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Home OP-ED Columns & Articles Toward better management of US-China relations

Toward better management of US-China relations

By Ezra Vogel

Ezra was hoping to produce a consensus document that could be endorsed by scholars in both countries. His statement does not address some of the most important and troubling issues in US-China relations. But the statement does convey some convictions that many share with him: that war between the US and China will do great harm to both countries; that indiscriminate decoupling is not the solution to the problems in the relationship; that cooperation is essential if we hope to address the many pressing global issues such as climate change and global health, and that the continued exchange of legitimate scholars, journalists, and many others is essential to a healthy relationship.
In 2020, US-China relations reached their worst point since the re-opening of relations in the early 1970s. Instead of cooperating to cope with the coronavirus, we blamed each other for the origins. Instead of cooperating to maintain stable international economic relations, we carried on a trade war and disrupted supply lines, creating uncertainties for businesses around the world. Instead of increasing the number of reporters in each country who could promote mutual understanding, both countries imposed new restrictions that limit the number. Scholarly contact has been greatly reduced. Tensions over Taiwan and in the South China Sea have increased. The risk of conflict of devastating consequences to both countries has also increased. None of these developments is in the interest of either of the two countries.
Given the broad-based competition and rising tensions between the two countries, and the different perspectives of the leaders and the public in the two countries, great progress in improving relations in the near future may be impossible. However, the arrival of a new administration in the US in January 2021 provides an opportunity to make adjustments in the management of the relations that would reduce the risk of conflict and increase cooperation to pursue common interests.
Political forces in both countries will make it difficult to promote cooperation with the other. President Joe Biden will be under pressure to ensure that he is not seen as weaker than his predecessor in dealing with China. He is unlikely to remove trade barriers without some concessions by China to remove restrictions on US companies in China. Many American leaders believe that China treats American companies unfairly and, despite some recent improvements, has been lax in protecting intellectual property. Chinese officials believe they are in a strong position in dealing with the US and should not yield to US complaints. Chinese officials also believe the US seeks to interfere with Chinese businesses throughout the world. Yet the two countries can avoid a vicious cycle of potentially endless further restrictions that would harm both.
We can begin by 1) cooperating in areas that are of clear mutual interest, 2) taking steps that prevent our relations from getting worse, 3) agreeing on some basic principles to govern international institutions.
Cooperating in areas of clear mutual interest
a. Reopening of contacts that have been removed
To deal with ongoing issues between the two countries we need enhanced contacts at four levels: top leaders; senior diplomats and military leaders dealing with major issues; working-level diplomats and specialists in various locations – in China, the US, and in international institutions, and in the private sector between business groups, academics, students, and other groups of private citizens.
Top leaders: Fortunately, Xi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of China, and Joe Biden, President of the United States, have had numerous hours of contact when they were both vice presidents. They can set the general tone for relations between the two countries, begin to set the agenda for working-level cooperation on various issues, and lay the basis for addressing key policy issues.
Political and military leaders: Fruitful meetings are already taking place between military representatives of the two countries on how to avoid accidents. Conversations should proceed on how our countries can avoid conflict over other issues, including Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Western Pacific, and nuclear proliferation in the Middle East and Northeast Asia. The US can reduce Chinese concerns about their security in the waters around China, while China should reassure the US and other countries about freedom of navigation in East Asian waters.
Functional-level contacts: Dialogues between experts in our two governments have all but ceased, including contacts on health care, climate change, nuclear proliferation, energy security, international drug trafficking, and human trafficking. These contacts should be reopened quickly. This includes the reopening of the Chinese Consulate in Houston and the US Consulate in Chengdu, the restaffing of our respective embassies and consulates, and the revival of the Fulbright Program and the Peace Corps programs in China. Restrictions on journalist visas that have been put in place in the last several years should be removed.
b. Cooperation on environmental issues
China is currently the world’s biggest polluter, but it has made a commitment to be carbon neutral by 2060 and has already made rapid progress in wind and solar development and in electric vehicles. The US has contributed more than any other country to current levels of atmospheric pollution. Biden has already committed to rejoining the Paris Accord. The commitment of both Beijing and Washington provides a basis for cooperation and for working with other countries to advance sharing of scientific information and advancing the control of global warming. Since air quality is now a major concern of China’s leaders and US technology could contribute to Chinese environmental protection, the issue of air quality could be a good starting point for bilateral cooperation and for promoting world-wide cooperation to improve the global environment and combat climate change.
–The Daily Mail-Global Times News Exchange Item

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