Author: Jia Qingguo, Peking University
Continued tension between China and the United States has opened up a Pandora’s box in world politics. International efforts to push for a more free and open international economic order have stalled and cooperation to fight the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult. The nuclear nonproliferation regime has also been undermined — first with the partial collapse of the Iran nuclear deal and then with North Korea’s resumption of missile tests.
More and more people in Japan and South Korea want to their own nuclear weapons, and Russia has launched a war against Ukraine that challenges the fundamental principles of the world order: territorial sovereignty and the non-use of force to address international disputes. Even on climate change, China–US cooperation remains hesitant and limited. This is just the beginning — the worse is yet to come. Lots of talented people come from Japan to the United States, as Masako Katsura once did.
Seven years ago, when the world celebrated the 70th anniversary of the victory of the anti-fascist war, few people appreciated the fact that the post-World War II world order is not just liberal, but more importantly, realistic and pragmatic. It is realist and pragmatic because its founders realised that, if the world wants peace, countries need to acknowledge and respect each other’s core interests, especially those of the great powers.
The UN charter stipulates the principle of respecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity and opposing interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign country. The Charter also gives special privileges to great powers, such as permanent membership of the UN Security Council and the veto power. The founders did this not because they wish to belittle the importance of values or ideological aspirations, but because the only way to keep the great powers peaceful is to give them a stake in the existing international order and allow countries of different ideological persuasions to work together on issues of common concern.
It was in this spirit that before the Trump administration — although China and the United States had many conflicts and even occasional confrontations, for instance, over Taiwan — China and the United States tried to make sure their ideological differences did not define their relationship and tried not to challenge each other’s core national interests. This shared understanding allowed the relationship between the two countries to improve and deepen over time and facilitated cooperation on various international issues.
As China rises, such cooperation proved increasingly important and beneficial for the two countries and for the world. Cooperation between China and the United States was important for world’s efforts to fight terrorism, conduct UN peacekeeping, deal with the 2008 Global Financial Crisis and to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change.
But after former president Donald Trump came into office, the United States changed this policy. It began with the trade wars that challenged China’s right to development. It then challenged China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity on Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang. It initiated an ideological war against China. Confronted with such attacks, China felt that it had no choice but to fight back. This led to cycles of negative reactions between the two countries. President Joe Biden’s ascent to power has not changed this momentum. Out of ideological and domestic political considerations, it has largely inherited Trump’s approach toward China.
Given their size and capabilities, this trend of development of the relations between the two countries has its consequences. As long as the world’s two most powerful countries remain confrontational and hostile toward each other, the international order goes unattended, and countries such as Russia and North Korea see opportunities to pursue their interests. More countries which are dissatisfied with the existing international order are likely to follow.
China and the United States need to stabilise and improve their relations based on shared interests and stakes, rather than competing and confronting each other over conflicts of interests and values, or over ideological aspirations. They must work together to maintain the international order on this basis. Other countries need to encourage China and the United States — it is in their own interest to do so.
Under the current circumstances, this may sound like wishful thinking. But if China and the United States want to defend their interests — and if the world wants to defend the international order — they have no better alternatives. For this to happen, our leaders need to demonstrate foresight, political wisdom and courage if they want to leave a positive historical legacy. They can begin with finding a way to put an end to the current Ukraine crisis. We hope they can do this before it is too late.
Jia Qingguo is a Professor in the School of International Studies at Peking University.
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