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Foreign Policy

Progress in China-US Relations not a Sure Thing

May 28 , 2012


When I visited China last month as part of a bipartisan delegation of former Members of the House of Representatives, it quickly became apparent that finding common ground between the U.S. and China is among the key strategic imperatives that will have an important influence on the future of America, China and the world.  
China and the United States are both large superpowers whose primary focus is on economic development and growth for our citizens rather than world domination.  We can stand as strong pillars, helping provide economic and political stability to the rest of the world. Increased U.S.-China cooperation is key to this outcome, as a deeper trade relationship would help both countries economically, and help expand the mutual understanding and respect that is essential to the development of a strong partnership between us.  
But progress on such cooperation is not a sure thing. Far from it.  For example, continued criticism from Washington over China’s trade policies may provoke a bilateral trade war, which would jeopardize America’s $100 billion in exports to China each year. Meanwhile, assertive comments from China regarding its right to control the South China Sea are viewed as threatening to multiple countries, not just the U.S.
Despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, I believe we couldn’t find a more important ally.  If we can develop closer bonds, our two countries can be anchors for global strength and stability.  But it is clear to me that a stable and healthy bilateral relationship needs the support of both countries’ top leadership, as well as that of the American and Chinese people.  
In order for our countries to continue to foster healthy and accurate perceptions of each other, it is important for our leaders to build relationships that promote respect, equality and cooperation.  Cross-cultural exchanges and visits should increase dramatically, but they should not remain the domain of political leaders and think tanks alone.  I strongly believe a healthy cooperative relationship must also include mutual understanding and visits by American and Chinese people from all walks of life.
On my trip to China, I had the opportunity to dine at the glamorous Diaoyutai State Guesthouse with Chinese diplomats, a stunning venue established by Emperor Zhangzong of Jin China and frequented by world leaders from across the globe, including a famous stay by former President Richard Nixon during his historic visit to China. But even more importantly, I was able to visit a Chinese village and witness how the vast majority of poor rural Chinese residents live.  It was a perfect opportunity to see both the opposite extremes of China’s wealth distribution, as well as the determination and forward-thinking that clearly is shared by the families we visited, regardless of their financial situation.
Another enlightening and educational experience was a visit with Chinese University students in Hunan Province.  Their remarkable ability to speak English, frankly, put our nation to shame.  They clearly spend a lot of time thinking about the United States and the way we operate, which makes me wonder how much our own students think about China – even though they will clearly be competitors for the jobs of the future in this global economy.  
As China continues to grow, the bilateral relationship with the United States will become more complicated as China’s rapid economic development is unlike anything the world has ever seen. As the Chinese middle class grows, American companies will have more opportunities to access Chinese markets as increased domestic consumption in China leads to healthier US exports to the country. The expansion of trade and investment opportunities with China will allow for greater flexibility among other aspects of the bilateral relationship.
I believe the leaders in Washington on both sides of the political aisle realize the seriousness of this relationship and the implications for it going awry. China and the U.S. need to recognize the great differences in our national political systems, and that both sides need to take some difficult yet important steps to re-establishing a balanced global framework. 
As these issues are addressed, others will certainly arise and the boat will be rocked again, as we have seen in the recent diplomatic tussle between Beijing and Washington over the fate of Chen Guangcheng.  There will always be some disagreements, but constant communication and people-to-people contact must continue to steer our countries’ interests in the same direction.  In this increasingly interconnected world, U.S.-China relations should not be viewed as a 100-meter dash, but as a marathon.
Congresswoman Barbara Kennelly (D-CT) is a former Member of Congress and founder of Barbara Kennelly Associates. 
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