In his recent speech at the Carter Center, the prominent China scholar David Mike Lampton stressed his concerns about the state of U.S.-China relations, stating, “A tipping point in U.S.-china relations is upon us. … We are witnessing the erosion of some critical underlying supports for predominantly positive U.S.-China ties.” Professor Lampton’s remarks reflect the growing pessimism in China-U.S. relations in the American media and academic community.
Interestingly, recent survey results released by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on June 2 said 67% of the American public, 87% of Democratic leaders and 78% of Republican leaders think the U.S., when facing a rising China, should undertake “friendly cooperation and engagement” with China, while only 29% of the overall public, 22% of Democratic leaders and 25% of Republican leaders believe the U.S. should actively work to “limit” the growth of China’s power. This says a lot about the perception gap between the U.S. media and think-tanks vis-a-vis the public and decision-makers when it comes to China-U.S. ties. I was left with a similar impression from my recent trip to the United States for the annual dialogue between my institute and the Brookings Institution and exchanges with officials from the National Security Council, the State Department, the Pentagon and the Treasury.
This suggests how many in the U.S. media and policy circles are focusing excessively on the dramatic aspects of differences or frictions between China and the U.S., i.e., the South China Sea and cyber security, and overlooking the relations’ strong social foundation. That being said, the issue of misperception and emotionally guided perspectives does exist between the two sides. One needs to see that despite heightened U.S. strategic suspicion toward China, its overall China policy remains a hedging strategy. On the whole, China and the U.S. continue to have far more common interests than differences. For China, it is important to see the larger picture and not let any particular event stand in the way of the growth of relations with the U.S. even as we protect our own national interests. It is important for Beijing to have patience, to step up strategic communication to avoid miscalculation and misreading in the China-U.S. signaling game, and to learn how China might guide and shape the choices and behavior of the U.S.
More important, we must not ignore the “silent majority” when observing and analyzing China-U.S. relations. The lower we move our sight down the “tree” of China-U.S. relations and the more we focus on the sub-national and community levels, the more evidence we shall find that proves how strong public support for bilateral ties is, which actually continues to grow each day. Between the people of China and the United States, exchanges have kept deepening, covering economy, trade, science, technology, education, culture and various parts of the two countries. They are a witness to the increasing interconnectedness and interdependence between China and the U.S. in this globalized age. Just to cite a few statistics. Bilateral trade has risen above US$550 billion. The accumulated Chinese investments in the U.S. in the past five years have reached about US$50 billion and the number may reach US$200 billion by 2020. Joint collaboration and innovation have reached impressive depths in a wide range of areas including environmental protection, clean energy, agriculture and health, and so on. From 2009 to 2014, over 100,000 American students have studied, visited or lived in China. At the moment, there are more than 270,000 Chinese students in the U.S., accounting for one third of total international students there. So far, 38 provinces/states and 169 cities have established sister relations. Each day, more than 10,000 people travel between the two shores of the Pacific. This year, the number of mutual visits is expected to exceed five million. In a sense, people-to-people exchanges are like a giant net, underpinning a bilateral relationship of enormous significance, and, more essentially, are like the omnipresent air that keeps this relationship alive.
The “silent majority” are actually the frontrunners in practicing and building the new model of major-country relationship between China and the U.S. Just as some American experts are still questioning the idea, the “silent majority” have already cast their “yes” vote through action. Among them, a new model of relationship featuring non-conflict and confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation is already taking shape. Their voices may seldom make the headlines, but they must never be ignored by us, observers of this important relationship. As the recent Seventh China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue and the Sixth China-U.S. High-Level Consultation on People-to-People Exchange in Washington D.C., it is most important to see faith and optimism in the future trajectory of China-U.S. relations through the vibrant people-to-people exchanges going on between the hundreds of millions of Chinese and Americans and to listen to what the “silent majority” is saying to all of us.