Since the US has defined China as a strategic competitor and ratcheted up major power competition with China, bilateral relations are passing through the toughest of times.

Thirty years ago when former Chinese Leader Deng Xiaoping met Brent Scowcroft, former US National Security Adviser and Special Envoy of then US President George H. W. Bush, Deng said China-US relations have to be improved.

Are these words still relevant to today’s bilateral ties? Why do we have to improve China-US relations? Scholars on both sides have been interviewed.

Su Ge
Chair of China National Committee for Pacific Economic Cooperation

Deng’s words pointed out the direction for China and the US to steer bilateral relations 30 years ago and have been proven true.

With the US having adopted a more competitive approach toward China, China-US relations have gone through twists and turns. However, the Chinese leadership has a long-term vision.

History shows that cooperation is the best choice for both China and the US, Chinese President Xi Jinping told US President Donald Trump in a congratulatory message to mark the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations in January.

China and the US stand to gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation. If the two countries really decouple or bilateral ties are severed, it will do no good to the US and also negatively affect China’s own strategic opportunities. It could increase the cost for China to extend its period of strategic opportunities.

As two major powers, China and the US should bear the responsibility for the Asia-Pacific region and the world. China and the US standing together won’t solve all the problems the world is grappling with, but without such cooperation, none of the major problems will be resolved. The two countries should at least maintain an essentially cooperative relationship.

Jia Qingguo
Director of Institute for China-US People-to-People Exchange,
Peking University

Deng’s words apply not only to the past, but also to the present. China needs the US, be it in the past, today or in the future. China in the past hoped that the US would maintain international order that it could have a free ride on. As the country has become stronger and is not a free rider anymore, it needs to safeguard its own interests by maintaining the international order. In this context, China particularly needs cooperation from the US, instead of wasting resources to confront the latter.

Established powers are not defeated by emerging powers, but are exhausted with the cost on global governance. Even if one day China becomes the world’s largest power, it needs to avoid confrontation with the US. The best strategic choice for China will be to maintain the international order at the minimum cost.

Yan Xuetong
Director of Institute of International Studies
Tsinghua University

Deng led China by weathering through the tough time in relations with the US in 1989. Deng met Scowcroft twice in Beijing during that difficult time, which showed the importance he attached to bilateral relations.

At the same time, he accelerated reform and opening-up, showing the world that China still kept progressing. Looking back at history, I think Deng has left us with two valuable experiences: One is not to confront the US; the other is to speed up reform and opening-up. The legacies are still of vital significance to guide us deal with the US nowadays.

Robert A. Manning
Senior Fellow at Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security
Atlantic Council & its Foresight, Strategy and Risks Initiative

Deng is still right, in more ways than one. The downward spiral in US-China relations over the past several years reflects a backlash against the China policy pursued by Democrat and Republican presidents since the Nixon opening in 1972. US policy assumptions that China’s integration into the international system which the US facilitated would lead Beijing to accept the Washington-led rules-based order, and the creation of a Chinese middle class would lead to political reform were always unrealistic.

In addition, the significant policy changes under President Xi Jinping in the US perception of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region and Hong Kong developments also sparked the US backlash and the current US mind-set of demonization of China.

I think what exists now is an incomplete and unsustainable US China policy. Whether or not the US considers China a “strategic competitor,” the two countries still have to live with each other. It is not enough to simply stay strategic competitor. How do you define the terms of competition? And where are the areas where US and Chinese interests overlap sufficiently to define an agenda for cooperation, however limited? So far, the US has no answers, which is why I say the policy is incomplete.

As the world’s two largest economies, two leading technology innovators, two largest military powers and nuclear weapon states, the character of US-China relations will shape the future world order, as we gradually emerge from what is a historical transition period. If we have some variation of a new Cold War and a bifurcated economic and geopolitical system, both sides will lose. Both sides appear to be pursuing the sort of economic nationalism that in the 1930s led to global recession and WWII. There will undoubtedly be a diminished economic relationship, but less than a decoupling.

As the Trump administration is discovering, even as globalisation becomes more local and regional, it is difficult and expensive to dismantle complex global supply chains. But outright techno-nationalism threatens innovation not only for both countries, but the entire world. The hope is that a trade deal can support the relationship.

But a dose of realism from the US is the key to improving and stabilising China-US relations. On the Chinese side, the key to improving ties is implementing the decisions of the 19th Party Congress policies that accept the market as the “decisive factor” in allocating capital, and continuing reforming and opening up sectors of the Chinese economy and scaling down predatory industrial policies would create a base for a new stability.

In addition, there should be an acceptance on both sides of mutual vulnerability not at risk from new non-nuclear technologies, AI, cyber attacks, space weapons and hypersonic missiles. It requires a new diplomacy based on enlightened self-interest on both sides and a greater respect for the lessons of history.

Clifford A. Kiracofe
Educator & Former Senior Professional Staff Member
Senate Committee on Foreign Relations

The international situation is quite different today from the era. The US has failed to adjust to a multipolar world. Instead, the consensus among US elite is to continue the Cold War and containment policy but to update it particularly in the economic, trade, and tech war areas. China and Russia are targeted.

Of course, it is best to improve relations between major countries. Peace and development with reduction of tensions is always desirable. But US hegemony precludes this, so relations are deteriorating in some ways. Washington rejects the concept of a new type of major power relations. The US Congress is hysterical with its anti-China stance. It makes little difference which party controls the White House given the prevailing elite Cold War-style consensus and thinking.

It is prudent for China to focus on its own development and to focus on relations with countries willing to engage on the basis of mutual advantage and respect. China and Russia have developed a new type of constructive major power relations. The Chinese Belt & Road Initiative is a historic achievement of global dimensions.

Washington is not yet ready. Its delusions and pretensions impair its strategic thinking and policy. Realistically, relations with the US may not improve significantly in the foreseeable future which is unfortunate.

Under current conditions, China should not entertain false hopes that trade and investment with the US will automatically create good relations. Such thinking may influence the theories of some economists and political scientists but history and contemporary realities do not support such a conclusion.

US imperialism is a challenge not only for China but for the international community as a whole. China should strive for peace and development despite Washington.