Interviews | East Asia

Wu Xinbo on the ‘Transformation’ of US-China Relations

An interview with the Dean of Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies and Director of Fudan’s Center for American Studies.

By Tang Jie for
Wu Xinbo on the ‘Transformation’ of US-China Relations
Credit: Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead

Wu Xinbo is the Dean of Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies, and Director of Fudan’s Center for American Studies. He specializes in China’s foreign and security policy, Sino-U.S. relations, and U.S. Asia-Pacific policy. In this interview, he discusses the future of U.S.-China relations and foreign policy under Presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump.

Washington seems to be embracing the idea of long-term, ideological competition with China. How do you see the future of U.S.-China relations?

At present, Sino-U.S. relations are in an important stage of transformation. During this transition period, relations have two characteristics: first, there will be some drastic fluctuations in Sino-U.S. relations, and, second, there will be important adjustments in the structure, framework, and methods of interaction in Sino-U.S. relations. In the long run, competition and friction between China and the United States will increase. This is inevitable, but is this Sino-U.S. competition ideological?

At all levels of society, some people in the United States advocate political and ideological competition with China, but China did not intend to enter into such ideological competition. The essence of Sino-U.S. competition is that of national strength centered on economic competition, not political and ideological competition. The United States is worried that China’s economic strength (and the strength of the entire country) will surpass that of the United States. This is the primary concern of the United States. From the Chinese perspective, we have no intention to compete ideologically. Instead, China’s intention is to ensure economic development and technological progress. Objectively speaking, this may challenge the economic status of the United States, and may challenge the United States’ position as a global leader in certain technological sectors.

Today’s competition between China and the United States is different from that of the United States and the Soviet Union. While today’s competition between China and the United States is economic and technological, competition between the United States and Soviet Union was, by contrast, political, ideological, and strategic competition. Another key difference in the nature of competition between these two countries is that there is still a lot of room for cooperation between China and the United States. Whether from the perspective of bilateral relations or regional and global interaction, there is much room for cooperation, societal and cultural exchange, the promotion of economic prosperity and regional stability across the Asia-Pacific, global hotspot de-escalation, and global governance, et cetera.

As to the long term, the United States cannot afford to not cooperate with China. Whether in terms of the United States’ own interests, the stability of the regional system, or the development of the global economy, Sino-U.S. cooperation is indispensable. At present, the United States is experiencing an irrational impulse to reject relations with China, but in the long run, it will recognize the importance of maintaining a balance of competition and cooperation with China. This is the greatest issue that China-U.S. relations will face in the future — how to maintain a balance between competition and cooperation. As the two sides embrace increasingly fierce competition, how to control such competition and not let it turn so vicious that it slips into confrontation and conflict is important. This would be a bad thing not only for China and the United States, but also the international community.

China-U.S. relations are entering a major turning point that will persist for a long time, and both sides are exploring new frameworks for interaction.

Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2013, how has Chinese foreign policy changed?

Since 2013, there have been clear changes to China’s foreign policy. Diplomacy with Chinese characteristics, as we often say, has become more proactive, which is different from the more cautious and conservative approach of China in the past. Progress in diplomacy includes more proactive expansion and maintenance of Chinese national interests, but also China’s undertaking of greater international responsibilities, such as providing more public goods for the international community. Our country’s diplomacy now bears the presence of a great power.

There are also important changes in the style of Chinese diplomacy. In the past, Chinese diplomacy mostly considered China’s relationship with other countries in the context of economic development. What we are discussing now is about balancing sovereignty, security, and development interests. In other words, we are not only seeking development, but also paying attention to safeguarding sovereignty and national security.

Geographically speaking, China’s diplomatic focus is no longer confined to neighboring countries and great powers, but now extends across the globe. At the same time, China’s diplomacy is increasingly focused on contributions to the regional and international system, such as creating new regional and multilateral cooperation mechanisms, and promoting reform and innovation within existing international mechanisms.

What are your thoughts on the priorities of the Trump administration’s foreign policy? What do these priorities mean for the world?

There are two priorities behind the foreign policy of the United States. First is the traditional inward-looking diplomatic thinking of the United States. Before World War II, the United States was basically an inward-looking country; after World War II, the United States became concerned with the globe. Now, Trump wants to turn America back inwards, as it was before World War II. Second, considering the global changes ongoing in the background, the United States feels that its dominant position is being attacked, and its hegemonic position is gradually weakening. The United States is trying to reduce its obligations overseas and devote more attention to promoting its own economic and security.

The impact of these policies on the world is that the rise of economic nationalism in the United States has led to disputes and friction with most countries (including China), such as trade wars, which have slowed the pace of globalization and hindered global governance. Additionally, the withdrawal of the United States from many multilateral mechanisms has also weakened global governance, which has extremely negative effects on global economic development and security.

In a sense, the world is gradually entering a “post-American hegemonic era.” Whether an ally or enemy of the United States, all feel that the operation of the world economy will no longer revolves around the United States, and world politics will enter an era of multipolarity. All feel that the era of unipolarity has officially ended. For the United States, its world status and influence are gradually declining, and its international reputation has been severely weakened. The relationship between the United States and other countries and regions in the world has become increasingly competitive and confrontational, including with its allies. The source of current world change is not only the rise of emerging countries (such as China), but also shocks caused by the major foreign policy adjustments of hegemonic countries such as the United States.

American politics are increasingly and continually polarized. What is the impact of this polarization on China policy?

The polarization of U.S. domestic politics has little influence on American policy toward China. Political polarization will split the two parties, but on the issue of China, the two parties are basically the same. Republicans have shown toughness against China, while Democrats are tougher than Republicans. China’s rising power, status, and influence have caused great anxiety in the United States. The consensus of the two parties is to regard China as a major strategic competitor, to adopt a tougher policy on China, to slow down or even stop China’s rise as much as possible, and to prevent China from replacing the United States.

Therefore, despite domestic politics becoming more polarized, the two parties have a high degree of consensus on China policy. Of course, on some specific issues, the two parties also have their differences. For example, on the issue of trade war, some people think that the trade war with China is not a good strategy. This does not mean that those who disagree with the trade war do not advocate being tough on China, but that more effective measures should be taken. While this difference is tactical, the two parties in the United States have a basic strategic consensus.

Technological competition between China and the United States is becoming increasingly tense. In the long run, how will technological competition affect Sino-U.S. bilateral relations and the world?

First, from the perspective of bilateral relations, the economic and trade links between China and the United States will continue to weaken in the technology sector, and coordination and cooperation in this field will decline significantly, which will have a great impact on Sino-U.S. economic and trade relations. Second, this technological competition also has political consequences, which will seriously affect mutual trust at the strategic level, which in turn affects the two parties’ handling of other issues. Third, China will seek independent research, development, and innovation to minimize its dependence on the United States for technology. China is determined to make long-term investments and efforts to break through the U.S. technological blockade and to obtain technologically independent status.

From a global perspective, there may be two systems in the field of technology, namely a system dominated by the United States and another system dominated by China. The two systems will adopt different technical standards and rules, and the world will be divided technologically into two or more camps. This will greatly delay the flow of technology on a global scale, and will also greatly affect the cooperation between countries in the field of science and technology. This is the long-term negative effect brought about by the U.S. technical blockade against China. The United States will also suffer huge losses in this process. Technological development of the United States benefits from an open innovation system, and talents and funds from other countries come to the United States to support this innovation system. However, since the United States has closed its doors to China, the United States will suffer great losses in terms of talent and capital flows.

Taiwan will hold a new election this Saturday. What are your perspectives on cross-strait relations? What will happen if Tsai Ing-wen is re-elected?

The trend of cross-strait relations is closely related to the results of Taiwan’s January 2020 elections. If the Kuomintang candidate wins, cross-strait relations will stabilize or even improve; if Tsai Ing-wen is re-elected, cross-strait relations will continue to be tense, and a major crisis may occur in the Taiwan Strait.

Two factors might lead to this major crisis: first, the Trump administration has increased its support for Taiwan; on many issues, it has challenged the basic framework of U.S.-Taiwan relations, which will cause fierce negative repercussions in mainland China. After Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election, she will no longer need to pursue her next term, so she will be less restrained on the issue of Taiwan independence, which will urge the mainland to take tougher measures against Taiwan. Judging from the current situation, Tsai Ing-wen’s re-election is a likely probability, as the Trump administration in the United States is increasing its support for Taiwan. As a result, 2020 is a high-risk period for the Taiwan Strait.

This interview was conducted and translated by Tang Jie, doctoral candidate at Fudan University and originally published by the U.S.-China Perception Monitor. Shannon Tiezzi, Editor-in-Chief at The Diplomat, and Michael B. Cerny, intern with The Carter Center China Program, collaborated on the interview.