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Foreign Policy

Finding the Right Approach to Differences

Oct 20 , 2016
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

Most people believe that China and the United States have more common interests than differences and that, on the whole, Sino-U.S. relations have witnessed good progress in the last eight years or so. But when we observe the development of Sino-U.S. relations in recent years, we often find that differences between the two countries that are not handled with a right approach, increasingly hinder any expected progress, while good and fair-minded handling of other has contributed a great deal to the healthy development of relations.

We first review the different after-effects or consequences resulting from different approaches. The issue of the South China Sea is not rightly dealt with by the United States. Washington’s approach was worked out and executed to contain China for the sake of maintaining U.S. hegemony in Asia. As a result, there have been intense debates on the issue between Chinese and U.S. military officers, government officials and scholars in recent years. The overall atmosphere of bilateral relations has been harmed. The constant provocative U.S. military actions there have created tension and threatened China and other coastal countries. Without any doubt, the relations between Chinese and U.S. armed forces have been adversely affected. It is unfortunate and rare that a Secretary of Defense fails to visit China during his tenure of office, but that has been the case with Ashton Carter.

Other differences, however, have been managed much more successfully. The first is the issue of climate change. Initially, China and the U.S. would accuse each other of heavy emission of carbon dioxide, as they are the two largest emitters in the world. But with sustained joint efforts, the two countries took the lead in cementing the Paris Agreement, a historic global pact to curb greenhouse gas pollution and build resilience to the damaging effects of climate change. Cooperation between the two countries in the field of energy has been expanding.

The second may be the issue of the exchange rate of the Chinese currency, Renminbi (RMB). Though there are still a few people in the U.S, accusing China of currency manipulation, no basis for their accusation has been found. After a delay of five or six years due to the obstruction of the U.S. Congress, the RMB is now a member of the International Monetary Fund’s Special Drawing Rights basket. It shows that China is willing to accept more international responsibilities and will make more efforts to reform its monetary, foreign exchange and financial systems. The two countries are doing more to help maintain the stability of the world financial market through increased exchanges and cooperation.

The third positive example could be the issue of cyber security, once a very hot issue between the two countries. Accusations against China and threats to punish cyber hackers in China according to U.S. domestic law and to impose sanctions and so on were often reported in the media. Now, such voices are rarely heard. The two countries are working together to punish cyber crimes according to their respective domestic laws as an effective way to improve cyber security.

The fourth case of the two countries pursuing a common goal: the joint efforts made by China and the U.S. in resolving the Iranian nuclear issue, which were widely praised by the international community.

The above examples show us that in each and every difference, there are common interests of the two countries. The key is to make great efforts to analyze those common interests. This should be the first priority when dealing with any major dispute, no matter it is a new one or an old one.

In the case of the South China Sea, for example, it is in the common interest of China and the U.S., as well as other countries, to safeguard peace and stability in the region. Discussions and consultations among parties concerned should focus on realizing this goal.

Pathways to pragmatic cooperation can be found when common interests are pursued. In the case of the cyber security issue, the two countries shared an interest in cracking down on cyber crimes according to law. So curbing cyber crimes became an important objective for both countries.

Meanwhile, differences should not be played up or exaggerated in the media by either side. Trying to gain an upper hand in public or media opinion never helps resolve conflict, and often adds new impediments to a solution.

Finally, the outdated logic of the zero-sum game should be given up by both countries when an issue is being reviewed or analyzed. When one side is trying its best to make use of the difference to exert pressure on the other side, it makes it very difficult for both sides to see and appreciate common interests. 

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