Beijing is facing strong headwinds to reverse tensions with Washington after missing “extremely good opportunities” to address problems in the past, according to a China scholar.
“We are now in a very difficult position. I don’t see either side trying to break the downward slide of bilateral relations,” said Orville Schell, Arthur Ross director of the Centre on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York.
He said there had been no new proposals to de-escalate trade tensions and no new recognition of the severity of the situation in speeches made by President Xi Jinping and Vice-President Wang Qishan at international events this week.
“Over the last 10 to 15 years, China has missed extremely good opportunities to rebalance the relations without any catastrophic effects,” the American academic said on the sidelines of the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore.
Schell added that Beijing had not taken chances to make China-US relations more “reciprocal and balanced” by engaging with people who were seen as “reasonable and logical”, without elaborating.
And without effective efforts from China to rebalance bilateral ties, US President Donald Trump reversed his attitude towards the country, taking a hard line and initiating the trade war.
“All those people in the White House who were quiet and waiting, like Peter Navarro, Robert Lighthizer and Steven Bannon, who were ousted but still influential, began to be very influential and take a much more forceful position on China,” he said.
Schell also played down hopes for any significant outcome from the planned summit between Xi and Trump at the end of November in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
“We don’t see the preparation for having any agreement. We don’t have someone like Wang Qishan and [former US Treasury secretary] Henry Paulson working at the second level,” he said. “There is a big missing link between the presidents and bureaucrats.”
After Trump visited Beijing in November last year, some officials in China believed that ties with the United States were being appropriately handled and they did not expect the US president to take a tougher line on China as he had promised to do during his election campaign.
But tensions between the world’s two largest economies have been rising since Trump imposed a first round of tariffs on Chinese goods in July, starting a trade war that has targeted more than half of the goods shipped between the two countries.
Washington is also taking measures to restrict Chinese access to US technology, accusing China of intellectual property theft and forced technology transfers.
Meanwhile, business surveys have shown that some foreign companies are already looking into relocating production or diversifying their supply chain outside China, amid growing talk about disengagement of the two economies. According to Schell, “the costs of decoupling would be higher for China than the US, and will also affect Asian countries”.
There are also concerns that Trump’s “America first” policy could result in the US reducing its presence in Asia.
Schell said the White House’s Asia team was stable despite frequent personnel changes in the Trump administration. “They are smart, have a plan and are very firm [on China] and are waiting for changes in China,” Schell said.
He added that Beijing and Washington should designate “high special representatives” for the top leaders to work out a road map and identify areas to discuss.
But Schell warned that the South China Sea could become another hotspot for confrontation. He said although the two countries were cooperating on issues such as North Korea and cracking down on drug trafficking, other areas were more important for bilateral ties and needed to be addressed.