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Dynamics and Lessons of the “New Normal” in Sino-U.S. Relations as Seen from the San Francisco Summit


Da Wei, a professor at Tsinghua University, argues the Xi-Biden summit in November 2023 revealed U.S.-China relations have entered a “new normal” characterized by four features: mutual acceptance that tension will continue indefinitely, mutual assessment that full-blown conflict would be unacceptable, mutual understanding that neither country will fulfill its strategic goals completely, and mutual observation that economic and social resilience is possible amidst intense bilateral competition.

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Sino-U.S. relations may enter a new normal and cannot return to the past, but also cannot deteriorate without end. The two countries have no choice but peaceful coexistence. It is difficult to say whether this new normal is sustainable, but it is necessary for the two countries to work together to maintain the current state of relative stability. In this new normal, China should realize that, as the relatively weaker party in the Sino-U.S. strategic game, China needs to be particularly wary of the risk of excessive securitization. At the same time, China needs to avoid the mindset that “fixing” Sino-U.S. relations will “fix” third parties. In addition, China’s foreign affairs strategy is not to compete against the United States, but to ensure the country’s continued development. China’s strategic focus is not on the United States, but on its own development. If, in its development and rise, China is the first to achieve the modernization of a country with a massive population, it will be an earth-shattering achievement. This will also be a powerful source of Chinese global influence and attraction in the future.


From the “Bali Consensus” in 2022 to the “San Francisco Vision” in 2023, Sino-U.S. relations have finally stabilized. If both sides handle the situation well and have some luck, this trend may continue over the next year. If the new U.S. government in 2025 can continue the tone of the United States’ current China strategy, then this relatively stable situation may continue beyond 2025. In this way, Sino-U.S. relations may gradually enter a new normal.


Uncomfortable coexistence


The signs that a so-called new normal is emerging are supported by four shared concepts that are gradually surfacing in both China and the United States.


First, China and the United States have been able to gradually accept the reality that Sino-U.S. relations will be mainly negative for an extended period with relative calm. In the 35 years since the ice broke in Sino-U.S. relations in 1972, although Sino-U.S. relations have had their ups and downs, it has always been a relationship in which the positive aspects outweighed the negative aspects, and cooperation outweighed competition. In the past five years, this situation has turned into a relationship in which the negative outweighs the positive, and competition outweighs cooperation. Whether they are pleased or angry about this change, both sides have gradually accepted the reality that this is a structural change that will be difficult to reverse in the foreseeable future.


Second, both China and the United States have gradually become convinced that neither side wants Sino-U.S. relations to come to a showdown and move towards comprehensive decoupling or even military conflict. Over the past five years, China and the United States have experienced various degrees of decoupling in economics, science and technology (S&T), and society and both sides have paid a certain price. Now, the mainstream view in both countries is that, if China and the United States move toward complete decoupling, the costs will far outweigh the benefits. As for military conflict, it is not in the interest of China or the United States, or anyone else in the world. The “Bali Consensus” formed in November 2022 was a signal of stability that the leaders of China and the United States jointly sent to the world. More than three months after sending this signal, the “unmanned airship” incident suddenly occurred. After this, the two countries gradually overcame the difficulties, with the leaders of the two countries reaching the “San Francisco Vision” in November 2023, once again sending a signal of stability. By sending another signal of stability after overcoming difficulties, they made this signal more credible than the one the previous year.


Third, both China and the United States have no choice but to accept the reality that their strengths are limited and they cannot fully realize their ideal strategic goals. China and the United States have begun to realize the limits of their own power, and at the same time, they have also realized the limits of the other country’s power. For example, China did not want countries such as the Netherlands to cooperate with U.S. restrictions in fields such as chips, nor did it want the U.S.-Japan and U.S.-South Korea alliances to become a trilateral alliance, but these things still happened. The United States is stronger than China, but there are some things it is difficult for the United States to do. For example, the United States hopes to get other countries outside of itself and China to take its side against China. However, it has become clear over the past few years that many countries are not willing to make either-or choices between China and the United States. Even the United States’ European allies are not in complete agreement with the United States in all things. Similarly, the United States cannot force various production chains to leave China, much less relocate them back to the United States. In the strategic game between China and the United States, as long as the two countries adopt appropriate strategic policies, it is unlikely that one side will quickly win and the other side will quickly lose.


Fourth, after several years of intense competition, both China and the United States have seen the resilience of domestic development in their respective countries. In the past few years, life has been difficult in both China and the United States. Both countries have experienced severe challenges from the pandemic. The United States has always had a strong sense of anxiety and crisis as it watches China’s rise and changes. However, after several years of strategic moves, the United States found that its economic fundamentals were quite good, and achieved extremely rapid S&T innovation as represented by generative artificial intelligence (AI). Facing pressure from the United States, the Chinese people also emerged from the shadow of the pandemic with confidence that the Chinese economy still has huge potential and can maintain a strong development speed for a long time to come. U.S. suppression and restrictions have certainly had a considerable impact on China, but they have also created space in the market and given China new R&D impetus.


As the two countries have gradually come to understand the above four points, this has formed the conceptual basis for Sino-U.S. relations to enter a new normal. The high-level and working-level contact mechanisms gradually established by the Chinese and U.S. governments before and after the San Francisco Summit have contributed an institutional foundation to this new normal. Sino-U.S. relations cannot return to the past, but cannot deteriorate without end. Both countries feel a certain “discomfort” in this sort of relationship, but they have no choice but to coexist peacefully.


Of course, it is hard to say whether the new normal is sustainable. A sudden crisis or a series of negative interactions could disrupt this trend, not to mention the huge uncertainty that next year’s U.S. election poses for the United States, the world, and Sino-U.S. relations. We still need to continue to observe the situation, and China and the United States also need to work together to maintain the current relative stability.


Maintain a reasonable level of securitization


Since the beginning of this year, the author has had the opportunity to visit the United States multiple times and observe the United States up close and on the ground. I also have many contacts with U.S. officials and scholars in the country and in other parts of the world. During face-to-face exchanges and on-site inspections, one thing that has struck me is that the strategic game between China and the United States affects and involves U.S. society to a much smaller extent than it does Chinese society.


In the United States, the strategic game and strategic competition between China and the United States are mainly topics discussed in strategic circles and Washington, D.C. Even within these circles, most U.S. officials and scholars are still willing to engage in dialogue with Chinese scholars, and in U.S. policy circles, one often hears reflections and criticisms on the country’s own policies. Outside these circles, U.S. domestic politics, economic and social policies, and S&T innovation have not deviated much from their original tracks. Most ordinary Americans are not that concerned about China and Sino-U.S. relations. This phenomenon is likely due to the gap in strength between China and the United States. As the relatively stronger side in the game, the United States has many strategic tools at its disposal and a high redundancy of strategic resources. In contrast, the level of concern and investment in the Sino-U.S. strategic game from Chinese society as a whole, as well as the impact of this game on Chinese society, seem to be significantly greater.


This phenomenon will subsequently bring about questions regarding the degree of securitization. To put it in more theoretical terms, the strategic game between great powers has a relatively high degree of influence on a country’s internal and external developments and will lead to a relatively high degree of securitization. International security theory holds that whether an issue is a security issue and the level of security issue it is assigned to are not only determined by the objective nature of the issue, but are also the result of our subjective cognition. How high a river’s water level can rise before it constitutes a safety issue requires careful study and determination by flood control experts. If the warning of the water level is set too high, effective flood control measures will not be taken even though the water level has risen. This is an example of insufficient securitization and will lead to serious consequences such as floods. If the warning level is set too low, an alarm will be raised if the water level rises only slightly, leading people to consume limited resources unnecessarily. This is an example of excessive securitization. As the relatively weaker side in the Sino-U.S. strategic game, China must be particularly wary of the risk of excessive securitization.


In the game of great powers, if the degree of securitization is too high, a country will likely overly favor security in the balance between security and development, resulting in insufficient social vitality and innovation capabilities. After all, security is people’s first need. Social vitality and innovative capabilities are critical for a great power to maintain long-term growth and remain unbeaten in the strategic game. Judging from the experience of the great power game in the 20th century, it is difficult for a great power to be directly defeated by the other party in the game, but internal strategic changes caused by external pressure may pose greater threats to great powers.


The game between China and the United States over the past few years has made us realize China’s own resilience and the limits of U.S. power. It has given us greater strategic confidence, allowing us to accurately define a reasonable level of securitization. In his report to the 20th Party Congress, General Secretary Xi Jinping once again emphasized that high-quality development is the primary task of building a modernized socialist country in an all-round way, and development is the Party’s top priority in governing and rejuvenating the country. Currently, China is facing severe external pressure, but in the final analysis, it is we ourselves, not external forces, which determine China’s development prospects. As long as we maintain steady development, the United States’ strategic suppression and competition will not be able to achieve its aim.


Excessive securitization also risks making our foreign relations overly focused on the United States. The United States is of course the country with the greatest influence on China in the world, but the world is rich and diverse, and the United States is by no means equal to the whole world. Especially as Sino-U.S. relations will be mainly negative for a long time to come, third parties other than China and the United States are of extremely great significance to China. When deciding on our attitude and relationship with a third party, we cannot use the United States as our sole criterion by opposing everything they support and supporting everything they oppose. At the same time, the nature of a third party as an entity in its own right must also be given sufficient respect and value. We must particularly avoid the mindset that “fixing” Sino-U.S. relations will “fix” third parties.


China does not have a strategy of competition as regards the United States


Since the end of 2017, the U.S. government has been calling its China strategy “strategic competition.” Chinese leaders have repeatedly stated that China does not agree with the definition of the Sino-U.S. relationship as one of strategic competition. President Xi Jinping reiterated this position at the San Francisco Summit. Many people on the U.S. side do not understand why China does not agree to use the cognitive framework of “strategic competition.” Moreover, in recent years, more and more people in China have been arbitrarily using the concept of a “strategic competition” between China and the United States. Here, we must clarify one important question: What exactly are China and the United States “fighting” for in the current strategic game?


No matter what the nature of a competition is, it is always defined with reference to the other party. The United States is trying to ensure its global hegemony and therefore hopes to widen the power gap relative to China. Therefore, the U.S. strategy is indeed one of strategic competition with China as its object.


What is China’s strategic goal? In recent years, certain people have said frequently that the strategic game between China and the United States is a “battle between the first and the second power” [老大、老二之争, literally “eldest and second eldest”]. The author believes that this understanding is wrong. There is still a big gap between China’s level of development and that of the United States. China’s strategy in foreign affairs is not to engage in zero-sum competition with the United States, but to ensure that the country can continue to develop. China’s strategic focus is not on the United States, but on China itself. Whether the United States is developing well or poorly, or whether the gap between China and the United States is narrowing or widening, these are not the most important things. The most important thing is that the great cause of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation can be sustained and China’s development momentum is not interrupted. This is why, in recent years, President Xi has repeatedly emphasized that “the Pacific is broad enough” and “the earth is big enough.” In the Sino-U.S. game, China emphasizes that the United States cannot try to deprive China of its right to development.


After more than 40 years of effort, China’s per capita GDP has now increased to nearly U.S.$12,000. According to World Bank standards, China is now an upper-middle-income country. Our most important task is to raise this number to U.S.$20,000 or U.S.$30,000, crossing over the middle-income trap. China’s goal is not “strategic competition” with the United States in which it competes with the United States in all areas in a zero-sum fight to the death. In this process, China’s economic size may surpass that of the United States, but this is completely different from the battle between “the first and the second power.” There are still 600 million people in China whose per capita monthly income is only about 1,000 RMB. China and the United States compete at the micro level in specific economic industries and technologies, especially in AI, chips, aerospace engines, and other “powerful weapons”. The importance of this competition is self-evident. At the same time, the overall goal of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is to meet the people’s growing needs for a better life. Cutting-edge advanced S&T is very important for improving living standards, but at the same time, the happiness of a full plate and glass must not be downplayed.


During its founding and rise, the United States was the first large country to establish a relatively complete Western democratic system. During its founding and rise, the Soviet Union was the first to independently establish a socialist country. The rise of a great power is often accompanied by the success of some super-large-scale experiment in human history. If, in its own development and rise, China successfully realizes the blueprint drawn by the 20th National Congress, is the first to achieve the modernization of a country with a massive population, and builds a country with a population of one billion into a high-income country for the first time, this will be an earth-shattering achievement in human history. It will also be a powerful source of Chinese global influence and attraction in the future.


The San Francisco Summit showed that, through China’s resolute and forceful struggle, the rapidly deteriorating Sino-U.S. relations over the past few years now show signs of entering a new normal. We are still not sure whether the new normal is sustainable, so we must remain cautious, but the lessons learned from these years of struggle may serve as valuable references for a long time to come.


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Cite This Page

达巍 (Da Wei). "Dynamics and Lessons of the “New Normal” in Sino-U.S. Relations as Seen from the San Francisco Summit [从旧金山峰会看中美关系“新常态”的动向与启示]". CSIS Interpret: China, original work published in The Paper [澎湃], December 1, 2023

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