Future US-China thaw will be slow, but worth the wait

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Chinese vice-premier Liu He and their respective delegations wait ahead of their meeting in Zurich, on January 18, 2023. (Photo by SEBASTIEN BOZON / AFP)

The recent meeting in Zurich between US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen and Chinese Vice Premier Liu He sent a positive signal that the world’s two superpowers are on the path towards mending their relationship.

Judging from the outcome and comments on their face-to-face encounter, it will take some time before the two countries’ relationship reaches a comfortable level.

After all, since 2017 US-China ties have been damaged and upended by former President Donald Trump’s economic policies toward China. The Biden administration has also adopted tough measures against China, to lessen its hi-tech competitiveness, especially in semiconductors but, in recent months, Washington and Beijing have been in the mood for dialogues.

Previously, some analysts even said that it would be difficult to transform the world’s most important bilateral relationship back to the pre-Trump level. The COVID-19 virus outbreak and its global impacts has further deepened the two countries’ mistrust of each other, not to mention the current war in Ukraine. Therefore, it will be a slow process before relations can thaw, something that will require a great deal of goodwill to overcome past enmity, both rhetorical and in terms of actions.

Yellen was realistic when she said that both the US and China must pledge to manage differences and “prevent competition from becoming anything ever near conflict.” In response, Liu reiterated that China is ready to work together to seek common ground between the two countries, regardless of changes in circumstances. Washington and Beijing must maintain dialogue and exchanges.

In the coming weeks, US State Secretary Antony Blinken is scheduled to visit Beijing for dialogue with his counterpart, the newly appointed Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang. This came as welcome news, as he will be the most senior American official to visit China for a long time. The proposed trip will ameliorate the relationship further, as Beijing and Washington have already expressed willingness to work together again in mitigating the climate crisis and other transnational issues.

As the host of APEC 2023, it is imperative to have the presence of the world’s second largest economy, in the person of Chinese President Xi Jinping, at the APEC Leaders’ Meeting in November in San Francisco. Biden did not attend last year’s APEC meeting in Bangkok, citing personal reasons,sending Vice President Kamala Harris on his behalf. Over the next few months, if the prospect of further betterment of ties is unattainable, it is highly unlikely that the Chinese leader will go to San Francisco. If that is the case, it would be a major setback for the host.

Washington will also have to deal with Russia, especially the status of President Vladimir Putin. The US has led the global campaign to isolate him since Russia invaded Ukraine. If the 11-month war in Ukraine continues unabated, it is almost certain that Putin will skip the APEC meeting, affecting the host’s intention to promote a unified message of inclusive and sustainable economic growth throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

Therefore, the US-China détente will help the APEC chair to conduct a successful meeting. In the post-pandemic world, their cooperation and trust would help ease global tension across all dimensions. Furthermore, the level of their relations also greatly impacts international economic recovery in the post-COVID-19 era.

To realise the host’s theme of “Creating a Resilient and Sustainable Future for All,” it is urgent and necessary for the US to create a conducive atmosphere, to ensure smooth and successful preparatory APEC meetings in the coming weeks and months. Otherwise, the successful conclusion of the year-end APEC summit with a joint leaders’ statement cannot be guaranteed.

By Kavi Chongkittavorn

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