Think Tank (2/2023)
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Will the Worsening of China-US Relations Continue?
06 Apr 2023

On 6 April 2023, Professor Wang Jisi, Founding President of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies at Peking University, delivered the Ngee Ann Kongsi-RSIS Distinguished Public Lecture on “Will the Worsening of China-US Relations Continue?” Prof Wang discussed the trajectory of China-US relations in the last decade and analysed it in four dimensions:

  • China’s domestic politics and US interference
  • National security issues, including the Taiwan issue
  • Geopolitical competition around the world
  • Economic and technological relations

In all four dimensions, the relationship has worsened.

Prof Wang noted that the China-US relationship has been in a downward spiral since 2012 and provided three explanations for its deterioration. First, the power equation between the two countries in the last decade has tilted toward China. Second, the differences between their political systems, ideologies, and values are so acute that mutual accommodation is impossible. Third, political and economic changes within the two countries have given rise to populist nationalism and protectionism that have caused deepening mutual distrust. He argued that these three causes have reinforced each other and jointly made the corrosion of the relationship almost irreversible.

Identifying domestic politics of the US and China as the most decisive catalyst to shape the current bilateral relationship and precipitate its worsening, Prof Wang stressed that as long as the trajectories of their domestic politics move in the current direction, the downward spiral may not be reversible. However, as Prof Wang pointed out, there have been some signs that both Beijing and Washington are making efforts to avoid a head-on confrontation since the beginning of 2023.

In conclusion, he presented three scenarios: the best-case scenario will see the US and China continuing to talk to each other without fighting a war; the worst case scenario will see a decoupling between the two countries; and the likelihood scenario being one where the current situation of competition will persist.

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