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Foreign Policy

A Brighter Future of China-US Relations is Possible If Both Focus on Cooperation

Dec 28, 2020
  • Zheng Tao

    an observer on international issues

With the conclusion of the U.S. election, China-U.S. relations has come to another crossroads, facing risks and challenges as well as new opportunities. The biggest question on the mind of the whole world is whether this relationship can return to the right track. As President Xi Jinping stressed, a sound and stable China-U.S. relationship serves the fundamental interests of the two peoples, and is also the shared aspiration of the wider international community. 

Understanding China-U.S. relations requires a holistic examination of its history and reality. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Dr. Henry A. Kissinger’s secret visit to China. The past five decades since their re-engagement have witnessed a quantum leap in bilateral ties. 

Two-way trade surged from virtually non-existence to over US$500 billion in 2019. Over 72,500 U.S. companies made investment in China. American businesses have a total of over US$700 billion of assets in China, and rake in some US$700 billion in their annual sales. Last month,197 U.S. companies attended the third China International Import Expo, priding themselves on the largest number of exhibition items in the largest exhibition areas among participating countries. 

By working together on a variety of issues — from international and regional hotspots to counter-terrorism and non-proliferation, from global financial crisis to major infectious diseases — China and the United States have made major accomplishments beneficial to themselves and the world. 

Over the past few years, China-U.S. relations has gone through the most difficult time since the establishment of diplomatic ties. Driven by ideology and politics, some in the United States have chosen to take a confrontational approach toward China against the trend of the times. They attempt to deny the historic facts of China-U.S. relations and attack the Communist Party of China and China’s political system. They keep challenging China’s core interests, interfering in China’s internal affairs, and scapegoating China for COVID-19. They unscrupulously seek to disrupt China-U.S. exchanges in all areas and stall the momentum of cooperation. 

They also try hard to push for “decoupling” and coerce other countries into “encircling” or “countering” China in an attempt to create two “parallel worlds” with two separate systems, which will only plunge the world into division and chaos. Their actions run counter to the trend of history, the call of the times and the will of people. They have met with strong opposition from people with insight in the United States and the whole world,and they are doomed to fail. 

Facts have made it abundantly clear that cooperation is better than friction, and that dialogue is better than confrontation. Good cooperation between China and the United States can be an anchor for world peace and propeller for global development. But more frictions will be disastrous to the two countries and the world. “Both countries stand to gain from cooperation and lose from confrontation, and cooperation is the best option for both.” — This is the most valuable lesson for China-U.S. interaction, and the two sides should keep it in mind all the time. 

What is pressing at the moment for the two sides is to sit down together for a comprehensive, candid and in-depth dialogue to clarify their strategic intentions and rebuild trust. They should do so in the same spirit and with the same approach that Dr. Kissinger and the then Chinese leaders took in their forthright talks 50 years ago. At least the following points deserve their attention. 

The two countries should adhere to one very basic principle. China and the United States have different social systems. That is due to the choices of the people and should be respected. China has no intention to change or replace the United States. Likewise, the United States should not seek to remold China or stop China’s historic march toward modernization. “No conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation” — this principle should be the fundamental guideline for China-U.S. relations. 

The two sides should be clear about one tenet. The Communist Party of China is the governing party of China. It enjoys a 95% approval rating among the Chinese people. It is always the leading and driving force for bilateral relations. And the United States has been dealing with the CPC from day one of China-U.S. diplomatic relations. Accepting and respecting the CPC is an essential prerequisite for developing China-U.S. relations. Rejecting the CPC is rejecting the very foundation of China-U.S. interaction. 

The two countries should work out one cooperation framework through negotiations. Indeed China and the United States have quite a few differences. But that does not rule out the possibility for cooperation. The two countries should act in the spirit of seeking common ground while putting aside differences, accommodate each other’s needs and concerns to the widest extent possible, explore new pathways for dialogue and cooperation, and find a way of peaceful co-existence and mutually beneficial cooperation. 

Such a cooperation framework cannot be worked out overnight. It requires both persistence in the long run and a sense of urgency to get things started early on. It needs both a long-term perspective and concrete actions right now. China and the United States are the world’s top two economies and the largest developing and developed countries. There are many areas in which they can and should cooperate with great complementarity. A sensible and feasible way to build that cooperation framework is to immediately start working on the three lists proposed by State Councilor Wang Yi, namely, a list of dialogues, a list of cooperation areas, and a list of differences to be properly managed. This may include: 

Jointly fighting COVID-19. This is the most pressing task and a common concern of the whole international community. From their joint fight against SARS, Ebola and other epidemics, China and the United States have gained rich experience and forged good partnerships between their medical communities. The two sides could step up exchanges and cooperation in quarantine and tracing measures, drugs, and vaccines. If the United States could return to the World Health Organization and join COVAX, it would enable China and the United States to work together within multilateral frameworks on global vaccine distribution and epidemic response and help countries with vulnerable health systems. That would be good for the whole world. 

Jointly stabilizing economic and trade relations. This is a typical area of mutual benefit, and the two sides should break new ground for more cooperation as soon as possible. At the opening ceremony of the third China International Import Expo, President Xi Jinping announced that China aims to turn its market into a market for the world, a market shared by all, and a market accessible to all. Clearly, a growing and open China brings opportunities to the world including the United States. Decoupling with China simply means giving up those opportunities. 

The two countries need to better coordinate economic policies, and look for areas of convergence between China’s new development paradigm of dual-circulation and the U.S. post-pandemic economic recovery. Cooperation should be stepped up in areas like information and communications technology, artificial intelligence, online education and telemedicine. The two countries should also make joint efforts to ensure market stability, economic growth and people’s livelihood, keep the global industrial and supply chains open, and play a leading role in promoting global recovery and growth. 

Jointly tackling climate change. The two governments worked together to help conclude the Paris Agreement and led the global efforts toward climate mitigation and adaptation. At the general debate of the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly last September, President Xi Jinping solemnly announced that China will aim to have carbon dioxide emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060. There is a good opportunity for China and the United States to strengthen exchanges and cooperation on climate change, which will benefit not only this generation, but many more to come. 

Jointly resuming people-to-people exchanges. There used to be, on average, 14,000 travels everyday between China and the United States and one flight taking off or touching down every 17 minutes. There were 50 pairs of sister provinces/states and 231 pairs of sister cities. And there were more than 400,000 Chinese students studying in the United States. All this helped build the connection between the two peoples and deepened their friendship. 

In recent years however, these people-to-people exchanges have been seriously disrupted. From April to September this year, the number of visas issued by the United States to Chinese students plunged by 99% compared to the same period of last year. The two sides should resume normal people-to-people exchanges as soon as possible. In particular, they should make new plans for the exchanges of think-tanks, flights and students in order to consolidate public support for China-U.S. relations. 

In addition, China and the United States have had successful experiences of cooperation on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, the Iranian nuclear issue, the Korean nuclear issue, counter-terrorism and disaster relief. These are important areas where the two sides can rebuild dialogue and restart cooperation. 

There is a Chinese saying, “Delicious soup is made by combining different ingredients, and harmonious relations are built by aligning diverse interests.” In the post-pandemic era, both China and the United States must roll up sleeves and get to work, and think creatively to identify, embrace and seek changes. The two countries should find areas where their interests converge, resume exchanges and cooperation across the board, and create enabling external conditions for each other to pursue their important domestic agendas. This will be a wise choice for both sides. It is also the expectation of the world.

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