Explainer: What are Beijing's three principles for China-U.S. relations?

Hours before a long-due visit to Beijing by Washington's top diplomat was confirmed simultaneously by both sides on Wednesday night, Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang spoke with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken over the phone.

During their conversation, Qin stressed to Blinken, once again, that the Chinese side has viewed and handled China-U.S. relations under the principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation proposed by President Xi Jinping.

It was during a virtual meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden in November 2021 that Xi proposed the three principles for China-U.S. relations for the first time.

A review of the experience and lessons learned in growing China-U.S. relations has shown that for the two countries to get along in the new era, these principles must be followed, Xi highlighted.

Xie Feng, who took the post of Chinese ambassador to the United States three weeks ago, delivered a keynote speech about the importance of the three principles at a welcome event hosted by the U.S.-China Business Council last week.

"Among them, mutual respect comes first, peaceful coexistence is the red line, and win-win cooperation is what we are aiming at," said the ambassador.

Mutual respect: the precondition

China and the U.S. need to respect each other's social systems and development paths, respect each other's core interests and major concerns, and respect each other's right to development, Xi told Biden in their virtual meeting while expounding the first principle of mutual respect.

The two countries need to treat each other as equals, keep differences under control and seek common ground while reserving differences, he added.

The Taiwan question is "the core of China's core interests" that brooks no interference from foreign forces. As for the biggest threat to peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits, China attributed it to the fact that the Taiwan authorities are seeking U.S. support for their "independence" agenda while some in the U.S. are attempting to play the "Taiwan card" or use the region to contain China.

As recently as Wednesday, during the call with Blinken, Qin urged the U.S. to respect China's position on the Taiwan question, stop interfering in China's internal affairs or undermining China's sovereignty, security and development interests in the name of "competition."

Peaceful co-existence: the red line

When explaining the second principle of peaceful coexistence, Xi told the U.S. president that no conflict and no confrontation is "a line that both sides must hold."

Noting that the U.S. side has suggested coexistence between China and the U.S., he said one more word can be added to make it "peaceful coexistence."

Speaking at the 20th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore earlier this month, Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Li Shangfu sounded the alarm against a conflict.

"It is undeniable that a severe conflict or confrontation between China and the U.S. will be an unbearable disaster for the world," Li said.

Xie, the Chinese ambassador, citing his experience of reaching out to Americans from all walks of life in the first weeks of his arrival in the U.S., said their biggest concern is about China and the United States slipping into conflict and confrontation.

Win-win cooperation: the aim

China and the U.S. have their interests deeply intertwined, a point Xi made clear to Biden during their 2021 virtual talks.

The two countries stand to gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation, and the world is big enough for them to develop individually and collectively, said the Chinese president in expounding the third principle of win-win cooperation.

"The right thing to do is to choose mutual benefit over zero-sum game or the I-win-you-lose approach," said Xi.

According to U.S. Exports to China 2023, a report issued by the U.S.-China Business Council, China is just one of three countries whose purchases of U.S. goods and services supported more than 1 million jobs – Canada and Mexico were the other two. In 2021, 1.06 million jobs were supported by U.S. exports to China.

In addition to economy and trade, the two countries share broad interests in a wide range of areas that also include energy, defense, law enforcement, education, science and technology, cyberspace, environmental protection and sub-national interactions.

Three principles, not 'three Cs'

During his first major foreign policy speech in 2021, Blinken said Washington's approach to Beijing will be "competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, adversarial when it must be." Since then, the Biden administration has been seen to pursue the policy of the so-called "three Cs" – competition, collaboration and confrontation.

It should be noted that the "three Cs" construct is "logically flawed" and the three words are "logically in conflict," wrote Li Yan, deputy director of the Institute of American Studies of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

"From the Chinese perspective, if two major countries are in fierce competition or even confrontation, how can they carry out genuine cooperation at the same time?" he asked.

Wang Yi, then Chinese state councilor and foreign minister, said in March 2022 that the China policy of the U.S. must return to the right track guided by reason and pragmatism to put China-U.S. relations back on the right path of healthy and stable development.

"We must replace the 'competitive-collaborative-adversarial' trichotomy with the three principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation," he said.

When Xi and Biden had their first in-person talks as heads of state in Bali, Indonesia, last November, both sides agreed to work out the principles guiding China-U.S. relations and strive for an early agreement after continuous discussions on the basis of the common understandings already in place.

As part of the follow-up to the Bali summit, Blinken had reportedly scheduled a February visit to Beijing, a positive development only to be disrupted by an unmanned airship incident and the so-called "transit" via the U.S. by Tsai Ing-wen, leader of China's Taiwan region, in April.

During Wednesday's phone talks with Blinken, Qin noted that since the beginning of this year, China-U.S. relations have encountered new difficulties and challenges, for which it is crystal clear who is responsible.

It is hoped that the U.S. will work with China to effectively manage differences and promote exchanges and cooperation, so as to stop the decline of bilateral relations and bring them back to the track of sound and stable development, he said.

(Cover: File of the national flags of China and the United States. /Xinhua)

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