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The Diplomat: Going Beyond Stabilization

While the relationship between the United States and China has been through many ups and downs since U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to Beijing in 1972, the turn toward outright confrontation over the past few years has threatened the interests of both countries and the world. By all accounts, the meeting between Presidents Joseph Biden and Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in San Francisco has, for the time being, served to halt this downward spiral. But can we do better than simply staunching the bleeding? Can a healthier relationship between Washington and Beijing be revived? It may seem a long shot given the hawkish moods in each country and the very real conflicting interests between a long-time global leader and a rising challenger. But the alternative path – leading to a massive arms race, military brinkmanship, and painful economic disruption – is not one we should lightly accept. Moreover, critical global problems cannot be successfully addressed without cooperation between the world’s two most powerful states. To move beyond the minimal goal of stabilizing a seriously degraded big power relationship, the United States needs to develop a strategy of cooperation, alongside the competitive strategies so often touted by the Biden administration. The administration’s recent diplomatic blitz to re-engage with China is partly motivated by a realization of such costs. But it also arises from a sense that efforts during the early years of the Biden presidency to strengthen U.S. alliances and military posture in the region, along with a strong U.S. economic recovery combined with China’s sputtering economic performance, have strengthened Washington’s hand in dealing with China. The timing for re-engagement is ripe. But how to move beyond the plucking of a few low-hanging fruit? Here are five principles that should guide Washington’s efforts to steer China-U.S. relations back to a healthier and more sustainable balance between competition and cooperation.

  • Avoid Overemphasizing the Ideological Aspects of China-U.S. Competition.

Biden has repeatedly underlined the conflict between democracy and authoritarianism as a key organizing framework for U.S. foreign policy. This framing has reinforced Beijing’s fear that the United States aims to challenge the legitimacy of its communist system of government and spur popular opposition to its rule. This, for instance, is how Xi Jinping interpreted the Hong Kong democracy protests of 2019, which China’s media frequently attributed to foreign subversion. Biden’s repeated references to Xi as a “dictator” are interpreted in a similar vein. The U.S. message must be that, while we hold dear our own commitment to democracy and reserve the right to speak out against major human rights abuses, such as those against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, the United States does not seek to undermine the internal authority of the Chinese Communist Party. Rather, Washington’s interest lies in influencing the external policies of China where they impact U.S. interests and those of our allies. An overly ideological approach only sparks Beijing’s paranoia while also making it more difficult to rally non-democratic states to our own side when their support is needed.

  • Right-size the U.S. Estimation of China’s Strengths and Weaknesses

A few years ago, many Americans held an exaggerated sense of China’s strength, with many despairing that the United States was doomed to fall behind. More recently, an opposite narrative has taken hold. China’s slowing growth, massive debt, and aging population are viewed as weaknesses meaning that we have already witnessed “peak China,” with inexorable decline to follow. Both are exaggerations. China is a formidable great power and a far stronger challenger to U.S. power than the Soviet Union ever was. But the United States has strengths in technology, accumulated wealth, geographic position, alliance relationships, military assets, and soft power that China is unlikely to surpass. Exaggerating China’s strengths leads to panicked reactions, such as mutually costly efforts to kneecap China’s economic development. The opposite assessment can lead either to complacency or to dangerously assertive bullying. A measured evaluation of the China challenge will motivate the United States to take steps to enhance its own political and economic well-being from a position of self-confidence.

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