China-US relations

'Incompatible political values' at the core of tense Sino-US relations, expert Wang Jisi says

  • International relations expert warns the two sides may drift further apart ‘and the danger of lasting, partial confrontation does exist’
  • Remarks come ahead of 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties between the two former cold war adversaries
PUBLISHED : Monday, 31 December, 2018, 9:16pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 01 January, 2019, 11:27pm

China and the United States risk drifting further apart towards “partial confrontation” in the coming years because of their competing ideologies and value systems, a Chinese international relations expert warns.

The remarks by Wang Jisi, president of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, came at a tense time in relations between Beijing and Washington, and on the eve of an important milestone.

Tuesday marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic ties between the two former cold war adversaries.

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But neither side will be in the mood for celebration, with relations in what many believe is the worst downward spiral in decades – strained by a protracted trade war and growing rivalry over technology and security.

In an article just published in World Affairs, a journal controlled by the Chinese foreign ministry, Wang wrote that a clash of civilisations was at the heart of the bitter geostrategic competition between the world’s top two economies.

Compared to trade frictions and the shifting of the power balance in favour of China, he argued that incompatible political values had become the biggest contributing factor to the tough challenges facing Sino-US relations.

“Forty years ago, parallel security interests had overcome the barriers posed by vexing problems such as Taiwan and led to the normalisation of diplomatic ties and subsequently China’s reform and opening up had helped expand common economic interests immensely,” Wang wrote.

“However, without the support of shared value systems, such common interests could not be consolidated or enhanced, especially when people with divergent values have vastly different definitions of their national interests,” he said.

Despite his praise for President Xi Jinping and their recent agreement to call a temporary trade war truce, US President Donald Trump has taken a tough line on China, labelling Beijing as a strategic competitor and national security threat that aimed to challenge America’s global dominance.

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The Trump administration kick-started a tariff war in July after months of threats, accusing China of unfair trade practices, and has also rolled out a series of measures to counter Beijing’s rising influence in the Asia-Pacific, Africa and beyond.

Observers say Washington’s perception of Beijing has already seen its most fundamental shift in 40 years – from a predominantly cooperative partner to a competitor or even an adversary in a new cold war.

In his article, Wang echoed the view of US scholar Graham Allison, a Harvard professor who has said Beijing and Washington could fall into what he called the Thucydides Trap – where a rising power threatens to eclipse a rival and conflict may result.

Allison, who has just visited Beijing and claims he spoke to top Chinese leaders, recently warned that relations between China and the US were in a dangerous period of “rifting in this Thucydides dynamic”.

Wang said although there were hopes from both sides that more economic cooperation and diplomatic, cultural and social exchanges could transcend the ideological barriers and further strategic trust, things were moving in the opposite direction.

“Just as China has steadily integrated into the international community economically and socially, the clash of our value systems has become more acute than ever,” he wrote.

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Like many other observers who are pessimistic about US-China relations, Wang painted a bleak picture for bilateral ties.

“It’s predicable that the conflicting value systems between China and the US will lead to greater challenges for bilateral cooperation,” he said. “And the danger of lasting, partial confrontation does exist.”

Wang also urged China’s top leaders to set aside ideological differences with their American counterparts and take steps to strengthen common interests and prevent any further deterioration of ties.

“We should pay adequate attention to the trend that the two countries are drifting apart over our value systems and try to contain political differences by deepening reform and opening up,” he said.