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Foreign Policy

Maximise the Payoff and Minimise the Damage

Dec 09, 2021
  • Brian Wong

    Assistant Professor in Philosophy, HKU and Rhodes Scholar

Last month’s Xi-Biden call served as a pivotal reinforcement of a recently emerging trend – one that saw a recalibration in Sino-American relations and a shift (at least, for now) away from the bellicose, absolutist Manicheanism that had characterised bilateral relations since Trump’s ascent to power, sustained in the early days of the Biden administration. 

President Biden called for a “commonsense guardrail”, where U.S. and China could be “clear and honest where we disagree and work together where our interests intersect. Substantively, this was a message that was not all that divergent from the offering made by Blinken at the acrimonious Alaska meet – but the tone was considerably more cordial, and that made the difference. 

President Xi reciprocated, in addressing his “old friend” with an acknowledgment that given the Earth’s room for the mutual development of China and the U.S., it behooved leaders of both countries to eschew zero-sum (or, indeed, as I have warned of elsewhere, negative-sum) thinking. The Chinese leader’s words marked a partial departure from the more embittered, confrontational rhetoric adopted by more junior diplomats in the Chinese bureaucracy, who have sought to paint the Chinese model as inherently superior to the American system. 

These positive signs of de-escalation and dialogue are reassuring, somewhat – yet in the absence of fundamental corrections to both sides’ thinking, such détente would, at best, be short-lived. Two propositions follow – firstly, U.S. and China alike must maximise the returns from areas in which both countries can seek and broker consensus; secondly, the U.S. and China alike must not let regions and issues over which they explicitly diverge clog up bilateral relations. 

On the first prong, it is imperative that we pragmatically seek value from convergence across areas where such alignment is possible. Note the emphasis upon possibility – it is possible, though rarely already the case, for consensus to be sought on areas of mutual interest. Both national leaders, in their call, emphasised the need for bilateral collaboration in tackling climate change. Yet the question remains – if we are to incentivise both parties to come to the table to work together, there must be a reason for which such collaboration is, in fact, conducive and useful. If the payoffs of collaboration are next to nothing, then much of the rhetoric calling for communication and synergy would fall flat – sheerly on grounds that it is not backed up by facts. 

The upshot is simple. Both American and Chinese researchers ought to look into ways through which they can harness the other party’s informational and scientific innovation in producing cost-effective, efficient remedial technologies in light of climate change. Both parties should seek – beyond agreements on emission targets and concrete commitments in terms of sustainable architecture and developmental trajectories – to share joint leadership responsibilities in spearheading the world’s response to climate change. Finally, maximising yield takes more than just gestures and words – it requires face-to-face, in-person collaboration that could only take place under contexts where scientists from either country are not typecast and excluded for alleged espionage. The nascent persecutory witch-hunt directed towards ethnically Chinese academics in fields of atmospheric sciences, chemical engineering, and beyond, is hampering national and international efforts at combating climate change. Climate change and the ensuing policy commitments are not no-go zones for China or America alike – compromise, change, and reforms can be solicited and advanced, even in lieu of substantial external shocks to the bilateral system. 

If we restrict our imagination of what can be changed to exclusively the domain of climate change, however, we would be far too constrictive and modest in our ambitions. Indeed, President Xi advocated that America and China set aside their differences to respond to global public health challenges – through funding and supporting multilateral institutions such as the WHO, but also via de-politicising unnecessarily politicised disputes, such as the ones over the origins of the COVID-19 virus. One should hope that this serves as a cue for diplomats and politicians in Beijing and Washington alike, to cease with mindless speculation and conspiracy theorists, and to engage in more open, transparent, and respectful investigations into what had precipitated one of the worst public health crises in human history. 

There are more areas over which such convergence – and ensuing concessions – can be sought: ranging from geopolitical strife and terrorism, to international conflicts and humanitarian crises, to the wellbeing of Chinese and American citizens on an individual-level. To portray these areas as reserved domains over which no external party can comment or weigh in – would be a mistake for both sides of the Pacific. In an increasingly globalised world, adjustments and adaptations are part and parcel of what it takes to stay connected – and relevant – in international politics. 

The second prong of my argument concerns managing, and reducing the relevance or fallout, of necessary divergences. China and America are unlikely to see eye to eye on many issues. To put it more bluntly, neither America nor China possess the capacity or resolve to systemically transform the status quo regime logic undergirding the other party. Contrary to the wishes of neo-conservatives and hard-lined politico-activists in America, China is unlikely to become a Western-style electoral democracy anytime soon; radical regime change is both unlikely and likely to be devastating, if it were to occur. On the other hand, America is not going to unravel and yield its significant global influence without putting up a significant fight – there might be backsliding to its state of democracy, but chances are, its people will not take kindly to the discourses of meritocracy and centralisation of power that underpin Chinese state legitimation rhetoric. Neither party could eliminate the other, without incurring exorbitant and insurmountable costs; nor would that, indeed, be desirable for the world at large. 

We can’t change what can’t be changed – this is tautological, but this is also an adage that is oft-overlooked in much of the wishful thinking in diplomacy. To think that Americans would not feel antagonised or anxious over the behaviours and gestures of select Chinese diplomats, or to opine that the Chinese public would not react with (rightful) animosity to perceived racism and bigotry directed towards them as their country continues to rise, would be fundamentally naïve. We can’t change psychological realities; we also can’t change geopolitical givens that result from years, if not decades, of inculcation and systemic inertia. 

What we can change, however, is the importance of such divergences, or the weighting we accord to such divergences in the brokering of bilateral relations. Must America always be required to pay hyper-caution to what could ostensibly pose a fundamental affront to the feelings of the Chinese people? Must we bring up the way Chinese governance works in each and every conversation about Sino-American relations – including deepening investment and trade ties, collaboration across managing military and scientific risks, and weathering the onslaught of crises and emergencies that rock the “world boat”? I do not think so. It may sell well on papers; it may look good to one’s voters and supporters – but ultimately, the future of Sino-American collaboration requires us to set aside differences that can’t be bridged, and focus on areas where mutually beneficial compromise can be sought. 

To be very clear, does this therefore mean we neglect or cast aside the values, norms, and moral convictions that we hold as sacred and of paramount importance? No, just as we would expect some level of consistency in how such standards are applied across countries, we would also expect politicians and figures to, understandably, cling onto upholding the right, and fighting for the just. 

The question is instead one of “How” – for Chinese politicians skeptical of the Western hegemony, how could they go about offering a truly substantive and meaningful alternative, without producing outsized military risks? For Western activists and thinkers genuinely concerned about the lives of some in China, how could they go about finding solutions that can be feasibly and practicably implemented? There is no simple answer – but one fact is clear: berating, admonishing, and monolithically criticising the other – especially in ways that flagrantly defy the political realities on the ground – cannot be the way forward. 

Maximise the payoff of what both sides are willing to change; minimise the damage from what neither is willing to change. That’s the way forward for U.S. and China. 

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