The U.S-China Relations Can Be Restarted
13 October , 2020

Keynote Speech by Susan Thornton at the International Relations Sub-session


The 21st century promises to be a century like no other, with endless possibilities for development, technological progress and globalization. And that is what the world expects to see in the 21st century. We’ll have instantaneous communication, cures for devastating illnesses, and progress towards sustaining and renewing the planet. But of course, there are also a lot of unintended negative consequences of all of these technological progress and globalization, and we’re seeing the reactions to that already, things that affect labor markets and our country’s crime, terrorism, and people’s basic sense of security and livelihood. So, I think societies will be very unprepared for the wrenching changes the technology is going to bring, and they may find it hard to adjust.


In the 20th century, the U.S. and China worked together to overcome fascism in World War Ⅱ. And after a period of estrangement, we worked together to thwart Soviet aggression. After another period of estrangement, we worked together to grow our economies, to fight weapons proliferation and terrorism, to stave off a global financial debacle, and to end fighting in Darfur, to stem the spread of Ebola, to curb Iran’s nuclear program, and to get agreement on global limits on greenhouse gas emissions in the Paris Climate Accord. This was all against a backdrop of prolonged peace and prosperity in east Asia with no major power military conflict over the last half century. Now there were ups and downs, but the record shows that the positive results of U.S.-China joint efforts are considerable.


Could more have been done? Of course. Did we make mistakes? Yes. Were there opportunities that were missed? Absolutely. Will we do better in the future? I don’t know. It looks pretty grim right now from where we all sit, but I am still hopeful. The U.S. is a country based on an idea with missionary zeal and ambition. China is a country based on a longstanding prominent civilization and values, order and community. The U.S. wants everyone to be like U.S., while China believes no country could be like China. Yet here we are in the 21st century, and the U.S. and China must work together. They must devise harness, manage new technologies, and address natural and man-made disasters and conflicts.


System differences between the U.S. and China are the major obstacle to communication and cooperation. The two countries lack strategic trust, and each sees the other as a security threat. A drive towards strategic competition is sure to amplify this mistrust. But the U.S. and China are not destined for war. First of all, the international system has fundamentally changed since the last power contest. Major powers can be expected to take their commitments seriously. International institutions will help to regulate U.S.-China differences and lend some predictability. Many of these institutions need to be reformed. In some cases, they need to be improved. And in some cases, major powers need to commit to these institutions more seriously. Second, the major powers themselves have agency. Frankly, the U.S. has seen China’s rise coming since long before normalization, which is one reason why it was eager to have China participate fully in the international system. In 1958, report on U.S.-China relations that was commissioned by senator James Fulbright noted that China would very likely emerge as a major world power by the end of the 20th century. But the second part of the question is the one that lingers and one that is at issue still today. There’s been a lot of discussion on the Chinese side devoted to the wrong actions of the U.S., not just under Trump, but under previous administrations as well, that contributed to today’s U.S.-China problems. If China doesn’t want to end up in a Thucydides trap, then it should consider actions that will help the established power, i.e. the U.S. to make the transition just as U.S. took actions to facilitate China’s participation in the system.


The 21st century is going to call for new thinking. The problems of this century, terrorism, financial crisis, pandemic disease that we’ve already seen are not problems of great power conflict, but they are problems of globalization and they are causing people and countries to turn away from that globalization. For the U.S. and China to now retreat from globalization in the face of challenges is irresponsible, and will lead to regression in our own and global development and progress. We must find ways to open up more and together, effectively deal with and mitigate the problems that the opening brings. That is our responsibility. China can and will change, and the U.S. must also change. And we can coexist peacefully while competing if we both agree to make these needed changes.


I think that the U.S-China relations can be restarted, and we need to think about what that looks like. The Chinese say there is a misunderstanding of China’s strategic intentions. If that’s the case, then China should take action to change the misconception. There are many ways to change the narrative, but an easy way is to do something unilateral that makes people rethink their assumptions about China. The best thing would be a pleasant surprise, a “Jing Xi”, that creates space for a new path forward. I hope that we will see this opening soon. And I hope that both sides are wise enough to take the opportunity of the times.

  • Zheng Ruolin Senior Fellow of Taihe Institute; Senior Journalist of Wen Wei Post.
  • Chu Yun-han Professor at the Department of Political Science at National Taiwan...
  • Zou Ming Vice President of Phoenix New Media Ltd. ; Chief Editor of Phoenix New Media...