Marking the 40th anniversary of the normalization of ties between the United States and China, U.S. President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping exchanged New Year's messages on Jan. 1. The bilateral relationship, however, is far from mature.
In a bid to solve the trade dispute between the two countries, which entered the new year in a state of "truce," American and Chinese senior trade representatives held vice-ministerial level talks in Beijing, but no one knows for sure if a compromise is possible. Bilateral tensions are rising over other issues such as national security and next-generation high-tech products.
The confrontation between the world's No. 1 and No. 2 economies is placing a long, dark shadow over the future of the global economy. Both countries should take steps to ease tensions, and explore ways to get along.
Last year saw an eruption of U.S. mistrust against China. Apart from trade, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence comprehensively criticized China in his October speech, accusing Beijing over its military expansion into the world's oceans, cyberattacks, human rights violations and surveillance of its people. He even declared that the U.S. would "reset America's economic and strategic relationship with China."
--- The Thucydides Trap
The U.S. media describes these developments as "signs of a new Cold War." A growing number of people saw the Pence speech as equivalent of the "Iron Curtain" speech made by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1946 heralding the start of the first Cold War between the West and the East.
Some observers worry that the U.S. and China may be falling into the Thucydides Trap -- a concept proposed by American political scientist Graham Allison that when a great power rises and threatens to displace another, the two countries almost always crash. It is based on the observation of ancient Greek historian Thucydides that an emerging Athens and the fear that it instilled in the hegemonic Sparta made war inevitable and historical precedents from 16 such tensions over the past 500 years resulted in 12 wars.
Behind the U.S. hard-line posture is disappointment that 40 years of engagement did not bring about political changes in China. Pence stated that "China has taken a sharp U-turn toward control and oppression of its own people." The same perception is shared by a wide range of people with different political persuasions, from liberals to conservatives.
In the National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017, China set a national goal of constructing a "great modern socialist country" by the middle of the century, and removed the term limit for the president by revising the Constitution in 2018. These moves are seen by the United States as part of a Chinese strategy to catch up with it through the strengthening of its dictatorial system.
The bilateral trade dispute is not caused only by President Trump's protectionist policies. The unfair trade practice of China treating state-owned corporations favorably over foreign companies has been criticized by Japan and Europe.
Meanwhile, it is a desirable move by China to proceed with the introduction of a law banning the practice of forcing foreign companies to transfer their technologies to China. Beijing needs to respect existing international rules and values should it want to avoid confrontation.
The U.S.-China clash in a race for high-tech hegemony is deepening, too, as symbolized by the detention in Canada based on a U.S. request of a top executive at Huawei Technologies, a leading Chinese company in the field of ultrahigh-speed 5G telecommunication technologies.
China is certainly making remarkable scientific and technological advances by investing money and human resources at a pace far exceeding that of Japan and the United States. China's right to development, and legitimate interests should be protected.
However, Washington is claiming that Beijing is stealing technological information. China denies the charge, but Chinese efforts are indispensable to avoid further confrontation, including cooperation in the rulemaking for cyberspace.
One of the factors behind the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty is Washington's dissatisfaction that China is developing medium-range missiles banned by the bilateral agreement between the United States and Russia.
China has continued its military expansion for 30 years. Now is the time for the country to join a new framework of arms control with the United States and Russia. Such an action would ease concerns toward what appears to be Beijing's endless strengthening of its arsenal.
--- Japan should act to avoid US-China crash
The relationship between the United States and China is very different from that between the U.S. and the Soviet Union as they almost lacked economic exchanges. Washington and Beijing are each other's top trading partners, and China holds the largest share of U.S. Treasury bonds.
This New Year season saw an "Apple Shock" triggered by the slowdown of iPhone sales in China hitting stock markets across the world. Mutual dependence does connect economies, and efforts to drive competitors into a corner can end up hurting oneself.
Asian countries including Japan and European economies are similarly woven in the network of interdependence. Even for U.S. allies, China is an important trading partner. Worsening U.S.-China ties will certainly hit them, too.
Many observers expect prolonged competition for hegemony between Washington and Beijing. But the development of a full-blown "new Cold War" would not only hurt the global economy but also cause the worsening of regional confrontations in Asia, including the North-South rivalry on the Korean Peninsula and the China-Taiwan faceoff.
In his New Year message toward President Trump, President Xi expressed his willingness to "advance China-U.S. relations featuring coordination, cooperation and stability." This is a realistic approach. The two countries should first seek to break the impasse over trade confrontations.
For Japan, a U.S. ally and a country with a longstanding historic relationship with neighboring China, the future of U.S.-China ties is critically important. U.S. and Chinese leaders are scheduled to visit Japan for the summit of the Group of 20 major economies in Osaka in western Japan this year. Now is the time for Tokyo to advance diplomatic efforts toward easing tensions between Washington and Beijing.