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Managing US-China Ties

Richard H. Solomon
February 9, 2012
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Former US president Richard Nixon's week-long visit to China in 1972 concluded with publication of the Shanghai Communiqué, a unique joint political document that established the principles for normalizing US-China relations. Looking back over four decades, it is clear that Nixon's visit, and his discussions with Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai, fundamentally changed the political dynamic of the Cold War - to the benefit of the security of both countries. The Soviet Union was put on the defensive, and the US and China began to dismantle their decades-long confrontation. The visit represented one of the most dramatic and transforming diplomatic initiatives of the 20th century.

Full normalization of Sino-American relations was completed by former US president Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping in late 1978. This development made possible a dramatic advancement in our bilateral relationship - especially in the economic and cultural realms.

Where are US-China relations today? Some have characterized them as "strategically ambiguous". We are neither allies nor adversaries. We have major areas of cooperation - especially in economic relations - but also significant areas of competition and disagreement. We share common interest in national security and a stable international environment; yet we have limited areas of cooperation and a significant measure of distrust.

Our relations today are in a contradictory state of opportunity and some antagonism. If our areas of disagreement are not carefully managed, we could again become adversaries. Today, we can see that in the two decades since the end of the Cold War the world has entered a new era. The great power conflicts and wars that dominated the 20th century have given way to a time of international economic integration -involving both mutual benefit and competition.

Today, our security concerns are about regional interstate rivalries (the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the Republic of Korea; India-Pakistan; Israel-Iran), and weak states that permit the growth of terrorist groups. We work to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons and to deal with the corrupting influence of narcotics cartels; and pirates capturing ocean shipping for ransom. And worldwide, ethnic and religious conflicts have replaced ideological rivalries as forces for political instability.

As well, our security is affected by issues that are not military in character: the integrity of our electronic systems - the brains and nerves of modern societies; dependable access to energy and other resources necessary for economic development; and the humanitarian impact of global climate change, pandemic diseases, pollution of the environment, and natural disasters. We are still learning how to deal with these challenges, especially where international cooperation is required. And then there is a new force creating political change around the world: mass publics mobilized by the information revolution and social networking communications. In president Nixon's time the relatively new technology of television could be used to change public opinion "from the top down".Today, the Internet and social networking media give people the ability to exert political influence "from the bottom up". History shows that serious economic problems, and even many security concerns, can be managed through determined diplomacy. Territorial disputes, however, are the kinds of issues that can lead to military confrontation - if not war.

One of the outcomes of the Nixon-Mao talks of the early 1970s - as noted earlier - was an agreement to defer resolution of Taiwan's status in order to cooperate on the strategic security challenge from the Soviet Union. Failure to manage Taiwan's future relationship with the Chinese mainland peacefully is the most likely source of a breakdown in the US-China relationship. Having said that, over the past four decades there has been a remarkably positive evolution in cross-Straits relations, which have now evolved into increasingly constructive economic and social dealings between the island and the mainland. There is open political communication between leaders in Taipei and Beijing, and a growing sense of common interest.

What can be done to maximize the benefits of normal Sino-American relations - much less minimize prospects for a return to confrontation? First is the necessity to vigorously confront the primary source of economic tension - the shared concern with "jobs, jobs, jobs". In the Cold War era, the shared strategic concern with the Soviet threat helped pull the two countries together. Today, the common concern with jobs tends to pull the countries apart, although the reality is that globalization has created enormous numbers of jobs in both countries.

The specific issues currently on the bilateral economic agenda - as noted earlier - affect jobs in both countries. There are a number of well-institutionalized bilateral and international fora and dispute-management procedures for dealing with these issues - most notably the annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Both the US and China need an open international trading environment. And over time China will slowly make the transition from a development strategy of export-led growth to an economy with heightened domestic household consumption.

For its part, America has to invest more at home, do so intelligently, consume less, and generate the political will to manage, on a bipartisan basis, our fiscal challenges. The second element of managing the US-China relationship should be the construction of a positive agenda of economic and security cooperation: energy security; access to raw materials; countering the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism; sea lane security; the impact of climate change and global health threats among other things.

To conclude, Nixon called his visit to China in 1972 "the week that changed the world". Four decades later, it seems this was not an exaggeration. Or to go back even further in history, Napoleon was even more far-sighted in saying 200 years ago that China would "shake the world" when aroused from her "sleep". China today is indeed "shaking the world". Only as leaders in both Beijing and Washington work to develop the positive factors in the relationship - while managing the areas of conflict - can they avoid the great costs that would come with a return to confrontation. This is the great contemporary challenge of managing US-China relations.

Richard Solomon is president of United States Institute of Peace. He was assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 1989 to 1992. The article is an excerpt from his speech delivered to the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies on Feb 6 

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