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Society & Culture

Towards an Improved U.S.-China Relationship

Mar 03, 2021
  • Stephen Hayes

    President Emeritus of the Corporate Council on Africa

It has been thirty-four years since my first visit to China. Since then, I have returned many times, never as a tourist though I have seen much of the country and met many of its people, but almost always in discussions around US-China relations..

I was asked to visit China in 1987 by the then-President and Vice President of the National Committee on US-China Relations (NCUSCR), Michael Lampton and Jan Berris respectively. At that time the NCUSCR was perhaps the most important bridge between a newly opening and developing China and a cautious superpower whose people had been conditioned to see China in a very different way than it does now. The fact is that both nations owe a great debt to NCUSCR for the development and at times the preservation of their relationship.

I went with Mike and Jan because they both felt that the time was opportune to begin a dialogue with an emerging generation of leaders in China and younger US potential leaders. Official relations between the USA and China had been established only eight years earlier. At the time I was the president of an organization that had been successfully conducting dialogues between emerging leaders of the USSR and the USA and Jan and Mike both thought the organization a good model for US-China dialogue at a younger and unofficial level. As a result, a series of exchanges, usually involving delegations of fifteen persons on two week intensive programs in our respective countries, was initiated and continued over a period of roughly ten years. I believe the work with the Soviet Union had an important, if understated, role in ending the Cold War. Many of the participants on both sides were to play key roles in the political leadership of their respective countries. I believe even more strongly now, that similar types of programs are needed once again between China and the USA, as well as with Russia. Far too many political decisions affecting the future of the planet are made without first-hand knowledge of one another. We cannot guarantee that a future president may be among those programs, but we can increase the number of persons around a future leader who have knowledge of and contact with counterparts.

That first trip to China with Jan and Mike was for me like a step back into time. The Beijing airport was an old one, not equipped for many flights and with surprisingly few people in its main terminal. The road from the airport into the center of one of the world's largest cities was a two-lane road running through communal farms. Once in Beijing I marveled at the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of bicycles. Everyone seemed to move on two wheels or two feet. The few automobiles that were evident were usually black government vehicles for the upper leaders and bureaucracy. Beijing seemed fifty to a hundred years behind the United States.

This does not mean I wasn't very impressed with the China of 1987. I was excited by the spirit of the people I met and their optimism for their future. I was moved by the quality of fruit and vegetables in the stands in the streets and the number of cooking pots being prepared to feed the passersby during the coming day, but China was a very different country from the one Americans envisioned, as Americans had little access to China then. However, it did seem, in at least the cities, China's development in the 1980s had passed what I had witnessed throughout the Soviet Union, and that alone gave pause for reflection.

On that same trip, the three of us visited Shanghai, and I stayed in the old YMCA hotel. Strangely, the YMCA had been permitted to stay open after Mao became leader of China, and it even survived during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, one of the few Western-based organizations permitted in China. It was, like many others in the center of Shanghai, an old brick building. The streets were narrow and seemingly ancient, filled with an industrious people. We were taken to see models for how Shanghai was to look in ten years, and I admit I did not see such a transformation possible in that time, I thought that ambitions had exceeded reality.

Yet seven years later when I visited Shanghai and Beijing again, it was unimaginable to me that such a transformation could have taken place. Both cities had changed in such a way that it almost seemed a clever illusion. Modernity was everywhere, and the skylines were not like China had ever seen before. The department stores had varied goods that the people had not seen in their lifetimes, and the streets were cursed with traffic jams and the pollution of

the automobiles that were rapidly reducing the number of bicycles in the streets as well as the space they could maneuver. It was during that trip I saw the future, and the future looked very much like a Chinese future. The American Century seemed a shorter era than many imagined it was to be

There is little question in my mind that economically the Chinese people are better off than they have ever been in their history. Shops are filled, infrastructure including roads and railroads continue to be developed. They have a high-speed train system that most US citizens can only imagine. Travel throughout most of the country, once impossible for most citizens, is common. Every country has its challenges and weaknesses, but China is on the ascendancy.

It is almost always risky to predict the future based on the present, especially if there is no timeline measurement that allows you to compare the present to the past. However, several visits to China since then have only reinforced to me the economic progress in China and its pace of urban development. It seems to me that China is looking to the future as much as the United States is still trying to resolve its past. There are reasons to be concerned about this disequilibrium as it serves the interests of neither country. In such circumstances, it is too easy to misjudge or underestimate one another. There is an urgent need to not only reduce tensions but understand one another's perspectives so that we might find common ground and work together on the growing list of global crises. These challenges will not be met without both China and the United States working at common purposes wherever possible.

Unfortunately, renewing a dialogue at the highest level may not be as easy as simply picking up the phone and arranging meetings. The past four years in US China relations has been the abysmally poor and productive communication rare. While China is most likely relieved that Joe Biden is now the US President, no one should expect an immediate relaxation of tensions, no matter how much those in the Biden Administration may (or may not) want this. His predecessor has put President Biden into a very difficult political position, especially as it regards the US-China relationship.

The previous US Administration spent four years denigrating China and making China the villain of international relations in the eyes of those who supported the policies of the previous US President. Some argue that the Administration simply tapped into the growing uneasiness of the American public over a China perceived to be committed to unequal trade relations, an expansionist military, and an increased restriction of human rights, particularly in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. These past four years have had a significant impact on how China is perceived in the United States, making it difficult now for President Biden to create a new era in US-China relations without appearing weak on any of the key issues that have been brought forward by the leaders of the previous Administration and their allies in Congress. However, it is important to realize that many of the concerns expressed are also those of many on both sides of the political aisles of Congress. An improved relationship is not a given, nor will it be easy to achieve. Any improvement will require patience and needs to be handled with great deftness. It is often said in China that time is a long-term perspective. However, time is not an unlimited quantity when we look at issues such as climate change and a global health crisis, for the current pandemic will not be the last one to be faced.

China, of course, is not wrong to point out our own internal issues that have divided our nation so deeply.. We, too, are an imperfect nation. It is clear that the growing division of wealth, race relations, disparities in health services for all, mythologies grown through social media, limited progress in addressing climate change, and a crumbling infrastructure are all major challenges that must be met. However, a stable United States, as a major trading partner, and a key player in international relations, is in the interest of China's own economy as well as its global health and environmental concerns. We need to be working together where possible, acknowledging that this possibility may not always seem to exist.

This cannot be done without communicating in a more positive and civil manner with one another if we expect both nations to be able to create common approaches to some of the world's most critical issues. At the same time, it is equally important to address those issues and policies that divide us so to first understand the underlying rationale for those policies, and then to find ways to ameliorate those issues. This will not be easy as that understanding needs to be accurate and broadly understood in both nations.

A small first step has been taken by a call between Presidents Biden and President Xi Jinping. It may seem of normal protocol and seemingly insignificant, but all journeys are begun with a first step, and a desire to communicate, rather than to denigrate, has been laid before us. Careful steps will need to be taken, as much for respective domestic audiences as well as for the sake of international relations. There will be misstęps on both sides, but these must be kept to a minimum if we are to have a very different relationship than the one that now exists. Here are some steps that could be taken:

1. First, a joint US-China task force could be created so that both sides can

discuss more openly and directly their worldviews as well as the issues they have with one another. These are well-known but it is important that the principal players and policy makers have an opportunity to listen as much as to talk. We need to hear one another clearly in an arena that limits posturing and puts a premium on understanding. China's Polibureau Member of the CPC Central Committee, Yang Jiechi, has been quoted as saying “No one can stop the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation." Such a forum as proposed may allow such a statement to be tested in its basic assumptions. It may be that most people do want to see China continue its rejuvenation, but no one wants to suffer because of it.. There is common ground here to be found.

2. There should also be developed joint task forces on key issues demanding

immediate attention and where there are already areas of mutual concern. For instance, the two largest contributors to global warming are China and the United States. Unless both these countries can come to not only agreement on steps to be taken, and show good faith by implementing those agreements, efforts to curtail and reverse global warming will fail. It is also apparent during the current pandemic that there needs especially to be stronger cooperation on global health issues. The world benefits from US-China cooperation in both areas of concern. We need lead jointly in addressing these issues.

3. It is simple but also perhaps simplistic to propose that both countries work together in a third country or region to aid the development of that country or region. To do so, both countries should have some common goals as to why they would want to work together. In Africa, there needs to be close communication in aiding and abetting the fight against terrorism, perceived as a growing problem on the continent. While there has been some cooperation in this area between the two countries, at least behind the scenes, that cooperation has diminished these past four years. The US perceives terrorism as a major issue in Africa and will likely base much of its development approach for the next four years on this perception. China has similar concerns but they likely are not as deep as those of the United States. Nevertheless, common security concerns do provide a basis for cooperation. Economic development of a country is also in the interests of China and the United States, but may require much more effort in finding common ground. Working through regional economic groups in Africa on continental infrastructure projects may be another area of mutually beneficial cooperation

4. There will need to be a new US-China Trade bilateral trade agreement. The current trade imbalance, the perception of lost jobs in the US due to globalization, and conditions unfavorable to US companies who have invested in China are all major reasons that many in the United States see China more than just a major competitor. This issue rests at the heart of our tensions with one another.

5. For longer term interests of the two countries, there should be an increase of exchanges of professions. Few leaders in either country, be it in the administrations of the respective governments, or in the halls of the respective congresses, know one another well, if at all. The lack of relationships contributes to misunderstandings and decisions often based on biases and ignorance. This process needs to start early with exchanges of young leaders of potential in the political and nongovernmental fields.

Finally, none of these recommendations are meant to dismiss some very fundamental issues over which our two nations most significantly differ such as the meaning of human rights, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Dalai Lama and the value of freedom of expression.. These differing perspectives will not be resolved in the near term. These are long-standing issues where our respective views of the nature of States and basic human dignity fundamentally differ.. However, the USA would do well to be both more learned and more introspective of its own failures and our still-unresolved issues of equal rights and human dignity. We should better understand the historical perspective China has regarded both Taiwan and Hong Kong. That perspective goes back centuries and the culture of beliefs, as we are learning once again in the USA, is one of the most difficult part of life to alter. A better understanding of one another's perspective may not change political positions, but it will open us more to the possibility of finding common ground necessary for progress in these issues and to our overall relationship. 

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