xi and obama
On the Record

Sino-U.S. ties need a strategic rethinking

Cheng Li

Beijing Review: Some U.S. scholars pessimistically claim that Sino-U.S. relations have reached a tipping point. You recently suggested that relations between the two countries need strategic rethinking. How should we understand this idea?

Cheng Li: “Strategic rethinking” is an issue that both China and the United States need to consider.

From China’s perspective, its strategic rethinking should follow the idea developed by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the 1970-80s. Deng believed that peace and development are the two major themes of the contemporary world. Should Beijing continue to adhere to this strategic judgment given the rapidly changing world situation? The answer to this question also encompasses whether conflict between China and the United States is inevitable and how to avoid such conflict. China also needs to rethink whether its priority is to resolve its current domestic problems or focus more on international issues.

Two kinds of irrational thinking on China are currently getting some momentum in the United States. The first is that China is too assertive and Xi is another Mao-like strong leader. The second is that China is incapable of dealing with domestic problems such as the economic downturn and corrupt officials. These simple—sharply contrasting— views arrive at the same conclusion that Washington should take a tough and more confrontational approach toward China.

Thus, from a U.S. perspective strategic rethinking should relate to whether a prosperous and stable China or a chaotic and collapsed China serves the best interests of the United States. In the meantime, Washington should also rethink the options it has in terms of the future trend of bilateral relations. But as a matter of fact, the United States doesn’t have too many choices, and I believe most people in the United States would choose cooperation over confrontation with China.

If you are a rational and sober-minded scholar, the best choice—from the perspective of both countries—is to avoid conflict. I think to a certain extent the views of future-oriented people and policy makers from both countries are similar.

Sino-U.S. relations have experienced ups and downs since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. What kind of lessons can they learn from the history of their bilateral relations? And from the perspective of your personal experience and research, how can the two countries get along with each other?

From a historical point of view, the two countries have never had such extensive and in-depth exchanges as they do now; and these exchanges are multi-level, multi-faceted and multi-field. With the exception of formal dialogue on cyberspace issues, bilateral exchanges in all areas—official exchanges and people-to-people exchanges—have never ceased. These exchanges have formed the cornerstone of Sino-U.S. relations.

In the past 150 years, the two nations had ups and downs. Both stood together during the World Anti-Fascist War. Of course, there have been some mistakes, such as the U.S. policy toward China after World War II and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but U.S. society and academia in a period of reflection have drawn lessons from opportunities lost and mistakes made.

Now, the contribution of Chinese immigrants to growth in the early days of the U.S. economy has been widely recognized by the U.S. public. The social status of Chinese-Americans in the United States has been significantly improved, and they have also become an important force in promoting healthy Sino-U.S. relations.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, a remarkable change has taken place in how people from both countries view each other, particularly among the young generation. I conducted opinion polls respectively in 2007 and 2008 that showed U.S. people under the age of 29 have a considerably more positive view of China. Meanwhile, many young people in China, whether they have undertaken education in the United States or not, are all deeply influenced by U.S. popular culture, such as movies, music, sports and the like. In a sense, this reflects the future prospect of Sino-U.S. relations and lays the cornerstone of Sino-U.S. friendship.

The healthy development of Sino-U.S. relations should challenge not only the exaggerations made by some politicians of the bilateral and ideological differences but also those vested interest groups that seek to drive a wedge between the two nations.

In your opinion, what will be the major topics discussed by President Xi and President Obama during the visit, and what kinds of outcome might be achieved?

President Xi’s visit by itself has already sent a positive signal and shows that Sino-U.S. relations are being positively pushed forward.

At the strategic level, the United States might try to focus on four major topics: cybersecurity; the maritime disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea; human rights and the development of civil society; and global economic development and Sino-U.S. trade and economic relations, which include the bilateral investment treaty and market access. China may focus more on economic issues. The two sides will have different priorities for the bilateral talks. However, the complementary nature of the economies of the two countries will not escape anyone’s attention. People in the United States tend to consume too much and save little, while Chinese people do exactly the opposite. How the two economies take advantage of this situation instead of pointing finger to each other will require the wisdom of both leaders.

China does not want to see the Western business communities lose confidence in the Chinese market. China’s economy is facing some problems largely due to a shift in its economic development model. Therefore, the Chinese economy is in the “new normal,” where “new” stands for change. The United States should take note of China’s economic policy orientation following the right track by encouraging the development of small- and medium-sized private enterprises, especially innovation-driven and service-oriented companies, as well as reforming the financial system. These reforms and adjustments should all help strengthen the global community’s confidence in the Chinese economy.

At the same time, I am hopeful that through this visit the two sides will make a breakthrough in cybersecurity dialogue. It will not mean the immediate establishment of a mechanism but rather reaching a consensus and commitment by the two leaders to set up a framework of norms. For example, do not use cyberattacks to target each other’s infrastructure, and so on. With this commitment, both sides can gradually establish mechanisms in the future.

Technological development enhances non-traditional security threats. A computer or a cellphone sometimes may cause catastrophic results. In the face of this problem, both China and the United States realize that they have common interests and face common challenges. The first step taken by China and the United States on cybersecurity cooperation will be of extraordinary significance, a crucial step for other countries to work together to safeguard the future of human civilization.


Some scholars believe the significance of Xi’s visit is similar in importance to the trip to the United States made by Deng in 1979, which resulted in an almost overnight change in how Americans viewed China.

I believe most people around the world do not want to see a global economic recession or a confrontation between China and the United States, and the same holds true for the people and leaders of both countries. The United States and China are respectively the first and second economic powers in the world. I believe the two countries’ stronger economic ties and cooperation will have a positive impact on global economy.

While Xi’s trip may give rise to disharmonious voices in U.S. political circles, they may not represent mainstream U.S. society. Xi’s visit will rectify misunderstandings, narrow differences and promote mutual respect between the two countries. I believe a successful visit by Xi will not only benefit the two countries but also serve the interests of the world at large.

This interview was originally published by Beijing Review.