On February 28, 45 years ago, after months of negotiations, China and the United States issued a joint communiqué in Shanghai, which signaled the beginning of normalizing relations.
The document, commonly known as the Shanghai Communiqué, is the first of its kind between the People's Republic of China and the United States. It makes up part of the political foundation for the development of China-U.S. relations, in addition to the Joint Communiqué on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations, issued on December 16, 1978, and a joint communiqué issued on August 17, 1982.
As the initial document defining China-U.S. relations, the Shanghai Communiqué is of great historical significance.
The document helped the two sides establish mutual strategic recognition during the Cold War era and defined their joint task at that time of responding to the threat from the Soviet Union. Under the circumstances of that period, the two governments agreed that "it would be against the interests of the peoples of the world for any major country to collude with another against other countries, or for major countries to divide up the world into spheres of interest."
The Shanghai Communiqué established the foundational principles for the development of China-U.S. relations: seeking common ground while reserving differences; respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of each other; non-aggression against each other; non-interference in the internal affairs of each other; equality and mutual benefit; peaceful coexistence; and not resorting to the use or threat of force. These principles have significantly contributed to the development of international relations and served as an exemplar of coexistence and cooperation between states with different social systems and foreign policies.
Most importantly, the Shanghai Communiqué set the tone for the Taiwan question, which is the most crucial one in China-U.S. relations. The communiqué stated, "The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves. With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all U.S. forces and military installations from Taiwan. In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes." Though the wording revealed the United States' unwillingness to part with Taiwan out of its own interests, the communiqué did chart the basic course for dealing with the question while China-U.S.
relations developed and also set the bottom line by clearly stating opposition to any activities aimed at creating "one China, one Taiwan," "one China, two governments," "two Chinas" or an "independent Taiwan" or advocating that "the status of Taiwan remains to be determined."
Finally, the document explicitly defined the objectives in normalizing bilateral relations and charted the way forward toward the stated goals, first through developing people-to-people connections and strengthening economic and cultural exchanges, and then by addressing political issues. Such a plan created a solid foundation for wide-ranging cooperation between the two nations, which continues today.
Strategic cooperation between China and the United States has served as the key driver behind the push to transform the bipolar and unipolar world orders prevalent since the end of World War II into a peaceful, integrated and multipolar model of international relations. And, the two nations' interwoven interests also constitute an important force motivating the continuous deepening of economic globalization as well as the Asia-Pacific region's economic takeoff and integration.
However, due to differences between the two nations in terms of political ideology, social system and concepts of international relations, structural contradictions continue to exist. Friction over economy and trade, human rights, and the questions of Taiwan and Tibet emerge from time to time. The principles guiding China-U.S. relations set up by the three joint communiqués have not been fully implemented. On the Taiwan question, although the United States pursues the one-China policy, opposes "Taiwan independence" and supports dialogue across the Taiwan Straits, it also adheres to its Taiwan Relations Act that allows arms sales to Taiwan and the so-called Six Assurances to Taiwan. Washington continues to use Taiwan as a means to contain China, selling arms to the island in violation of the principles on the Taiwan question set up in the three communiqués.
In the past 45 years, numerous events have undermined progress in China-U.S. relations. These include the U.S. sanctions on China in the wake of the 1989 political turmoil in Beijing, the then Taiwan leader Lee Teng-hui's U.S. trip in 1995 and the cross-Straits tension triggered by Lee advocating "state-to-state" relations between the mainland and Taiwan in 1996, the United States' bombing of China's embassy in the Federal Republic of in 1999, and the China-U.S. military plane collision over the South China Sea in 2001. Though these matters were settled through the two nations' joint efforts, they reveal that inadequate strategic and political mutual trust is the major hindrance to the healthy development of China-U.S. relations. And, the root cause of this lack of mutual trust is Washington's unwillingness to give up its attempt to contain China on issues concerning China's core interests and to incite a color revolution in China.
On December 3, 2016, Donald Trump had a telephone conversation with Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen, breaking a decades-old convention of no direct contact between U.S. presidents or presidents-elect and Taiwan authorities. The move undermined the tacit understanding cultivated for many years between leaders of China and the United States. After the conversation, Trump and his team also demonstrated the intention to play the "Taiwan card" to try to bargain with China. In response, the Chinese Government immediately made its stance clear, stating that the one-China principle is not tradable. After Trump took office, he confirmed the U.S. Government's adherence to the one-China policy in a telephone conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping on February 10. Nevertheless, the White House just said in a press release that Trump agreed to "honor our one-China policy," indicating that Washington would continue to uphold the Taiwan Relations Act and its so-called Six Assurances to Taiwan. Therefore, in the current severe climate across the Taiwan Straits, the alarm caused by the Trump administration playing the "Taiwan card" has not receded.
Change and transformation
When the Shanghai Communiqué was signed, China's GDP was less than $100 billion, while the United States' GDP stood at around $1 trillion. In 2015, the respective GDP figures had reached $10.8 trillion and $17.8 trillion. Against the backdrop of China becoming a middle-income nation, China-U.S. relations have also evolved.
In 2016, China for the first time became the United States' largest trading partner in goods, overtaking Canada. In 2015, China's direct investment in the United States for the first time exceeded the flow of such investment in the opposite direction, and in 2016, it reached $30 billion. Furthermore, U.S. Treasury Department statistics show that by the end of 2016, China was the United States' second largest creditor, holding U.S. government debt to the tune of $1.2 trillion.
Bilateral cultural and people-to-people exchanges are currently very active. Over 90 scheduled flights connect China and the United States, with passenger numbers averaging around 14,000 between the two nations daily. At present, over 300,000 students from China are studying in the United States.
The creators of the Shanghai Communiqué might not have foreseen that in less than half a century, China-U.S. relations would grow to one of the world's most important bilateral relationships, characterized by both cooperation and competition.
The rapidly narrowing strength gap between China and the United States indicates that the crossroads in the history of China-U.S. relations is around the corner. Many economic analysis reports forecast that China's GDP will surpass that of the United States as early as 2030. This trend exerts significant effects on both nations' mindsets and approaches to their bilateral relations.
If any remarkable change should be noted, it is China's growing confidence in dealing with China-U.S. relations and its increasing ability to set the agenda. On the one hand, the United States continues to see itself as the world's most powerful nation and is determined to keep its leading position. Consequently, it tries to maintain its dominance in the Asia-Pacific region by pursuing absolute security through enhancing its network of alliances. On the other hand, China's overseas interests continue to expand, and its ability to protect its national sovereignty and maritime rights continues to grow. Conflict between China and the United States over geostrategic interests in the Western Pacific region has emerged. Washington also maintains a skeptical attitude toward China's international infrastructure cooperation initiatives, which include strengthening cooperation among BRICS nations, establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, and promoting the initiative of building the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road. In the past two years, a heated debate has arisen within the United States over its policy toward China, and voices calling for the abandonment of the policy of engagement with China have been on the rise.
Now that Trump has taken office, U.S. policy on China is showing more signs of uncertainty. Trump's doctrine—whether to "make America great again" or "America first"—shows signs of treating China as a competitor to be contained. If the Trump administration handles divergence of interests between China and the United States with an attitude of isolationism or exclusion, launching trade wars with China while strengthening U.S. alliances and military deployment targeting China, China-U.S. relations will inevitably deviate from the direction charted by the Shanghai Communiqué 45 years ago.
Henry Kissinger, one of the major participants in the Shanghai Communiqué negotiations, recalled in his book On China that "the Soviet threat had provided an impetus, but the deeper challenge was the need to establish a belief in cooperation over the decades." He also wrote, "The reward for Sino-American rapprochement would not be a state of perpetual friendship or a harmony of values, but a rebalancing of the global equilibrium."
Unprecedentedly, China and the United States now face one another with assertive attitudes, and military and security matters play a more important and direct role in shaping bilateral relations. Their competition in non-traditional security fields such as cyberspace and outer space is also increasingly fierce. Standing at a new crossroads, the two nations face a great challenge because they lack common strategic objectives. Despite their deeply intertwined interests, it cannot be completely guaranteed that conflicts will not arise in the future. Against this backdrop, commemorating the issuance of the Shanghai Communiqué is of great significance.
Although parts of the communiqué do not suit the current world situation, the spirit of the document remains valid, advocating dialogue, mutually beneficial cooperation and respect of one another's core interests. In a sense, the process of reaching consensus on the Shanghai Communiqué, particularly the dialogue between Chinese leaders and Kissinger, was the first strategic dialogue between China and the United States. During former U.S. President Barack Obama's eight years in office, the spirit of the Shanghai Communiqué was reincarnated in the concept of a new type of major-country relationship. Despite Obama's departure from office, the principles underpinning the concept—non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation—should be upheld.
China and the United States should maintain and strengthen their bilateral communication to establish common objectives and chart the way forward for cooperation in order to safeguard their mutual benefits and avoid the risk of making strategic misjudgments.
This article is reposted from Beijing Review.