This week, officials from both China and the United States gather in Beijing to address a myriad of bilateral, regional and global political, strategic, security, and economic issues at the Strategic & Economic Dialogue (S&ED). In its third year, the S&ED was conceived of as a means for the leadership of the United States and China to work together on solving the abundant challenges that our two nations face.
This year, I believe the key agenda item should be to solve the mistrust that continues to plague the superpowers. Never before has there been such urgency to dispel some of the misconceptions that threaten the relationship, and to work together for the benefit of the world.
Having just returned from a week trip in China with a delegation of Former Members of the House of Representatives, the word “mistrust” arose time and time again in discussions on bilateral issues with politicians, scholars, and even the general public. The Chinese we met with expressed a skepticism that China and the United States can work together harmoniously, and with a common agenda. They seemed reluctant to concede that America wishes China well in her endeavors.
The root of the mistrust appears to be a lack of understanding and a short history of engagement between the peoples of China and the United States. This narrow window of time, combined with half-formed assumptions of each other’s cultures seems to deter the two nations working together across all spheres.
It is time for the leaders of both China and the United States to break this dangerous cycle and begin to align the actions of the nations with the common interests that they face.
It is my sincere belief that people-to-people contact of all kinds is the key to dulling, and eventually ending this cycle. If China and the United States can further the dialogue between politicians, academics, and ordinary citizens; the understanding can commence and the gap can be narrowed. Positive signs abound on this front, such as the State Department’s 100K initiative that will send 100,000 American students to China. But this is only the beginning. Much more needs to be done.
Throughout my visit to China, I was greeted by enthusiasm and excitement, both in public and in private meetings. A visit to Chairman Mao’s monument in his hometown resulted in photo sessions with dozens of excited Chinese citizens. A meeting with students at the Hunan International Economics University taught us that the Chinese youth hold America and American values in such high regard that they long for what they conceive of as the “American dream.” And all of this without ever visiting the United States, and only learning from the power of Hollywood films and television.
If our two nations can replicate the model of the S&ED throughout the tiers of society, it will be a matter of when, not if, we begin to truly bridge our differences.
Despite the fact that the leaders in Beijing and Washington do not see eye-to-eye on every issue, it is important for each side to work together as leaders of the global community. As China’s economy continues to grow, the understanding that the U.S.-China relationship is not zero-sum will be of vital importance. By developing products and services that can be consumed by China, the United States can increase employment and effectively shift away from an economy formerly driven by manufacturing. Likewise, China must strive to grow its middle class, which will increase US exports to China.
Indeed, although they stick by their principles, the Chinese seem willing to listen to America’s viewpoints on issues ranging from the currency to Syria to trade enhancement. In one of the latest positive developments between the two countries, China has loosened trading on its currency, which will work towards lowering the trade tensions and lessen the negative China campaign rhetoric that abounds in this election season.
One common misconception America holds about China is that the nation’s wealth is rising and it will soon be able to compete with America on an equal playing field. From what I saw in China, this is a widely held assertion that obscures the real picture. When traveling through Hunan Province, I found that the disparity between China’s coastal cities and the rural Central regions helped explain why the Party leaders in Beijing are intent on calling China a developing country. With its economic development, the real question for future progress is how China can distribute its development more equally and build a harmonious society to avoid social conflicts.
China’s growth is outstanding and the results can be seen throughout the nation. But America must shy away from the notion of China as a dangerous competitor. China has a long way to go, but it will rise. In that, America will need to stand by China’s side and engage in a partnership of mutual understanding and trust. It is my sincere hope that officials from China and the United States can look beyond their differences this week in Beijing and work for the common goal of the peoples of both these nations.
Constance A. Morella served as Ambassador to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, after representing Maryland’s 8th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives for sixteen years.