•The two countries need to recapture the spirit of the then Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping’s official visit to the US in January – February, 1979.
•The superpower is simply buying time in order to shore up its arsenal in the region as it aims to contain China’s influence.
It is now universally acknowledged that relations between China and the United States is the world’s geopolitical barometer.
By virtue of being interchangeably first and second on almost all major social and economic indicators, the two countries determine much of the world’s hopes and fears between them.
This fact was reiterated by China's State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang during a meeting with US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns in Beijing on Monday. Qin’s statement was an attempt to thaw relations between the two major countries, who have worked at cross purposes in the last few years due to differences on major bilateral and multilateral issues.
It is easily discernible that the US has been the cause of the jinx in the relationship between the two erstwhile friends. The latest period of conflict started in earnest during the term of former president Donald Trump. Although he still harbored reservations, Trump’s predecessor Barrack Obama had a more positive outlook on relations between the two countries.
After taking office in 2009, Obama noted that “the relationship between the United States and China is the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century.” The first black president of the US was circumspect in his analysis of the relationship, and viewed bilateral relations between the two countries as consisting of healthy competition with varying degrees of cooperation and competition.
This is what the world would prefer to see. However, it seems the hegemonic ways of the U.S. cannot stand competition that surpasses its achievements. In five years of his tumultuous first and only term, Trump clawed back Obama’s delicate balance by unleashing and doubling down a trade war with China.
Incumbent US president Joe Biden has actually brought the two countries more at logger heads, while purporting that he supports a rapprochement. It is instructive that ambassadors Qin and Nicholas meeting in Beijing was a follow up of the November 15 in-person meeting between Biden and Chinese president Xi Jinping on the eve of the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia.
Just like during the two presidents’ meeting in Bali, the Taiwan issue stuck out in the ambassadors’ meeting on Monday. This is the major bone of contention that will make or break relations between the two countries.
Even after giving his personal assurance that Washington does not support Taiwan independence, Biden’s subsequent pronouncements and actions after November have been the complete opposite.
The US established diplomatic relations with China on December 16, 1978 after much haggling by the former on the Taiwan issue. Eventually, the US accepted the three principles set out by China for establishing official relations.
These were that the US would sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan, termination of the mutual defense treaty between US and Taiwan, and withdrawal of all US forces from the Chinese territory. But the US has subsequently reneged on the agreements as it became increasingly paranoid and scared of China’s social and economic constant rise.
This portrays ill will and a very condescending attitude by the US towards China. It is extremely dishonest for Biden to say and promise one thing at the spur of the moment, knowing too well that Washington’s strategy is the total opposite. It means that as usual, the superpower is simply buying time in order to shore up its arsenal in the region as it aims to contain China’s influence.
But there are low-hanging fruits that both countries can start working with in the immediate term. These are areas that the international community expects leadership from the two influential and powerful countries.
For instance, the US and China must close ranks on climate change. By virtue of the fact that they are the two largest economies, both are by default the biggest polluters. Conversely, they are also the biggest innovators and producers of green technology.
Still, going by the precedence the US set during the COVID-19 pandemic, and the cavalier attitude the US has had on climate change particularly under Trump, it may not be smooth sailing. But the superpower should not use climate change to leverage its power on China for the sake of humanity.
The two countries need to recapture the spirit of the then Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping’s official visit to the US in January – February, 1979, which was the first to the country by a Chinese leader after the founding of the People's Republic of China. During the visit, both sides signed agreements on cooperation in the fields of science and technology, culture, education, trade and space.
Most importantly, the US needs to view its modern geopolitical equal with respect. The US needs to re-examine its intentions and rework its thinking on China’s foreign policy. The latter has never shown signs of aggression to any of its economic or political adversaries.
Ultimately, the world needs amiable relations between the two countries. Many allies in this divide have suffered huge economic losses due to the disruption of supply chains. The increased polarization arising from the US-China diplomatic rift is also creating unnecessary tension reminiscent of the Cold War.
Stephen Ndegwa is the executive director of South-South Dialogues, a Nairobi-based communications development think tank.