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Foreign Policy

Peace and Prosperity vs. Conflict

Sep 07, 2022
  • Tom Watkins

    President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL

The world is watching and worrying as the most important bilateral relationship on the planet – between China and the U.S. – disintegrates.

The relationship is so bad, each side believes that the other is unilaterally seeking to alter the status quo impacting the other’s national interests.

Both of our nations have a vested interest in finding a better way forward. But lately, our nations’ decisions have instead exacerbated tensions and mistrust, not lessened them.

U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi recently turned up the heat between our two countries with her provocative trip to Taiwan – a trip that occurred with a relationship already fraught with suspicion and distrust at a rolling boil. China’s subsequent chest-thumping reaction-on-steroids did little to alleviate problems or calm world nerves.

From a Western perspective, the world is full of criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) as evidenced by The Pew Center for Research findings that indicate a widely held negative public opinion of China’s worsening image. Much of the unfavorable views of China are related to concerns about its policies on human rights.

There is strong and increasingly bipartisan opposition to Beijing in the U.S., often referred to as one of the only issues Democrats and Republicans can agree on.

China has called on America to tone down the China-bashing as evidenced by Foreign Minister Wang Yi ‘s recent rebuke to U.S. leaders for stoking “fears” of China’s rise with the U.S.’s increasingly anti-China rhetoric policies that “will cause chaos in the world.” 

Yet, sadly, too few people across the world know much about China’s complex history, the U.S. role in it (the century of humiliation) or indeed, why China thinks and acts the way it does.

I have been a participant-observer of China’s rise since my youth – reading, listening, and even crisscrossing China since 1989. I physically stood with Beijing’s students in Tiananmen Square as the tanks eventually rolled, watching as they demanded an end to government corruption, and calling for “freedom and democracy.”

I have been alternately amazed, astonished, bewildered, disappointed, saddened, angered, and disillusioned in my attempts to understand the relationship between our two countries. My eyes have always been wide open as I have tried to understand and explain to western audiences all that I have learned and experienced while striving to build cultural, educational, and economic bridges between our two nations.

Clearly, our nations see the world from different perspectives. We both need to take a broader view of the world.

I have been forceful in my belief that the best strategy to counter China's rise is not to simply stand in opposition to China but to aggressively invest in America and the American people.

President Biden has begun to do so, passing four major pieces of legislation addressing long neglected needs in America:

●  Chips and Science Act: investing $280B to increase the vital domestic semiconductor industry.

●  The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022: Targets $369B in spending on green initiatives and energy reforms; $64B set aside to shore up the Affordable Care Act; and nearly $300B towards deficit reduction.

●  Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act: a once-in-a-generation investment in our nation’s infrastructure and competitiveness.

●  Strategic Competition Act: an attempt to recalibrate U.S.-China relations by enhancing America’s ability to successfully compete in new and emerging technologies and other hotly contested jobs of the future.

These investments, along with building a coalition of like-minded nations to stand united with America to counterbalance China when it threatens our collective national interests, are measures to help assure China’s rise does not come at our demise. The U.S. and our allies have concluded they cannot change Beijing’s behavior— and are working diligently to change the environment in which the world power players operate.

From Feast to Famine

China’s transformation from a poor nation into the world’s second most powerful economy – using technology and military might – is nothing short of remarkable.

China can and should take a bow for its accomplishments of tackling and significantly reducing abject poverty for its people over the past four decades.  It has been estimated that China has lifted over 800 million people from extreme poverty, accounting for more than 75 percent of global poverty reduction – a feat on the scale of which the modern world had not ever seen. A stable, well-fed, economically advancing China benefits us all. Yet, why is it not receiving the well-earned recognition for these accomplishments that it deserves? 

Accolades and Achilles Heel

Like America, China, too, has its share of the good, the bad, and the ugly within its borders. Having traveled to Tibet and Xinjiang, I have witnessed what Chinese leaders deny: repression and cultural genocide. I get it that China does not like this view— but it is my view.

Chinese leadership believes its actions are helping to prevent terrorism. But my observations and that of many others is that it is repressive, wrong, and decidedly overkill – a clear act of “killing the chickens to scare the monkeys.” In Xinjiang, the supposed sins of a few have caused punishment for many.

I know my hyper-nationalistic Chinese colleagues and friends do not like to hear this message. They believe it is “China bashing,” “Western propaganda,” “an attempt to hold China back” and “interference in our internal affairs.” But it is also my reality, backed up by many outside independent groups.

It is easy at times like these to pile on the grievances we have with each other. Yet, along with the fault lines between our nations we should be able to find a sweet spot where we can each protect our national interests, understanding that a global catastrophe might await us if we don’t. Armed conflict between our two nations over Taiwan or any other flashpoint would pull both our countries and the world to its knees. 

Honey vs. Vinegar

Two radical ideas come to mind about stopping to dig moats and instead build global bridges to a peaceful 21st century.

Western democracies might use the upcoming Group of Twenty (G20) summit in Bali, Indonesia (November 15-16, 2022), to not simply critique China, but to offer praise for the modern miracle that China achieved for the Chinese people – and indeed the world – with its drastic reduction in poverty for its people.

It is truly an accomplishment worthy of a Nobel Prize and Western democracies should nominate China for it. China deserves to be recognized globally for this act of peace, dignity, and human rights. Efforts to praise China’s contributions to global stability would provide some counterbalance to the perpetual sense from the Chinese citizens that the West’s only interest is in holding China back. 

Secondly, Presidents Biden and Xi might use this summit to announce a ‘Nixon goes to China’ moment, jointly proposing another Nobel Peace Prize-worthy idea such as a ‘Summit on Global Health’ – a joint pledge for a shared vision and common agenda with specific, measurable goals to improve the planet we all occupy around climate change, COVID/health and future pandemics, poverty, hunger, and the eradication of inequality.

Shock the world, Presidents Biden and Xi. Stop the chest-thumping long enough to take on these worldwide challenges. Be the leaders we need for a better future. Zero-sum games can only lead to mutual destruction.

The relationship between our two nations is the foundation for world peace – a common ground that allows diplomatic solutions to work around flashpoint issues like Taiwan, that threaten to divide us. The consequences of not finding a smooth way forward to manage the differences between us are too dire to contemplate. What kind of future are we heading to if our leaders choose conflict over peace?

Recognize China for its accomplishments, jointly work on solving global existential threats, chip away at vexing problems to avoid “a single spark that starts a raging prairie fire,” and preserve peace for another generation. 

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