US-China relations: nations should be competitors not rivals, Beijing’s envoy to Washington says

Sarah Zheng
·4-min read

China’s ambassador says it would be a grave mistake for the United States to treat China as a strategic rival, as Beijing pushes to reset its strained relations with Washington.

Speaking on Thursday at a virtual forum on China-US relations, Cui Tiankai said the two sides needed to return to dialogue, after their relationship during the Donald Trump administration had been pushed “down the precipice of confrontation”.

“We may have competition, but we don’t have to be rivals,” he said. “Taking China as a strategic rival and imaginary enemy would be a huge strategic misjudgment. To develop any policy on the basis of that would only lead to grave strategic mistakes.”

Get the latest insights and analysis from our Global Impact newsletter on the big stories originating in China.

Cui’s remarks at the forum, co-hosted by the Beijing-based Chinese People’s Association for Peace and Disarmament and the Atlanta-based Carter Centre, came as the new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said America’s ties with China were “arguably” its most important.

Relations between the US and China have slumped to their lowest level for decades. Photo: AP
Relations between the US and China have slumped to their lowest level for decades. Photo: AP

US President Joe Biden’s administration has signalled it will embrace a multilateralist approach on China. Relations between the two countries, after rivalries grew under Trump, fuelled by Beijing’s aggressive foreign policy approach and a hardened anti-China sentiment in Washington.

Cui dismissed calls in the US for Washington to work with its allies and partners to address the China challenge, likening it to “putting old wine in a new bottle”.

“It may cause the same mistakes made in the past and create new imbalances, which will further disrupt regional order,” he said.

US ambassador to UN nominee pledges to counter China’s ‘authoritarian agenda’

He also warned of the threats to the US-China relationship of contentious issues like Taiwan, after panellists at the event argued over US support, including arms sales, for the self-ruled island that Beijing regards as part of its territory.

“It’s not only Taiwan, the list is getting longer and longer,” he said. “You have Xinjiang, you have Hong Kong, you have Tibet, what else? I asked the Trump people when they were still running the State Department, are you going to put all the China provinces on the list, what is your real intention? What can the people in China interpret over this? I think the only conclusion is that the real intention of US policy is to dismantle China as a country – if this is the case, then that is really dangerous.”

Other attendees at the forum – including former Chinese ambassador to the US Zhou Wenzhong, prominent China scholar David Lampton from Johns Hopkins University, former US ambassador to China Max Baucus and former vice-minister of foreign trade Long Yongtu – stressed the need for more strategic dialogue between the countries at all levels.

But while the panellists suggested the two sides cooperate on issues such as climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic, they acknowledged that antagonistic public attitudes and policy narratives on the relationship would be difficult to change.

Washington urges Beijing to stop pressuring Taiwan after airspace incursion reports

Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Nanjing University, said there was a need to distance the relationship from “current, very disturbing domestic political disruption” on both sides, calling for power to be used “sparingly and strategically” for flashpoints such as Taiwan.

“If we just always get our relations highly hijacked by domestic politics in the US, as well as in China, then it’s truly worrisome for how and where our relations will be heading,” he said.

Lampton said the two sides needed to restore people-to-people exchanges – such as Beijing allowing the US to send its Centres for Disease Control and Prevention personnel back to China – and install management mechanisms for potential flashpoints on China’s periphery. He told the forum that the Chinese side should not assume that the US had so many domestic problems that it would not be more involved if peace broke down on the Taiwan Strait.

“This is something that could go out of control very rapidly,” he said. “We need to, as rapidly as we can, and that means in the first year, restore strategically oriented dialogue … We need to also develop crisis management. Not only could Taiwan rapidly escalate, but the Korean peninsula could, the South China Sea could, even the East China Sea, so I think we need to redouble our efforts to create crisis management kinds of mechanisms and to do so sooner rather than later.”

More from South China Morning Post:

This article US-China relations: nations should be competitors not rivals, Beijing’s envoy to Washington says first appeared on South China Morning Post

For the latest news from the South China Morning Post download our mobile app. Copyright 2021.