Forty years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between the United States and China, the two superpowers are competing and contesting every arena, from trade to AI research and from space exploration to maritime rights. Instead of what Americans referred to as engagement and Chinese called reform and opening, many experts and analysts now characterize the relations between the two countries as dangerously brittle. Some see a new kind of Cold War in the making. Such assertions, however, argues Shorenstein APARC Fellow Thomas Fingar, “both ignore history and impute a level of fragility that has not existed for many years.”
Fingar reflects on the U.S.-China bilateral relationship in a new article, “Forty years of formal—but not yet normal—relations,” published in the China International Strategy Review. He claims that the relationship is resilient and not destined for conflict, albeit it is beset by a host of aspirational, perceptual, and structural differences.
A political scientist and China specialist who served over two decades in senior government positions, Fingar urges readers to remember that assertions of fragility of the U.S.-China relationship undervalue the strength, scope, and significance of interdependence, shared interests, and constituencies in both countries. These, he says, have a substantial stake in the maintenance of at least minimally cooperative relations.
U.S.-China relations are indeed highly asymmetrical: Chinese citizens and organizations have far greater access to the United States than Americans do to China, notes Fingar. He also recognizes that the troubles that have soured the relationship are more intricate and often more sensitive than those of the past. Decades ago, most of the issues that arose were handled at the governmental level. But now “the number and variety of players with stakes in the relationship and disputes with counterpart actors are much greater.” Furthermore, explains Fingar, the U.S. business community is expressing a stronger voice for government action to change Chinese behavior and is not as consistent an advocate of stability in U.S. policy toward China as it used to be. “This is an extremely important development,” he says, “because it reverses a key dynamic in the U.S.-China relationship.”
Ultimately, however, the two countries and our institutions and people are linked by myriad ties that bring mutual benefits as well as the constraints of interdependence. “I remain confident that we will continue to be able to manage the relationship,” concludes Fingar. He expresses disappointment, though, that normalization of U.S.-China relations remains a work in progress and cautions that merely managing the relationship to prevent it from deteriorating is an unsatisfactory goal that should be unacceptable to both sides. Not only does such a low bar limit what each counterpart can achieve, but it also inhibits the kind of cooperation required to address transnational challenges like climate change, infectious disease, and proliferation of dangerous technologies.