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Foreign Policy

China-US Relations: Rhetoric Or Reality?

Aug 12 , 2014

Rhetoric or reality? As the second decade of the 21st century unfolds, the relationship between the U.S. and China remains the most important bilateral relationship in the world.


What happens in China and the U.S. impacts all humanity. Going forward, all major world issues will intersect at the corners of Washington and Beijing.

Tom Watkins

The relationship between our two nations is the foundation for world peace but we must find ways to rise above our differences and grow together. The thought of our relationship disintegrating is unthinkable. 

It is in our respective countries’ self-interest as well as the interest of the entire world to ensure the continued understanding and improvement of U.S.-Chinese relations. The more we collectively achieve a deeper level of communication, understanding, and friendship between us – ranging from the average citizen to local, state and provincial leaders, scholars, NGO’s and policymakers in our respective countries and around the globe – the better off we will all be.

At last month’s U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue meeting in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out that the bilateral relations between our countries have gone through an extraordinary journey since the establishment of diplomatic relations 35 years ago. The Chinese leader reinforced the direction we should be taking saying, “China and the U.S. should stick to the general direction of building a new model of major country relationship which features no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation. Both sides should also enhance mutual trust, expand converging interests, and manage and control differences, so as to promote the China-US relations to continuously move forward along the right track.”

I suggest that in the 35 years since normalization of relations between our country and China, we have done a remarkable job building connections between government leader-to-leader, academic, business, economic and more recently, even militarily. 

But we need to do much more to educate and enlighten the average U.S. “Joe Six Pack” and China’s “Old Hundred Names” (“nao bai xing”–an idiomatic Chinese expression referring to ordinary people in China) about each other. 

The nationalistic urge to blame each other’s country for some perceived slight, economic downfall, or diplomatic or military mistake is right below the surface, ready to be exploited at a moment’s notice. Our leaders must be cognizant of this tendency. As Mao once proclaimed, “Even the smallest spark can start a raging forest fire.” The wrong nationalistic spark, once ignited, may not be retrievable and could set the world aflame.

Do Good, Avoid Evil

There are several prominent organizations working diligently to build the ‘guanxi’/connections between our two countries. Countless think tanks and universities are working to build bridges that will allow us to have harmonious relations that allow us to realize our dreams.

Some examples include: 

In May of 2013, the Chine-United States Exchange Foundation released “US-China 2022: Economic Relations in the Next 10 Years,” a groundbreaking study on the state of the U.S.-China economic relationship over the past three decades with projections for cooperation through 2022. The study identifies potential economic benefits both countries may achieve in the next decade, creating a global win-win opportunity. The full report is available at

China-U.S. Think Tanks

There are countless think tanks focused on China-U.S. relations. Some I have found particularly helpful over the years include: 

Notably, RAND also has a Chinese web presence (兰德公司在亚太地区) at

Earlier this year, Dr. James McGann, Director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies (TTCSP) at the University of Pennsylvania, released the Global Go To Think Tank Index. You can find a list and ranking of the top think tanks in the world today at

Furthermore, The Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences (SASS), a leading Chinese think tank and research institution, recently released its China Think Tank Report. The first of its kind in China, the report ranks the 426 Chinese think tanks by their level of influence. More information on the report is available at

I encourage my Chinese colleagues to follow up on this article to expose the West to their thoughts about ideas generated by these foundations, think tanks, and universities. We need to work together to assure that the rise of China and the historical power of America don’t have a Titanic collision that sinks us all.

Like a children’s playground seesaw, it is inevitable that China will continue to rise and regain its economic and military might. It is well to remember that China had the world’s largest economy in 18 of the previous 20 centuries. Economic forecasts indicate China will surpass the U.S. and claim the number one spot before the end of this decade. China’s rise will inevitably bring the United States’ unipolar economic moment to an end as China takes the top position in the 21st century.

Our two countries will need to find ways to adjust to this new world order. If we are going to grow and prosper together, the best minds across the globe will need to ponder these issues, along with people-to-people exchanges and a continued bond built between our people. 

Failure is not an option as reality has replaced rhetoric.

Tom Watkins has had a lifelong interest in China sparked by a great fourth grade teacher. He has worked for over three decades to build economic, educational and cultural ties between the US and China. He is advisor to the University of Michigan Confucius Institute, Michigan’s Economic Development Corporation, Chinese Association of Greater Detroit and Detroit Chinese Business Association. He can be reached via e-mail at or follow him on Twitter @TDWatkins88.

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