Chinese Scholars See Little Room to Improve US Relationship

(Bloomberg) -- Chinese scholars are highlighting a period of turbulence in the bilateral relationship with Washington ahead of US presidential elections, with some even skeptical on long-term improvements.

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Panelists at the World Peace Forum in Beijing, organized by Tsinghua University over the weekend, said tensions could also rise over disputes involving Taiwan and the South China Sea.

“Maybe we have reached a limit on the maximum of the extent that we can stabilize this bilateral relations,” said Da Wei, director of the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University. “We have picked the low hanging fruit already.”

The fundamental distrust is so high that “if we continue our current trajectory, I think we are gradually moving toward another crisis or some kind of confrontation,” Da said Sunday.

Candidates on both sides of the tight US presidential race are trying to appear tough on China, ramping up threats of trade tariffs that appeal to voters looking to protect American jobs. Relations between the US and China stabilized after President Joe Biden met Chinese President Xi Jinping in November, but Beijing’s military actions in the South China Sea and a surge in cheap exports from the world’s No. 2 economy have brought fresh tensions.

There is “greater possibility for bilateral relations to get worse than to improve between now and the first half of 2025,” in part due to the election campaign, Yan Xuetong, director of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University, said at a press conference last week before the forum started.

China and the US have continued to clash over issues including geopolitics, technology and trade.

Douglas Paal, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned the South China Sea could turn into the most dangerous part of the bilateral relationship.

“The dispute over the Second Thomas Shoal shows that the danger of conflict between the US and China might be higher in the South China Sea, for lack of mechanisms and understanding on how to handle contested positions,” he said on a panel on US-China relations on Sunday at the forum.

For Wu Xinbo, director at Fudan University’s Center for American Studies, Taiwan remains the biggest risk.

“China and the US are making serious mental preparation for some contingency in the Taiwan issue,” Wu said in an interview on the sidelines of the forum. “Once a conflict occurs whether intended or not, it will be very difficult to deescalate or control.”

Speakers at the event also put forward recommendations for improving the relationship.

Susan Thornton, a former US diplomat with deep experience in Asia and is now at Yale University Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center, urged both sides to stop hyping up supposed threats posed by the other.

They should focus on relationships with third-party countries that could have positive spillover effects and work on a white list of areas of cooperation that are less subject to security tensions such as health, education, environmental protection and food security, she said.

Xi has called for 50,000 American students to visit China in five years to boost people-to-people exchanges. Beijing has also made efforts to appease the US by cracking down on fentanyl precursors and taking back illegal immigrants.

Da of Tsinghua University said the two sides need to drop policies that are inconsistent with their stated goals. He said an example would be allowing Chinese students in American universities to study any subject if the US said it’s not trying to contain China.

Last month, Deputy Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said the US should welcome more Chinese students to study liberal arts rather than sciences to minimize security concerns.

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