of both historic and present relations in spite of many well known areas of difficulty.
“Appear weak when you are strong and strong when you are weak”
Sun Tzu admonished those who sought to learn The Art of War to “Appear weak when you are strong and strong when you are weak”. While China’s economy is larger than the US in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) and in the coming decades is set to eclipse that of the US in terms of overall GDP, this has not led to a gloating or arrogant attitude from China. Instead, China is able to internalise and project its strength from a position of humility that conveys the opposite of the dynamism that China is in fact experiencing. This mentality also relates to a highly enlightened quote from Deng Xiaoping who said: “Keep a cool head and maintain a low profile. Never take the lead – but aim to do something big.”.
By appearing weak when in fact China is strong, Beijing’s leadership is following the time tested wisdom of Sun Tzu as well as the more recent wisdom of Deng Xiaoping who each knew all too well that the folly of pride is as dangerous as the folly of irrationality. Therefore, China’s statement to the US is not one that reflects actual weakness but one which reflects the quiet confidence that underlies an important aspect of China’s cultural characteristics.
China, much like the US private sector and shareholders of major US companies, realises that the wholly artificial trade war has gone on for long enough. For the sake of global market stability, China is willing and able to work with the US in spite of areas of disagreement in order to bring about a rapid conclusion to a trade war that has been detrimental to all involved – perhaps especially the United States.
Forty years after China established formal relations with the US, Beijing continues to show a willingness to make the most out of every bilateral partnership – both large and small ones. For the US, 2019 will represent a challenge to see whether its own leaders are up to making the difficult but ultimately rewarding decisions that US leaders made vis-a-vis China in the 1970s.