While Chinese media continues to collectively reflect on the dawning of 2019 as the year which marks the 40th anniversary of modern China-US diplomatic relations, American media has largely been silent in respect of marking an occasion which in hindsight established relations between the world’s two largest economies.
When China first established formal ties with the US, 88% of Chinese lived in poverty according to international standards, whereas today that figure is less than 2% and looks to be brought to 0% by the end of 2020. In 2014, China overtook the US as the world’s largest economy in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP) while it is widely believed that in terms of overall GDP, China will eclipse the United States to become the undisputed largest economy in the world before mid-century.
Yet while these statistics help to demonstrate China’s rapid internal development as a result of the reform and opening up that Deng Xiaoping instigated in 1978, these numbers should not be used to portray China as a nation that sees itself as a competitor to the United States nor to any other economically influential country. Instead, China looks to use its economic weight as a force for stability in a world where many are predicting a new global recession which could potentially rival that of 2008. Of course, it is helpful to remember that because of China’s conservative (as opposed to radical) monetary policies and its model of sustainable growth through innovation and economic diversification, China was largely able to weather the storms of the 1997 Asian financial crisis as well as the 2008 Great Recession in a far more successful way than many other nations. It is within this spirit of stability, sustainability and mutually positive outcomes that China seeks to transform its economic might into diplomatic initiatives which stress the benefits of building multilateral rules based partnerships with the aim to create win-win outcomes.
The very nature of action steps aimed at achieving win-win outcomes necessarily negates a competitive atmosphere as it is China’s goal to see living standards rise globally which in turn can calm areas of geopolitical tensions that typically arise over competition for material resources. During his first major interview of 2019 with the China People’s Daily, Chinese State Councilor And Foreign Minister Wang Yi explained the essence of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy in the following way:
“Xi Jinping’s Thought on Diplomacy is a complete theoretical system. The ten major aspects of Xi Jinping’s diplomacy thought specify the target, fundamental principle, major tasks and unique style of China’s diplomacy in the new era, marking a significant leap forward in the construction of China’s diplomatic theories. The building of a community with a shared future for humankind is the core and essence of Xi Jinping’s diplomatic thinking. It carries what Chinese people have always believed in that the world is a common wealth, and conforms to the progress of human society, becoming a symbol of China’s diplomacy in the new era. Going beyond the differences among social systems and developmental phases, and viewing international relations from the overall interests of the people, the theory showcases global vision and serves as a lofty goal that Chinese diplomacy in the new era pursues. This concept, proposed by general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping, has been incorporated into the documents of prominent international and regional organizations including the UN, receiving broad recognition from countries all over the world. It will have a profound impact on the future direction of international relations as well as the future of humankind”.
Turning to goals for China-US relations in 2019, Wang stated the following:
” 2019 marks the 40th anniversary of China-US diplomatic relations. The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius said, ‘When reaching forty, one should no longer have any doubts.’ The experience and lessons over the past 40 years are enough to prove that for China and the US, cooperation will deliver win-win results, whereas confrontation will end with a loss for both sides. In today’s world, where the interests of China and the US are interwoven in the era of in-depth development of economic globalization, both countries should eliminate all barriers, to implement the valuable consensus and be free from doubt. The one who adopts Cold War mentality will only isolate itself, and the one who uses zero-sum games will never be able to retreat without hurting itself. China will unswervingly follow the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, stay committed to peaceful development, and conduct win-win cooperation with countries. We hope the US can be positive about China’s progress. There is no need to create rivals, and still less, to effectuate a self-fulfilling prophecy”.
Wang also spoke of the positive impact that China’s legacy of reform and opening up can have on the wider world. Regarding this, he said:
“Forty years ago, reform and opening-up changed China fundamentally, opening a door for the country’s communication with the rest of the world.
China’s reform and opening-up has witnessed the most remarkable achievements during the six years since the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. The CPC Central Committee, with Comrade Xi as its core, has launched a series of important measures, making a number of historical achievements.
I believe that following China’s continuing reform and opening-up, the country will surely inject even greater vitality into the world over the next 40 years, bringing endurable peace, as well as providing the world with more positivity”.
Turning back to the wisdom of Confucius as quoted by Wang, it is clear that while China has no doubts about its priorities among its partners including the US, Washington is stuck at a crossroads in terms of shaping its own mentality with which it approaches China. China-US relations have clearly benefited not only the US private sector but have benefited ordinary Americans whose living standards have risen due not only to the wide availability of Chinese products, but beyond this, Americans stand to have their material condition elevated through interactions with modern Chinese technology ranging from new innovative micro-processing technology to 5G mobile networks that under an improved political atmosphere can be built by Chinese firms in the United States in a spirit of win-win cooperation. Furthermore, as China continues to pioneer some of the most modern life-saving medical research and technologies, it is very likely that when the next big breakthrough occurs in the curing of terrible diseases, it will be Chinese doctors and scientists who will be behind such a positive outcome.
In a world that is becoming ever more inter-connected not just in terms of the flow of goods and services but in terms of digital and real life human-to-human contact, the US should embrace an era where the combined economic influence of both America and China can help steer the world away from conflict and needless competitive impulses.
But instead of embracing the mentality that Richard Nixon took vis-a-vis China in the early 1970s, today’s US policy makers are often behaving as though they have not been in a prosperous 40 year relationship but instead appear to be in a state of confusion. On the one hand, every major business federation in the US up to and including the US Chamber of Commerce has been fully opposed to the Trump authored trade war with China. Yet on the other hand, Washington continues to pursue hostile policies against Chinese companies whose only goal is to peacefully expand trading opportunities, just as US companies correctly seek to do the same. Beyond this, Donald Trump himself has spoken of his positive personal and professional relationship with Xi Jinping and yet in 2019, the markets of the wider world continue to await a swift win-win resolution to a needless trade war that is entirely within reach so long as both sides approach the matter with a clear aim of prioritising shared interests in prosperity over paranoia.
The United States ought to reflect on the 40th anniversary of relations with the PRC with the same positivity that Wang Yi spoke of during his New Year interview. If this is done, 2019 can be a year when both countries bring much needed stability to the world. By contrast, if the US maintains a paranoid and hostile attitude towards China, world markets will continue to suffer and as a result, real people will pay an unnecessary price due to short term political thinking.