Tracing the History of China-US Relations and the Hopes for a Promising Future

Biden – Xi Jinping summit, a glimpse of hope for reconciliation?

The meeting between President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and President Xi Jinping held in Bali, Indonesia on the 14th of November, was perceived with some degree of optimism among westerners’ commentators. The two leaders reiterated that competition should never veer into conflict and highlighted that the United States and China must always keep lines of communication, to ensure the continuation of an amicable and productive rivalry. In addition, discussions addressing transnational challenges such as climate change, global macroeconomic stability, and health and food security evidenced the need for collaboration.

However, the amicable conversation still gave way to disagreements, as President Biden raised concerns about the communist party practices in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong, and the violation of human rights in general. But the main point of contention was Taiwan. As the United States reaffirmed that it opposes any unilateral changes to the status quo, the PRC leader replied that; the Taiwan question is at the very core of China’s interests, the bedrock of the political foundation of China-U.S. relations, and that resolving the Taiwan question is a matter for the Chinese and China’s internal affair.

To comprehend whether the occasion is yet another political meeting of empty promises or if it signals a genuine will for reconciliation between the two political leaders, it is necessary to understand what led the two countries to be so interconnected and the subsequent trend that brought them apart.

The roots of the People’s republic of China

Understanding the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) means going back to the communist ideology provided by Karl Marx, who first described the class struggle and how a proletarian revolution to overthrow the capitalistic system was inevitable. The practical aspect of communism was applied through Lenin who envisioned a party whose duty was to ensure the continuation of communist norms. So, just like in a Leninist system, in China, the communist party controls the political organization. It does not compete with other parties for influence and power and suppresses other organizations that try to do so. The party takes all the important decisions and supervises all aspects of life, appointing party members to all leading positions. However, since the Communist party took power in 1949, dramatic changes have occurred, such as the evolution of the party’s economic policies, which transformed a centrally planned economy with state-owned industries to an increasingly marketized and globalized one.

Mao Zedong era (1949-76) policies were overwhelmingly based on the soviet model, with nationalized industry and commerce, state ownership of the land, and engagement in collective farming. Decision of production and investment allocation was made by central planning bureaucracy instead of following market trends. However, the system proved to be a failure, as a combination of poor policies and bad weather led to 30 million [1]people dying in one of the major famines of the 20th century. After this disastrous outcome, the CCP shifted towards more developmental policies to restore the economy. Financial incentives to workers and farmers were coupled with special permits that allowed for private land ownership.

Coming together with the west

Over the years, despite some occasional setbacks, this slow trend of liberalization continued, and trade and political interaction between the United States and China dramatically increased. During Jiang Zemin tenure (1992-2002) China started looking a lot like a capitalistic society with a one-party rule. The private sector expanded, foreign trade was incentivized, and enormous investments were made in infrastructure and real estate. During the Hu Jiang (2002-2012) mandate, the trend continued. China appeared on the trajectory of a vibrant modern economy and society open to the world, with important economic ties to the west. Following the modernization theory, academics expected a gradual institutionalization of governance to make it more accountable, responsive and bounded by law. However, they failed to recognize that while the process indeed spurred double-digit growth, it created inequalities as certain individuals accumulated immense wealth, raising fears for the primacy of the communist party and making way for Xi Jinping to come to power.

Xi Jinping

The 2012 election of Xi Jinping as head of state was followed by a rampant anticorruption campaign, which side-lined enemies, silenced opposition, and increased control over Chinese technological and financial hubs. The consolidation of power continued as Xi Jinping removed the term limits from his tenure and appointed loyalists for key positions.

The communist party has been reformed around Xi Jinping’s figure and the importance of Lenin’s thought has been reinstated. New guidelines have restricted the growth of the party’s membership and have added ideological requirements for candidates. Party officials are now required to engage in self-criticism and pledge loyalty to both the party apparatus and the figure at its core: Xi Jinping. For instance, new research centers are dedicated to studying his writings and speeches, while party officials publicly praise his wisdom and virtue. In addition, party regulations, government, and planning documents increasingly claim to be based on “Xi Jinping thought.”, in what started resembling a lot like a personalistic regime.

Breaking with the West

Under Xi Jinping, the communist party deeply changed its judgment of the West. In China, the United States is viewed as a fading power. This view first emerged during the 2008 financial crisis and was subsequently generalized to the west when the British population voted to leave the European Union. This belief, which is emphasized in state media propaganda, is coupled with drastic economic efforts to decrease the country’s reliance on foreign output. For instance, Xi’s 14th Five-Year Plan outlines an ambitious agenda to decrease China’s reliance on foreign technology inputs, while the 2025 China plan aims to upgrade China’s manufacturing capabilities in crucial sectors (Semiconductors, High tech, military, …)

International leadership

On the global stage, China is presenting itself as an alternative and often contradictory to the west. However, it is important to point out that the entanglement with affairs of foreign countries is in neat contrast with China’s policy of non-interference which the country has abided by almost since the CCP took power. In fact, since 1955, “abstention from intervention or interference in the internal affairs of another country[2]” was one of China’s cornerstone foreign policies. Over the years, the Chinese communist party has abided by this principle and has promoted it within the global governance system, at least until Xi Jinping took power. Significant efforts and resources have been allocated to expand China’s area of influence, involving land reclamation efforts in the South Chinese Sea, and a massive international infrastructure project known as “The Belt and Road Initiative”, which enhanced the country’s relation with as many as 138 countries. In addition, during a global crisis such as the Covid-19 pandemic, China effectively promoted itself as a global leader, providing humanitarian resources to foreign countries, such as masks and vaccines.

Some hope for reconciliation- Chinese response to Ukraine’s war

On the 4th of February 2022, Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin met in Beijing announcing a joint statement of “limitless friendship”: a summit that was accompanied by a declaration clarifying that the foundation of the Sino-Russian friendship would be the shared hostility towards American global leadership.

Now, a year later, the war in Ukraine offers some reassurance that China is not yet willing (or ready) to depart with the West.  As the first shots were fired on the 24th of February in Ukraine, China took the role of requesting peace and trying to facilitate meaningful negotiations. However, what seemed like an opportunity for China to showcase its capabilities as a mediator quickly became a puzzling question. Beijing was forced to walk an awkward line of support for its “limitless friendship” with Russia while trying to maintain a good relationship with its core economic partner, the United States.

While it was quite impossible to foresee what position the People’s Republic of China would have followed, a clear picture is now emerging, as China’s friendship with Russia appears to be much more limited than the name would suggest. China so far does not appear to be helping Russia evade Western financial sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine. Chinese banks no longer provide letters of credit for commerce with Russia, and projects between Chinese energy firms and their Russian counterparts have been put on hold (including Sinopec). After Visa and Mastercard ceased working with Russian banks, China’s credit card processor UnionPay declined to do business with them. Even on the military front, China hasn’t supported Russia; they refused to supply Russia with aircraft parts. Additional evidence of China distancing itself from Russia can be identified at the UN General Assembly where during the voting round to allow Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine’s president, to give a virtual address, only six countries joined Russia in opposing the speech. China abstained.

International political stability is paramount to economic development. Uncertainty on the global scale, on the other hand, reduces foreign investment and the certainty of contracts across countries and hampers the flow of human capital across borders. [3]Hence, for a prosperous future, it is necessary that such stability is achieved. While recent events such as conflicts and broad geopolitical tensions seem to suggest that we are departing from such an ideal scenario, an in-depth analysis of China’s current global positioning and its general attitude toward the west suggests steps toward reconciliation. Obviously, it is very soon to draw any conclusions, and the international environment still is far from the ideal resolution.

SOURCES:

Conflict mediation with Chinese characteristics: How China justifies its Non-Interference Policy • Stimson Center (2020) Stimson Center. Available at: https://www.stimson.org/2019/conflict-mediation-chinese-characteristics-how-china-justifies-its-non-interference-policy/ (Accessed: December 4, 2022).

DICKSON, B.R.U.C.E.J. (2021) Party and the people: Chinese politics in the 21st Century. S.l.: PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRES.

Intenrnational monetary Fund – How the IMF Promotes Global Economic Stability

Rachman, G. (2022) Putin, Xi and the limits of friendship, Subscribe to read | Financial Times. Financial Times. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/76953b49-d7d8-48f7-9ab2-56e81ca2330a

Readout of president Joe Biden’s meeting with president Xi Jinping of the People’s Republic of China (2022) The White House. The United States Government. Available at: https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2022/11/14/readout-of-president-joe-bidens-meeting-with-president-xi-jinping-of-the-peoples-republic-of-china/ (Accessed: December 4, 2022).

Wong, B. (2022) Biden-XI summit shows an uneasy peace emerging between China and the US, – The Diplomat. for The Diplomat. Available at: https://thediplomat.com/2022/11/biden-xi-summit-shows-an-uneasy-peace-emerging-between-china-and-the-us/ (Accessed: December 4, 2022).

Reuters (2022) 10 ways China has changed under Xi Jinping, VOA. Voice of America (VOA News). Available at: https://www.voanews.com/a/ways-china-has-changed-under-xi-jinping/6807561.html (Accessed: December 4, 2022)


[1] DICKSON, B.R.U.C.E.J. (2021) Party and the people: Chinese politics in the 21st Century. S.l.: PRINCETON UNIVERSI-TY PRES.

[2] Conflict mediation with Chinese characteristics: How China justifies its Non-Interference Policy • Stimson Center (2020) Stimson Center. Available at: https://www.stimson.org/2019/conflict-mediation-chinese-characteristics-how-china-justifies-its-non-interference-policy/

[3] International monetary Fund – How the IMF Promotes Global Economic Stability

Sam Hepineuze

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