Chang Fan | January 1, 2019
Responding To: Managing U.S.-China Cooperation and Competition
Critical Moment: Is U.S.-China Cooperation Still Possible?
We have arrived at a gravely sensitive time for the U.S.-China relationship: the once healthy relationship is increasingly defined by a competition for influence, and the joint interests between China and the United States are not heard anymore. However, even though certain people in the United States or China no longer believe in cooperation, Washington and Beijing still need to work in complementary ways to keep the world economy stable and to keep the world at peace.
In order to find possible ways for China and the United States to maintain cooperation and keep addressing the common concerns, it is essential to try to understand how we came to this dangerous competition for influence. The United States and China have failed to reach a consensus on a lot of important international rules, and both sides do not consider their attitudes towards these rules malleable or negotiable anymore. For example, the different attitudes on freedom of navigation, as we heard respectively in Department of State and Chinese Embassy in Washington during our fall meeting, resulted in a near collision in South China Sea last month. Moreover, even on the issues that the United States and China actually share common interests and should be working together, such as the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, they are not cooperating in a totally coordinated way, largely because the lack of mutual trust steeped in the lack of candid communication. From my perspective, despite of all the tensions mounting in terms of the U.S.-China relationship, there still are ways for the two countries to maintain cooperation on global issues and to avoid any possibility of a new cold war.
For the issues that the United States and China should agree on, both sides should allow more lower-level cooperation and people-to-people exchanges (like our Georgetown U.S.-China Dialogue) to happen. In a time when high-level discussions are derailed, these lower-level cooperative dialogues on more practical issues with more feasible solutions become key for the two countries to realize how many common interests they remain to share. The State of California, for instance, is now working directly with its Chinese counterparts to invest in clear technology and cap carbon emissions in order to reach achievements that are turned down by the central governments.
Moreover, on theses shared concerns, both the United States and China could cooperate more constructively through working with third-party countries. Especially for the United States, it is worth noting that even if the bilateral dialogues with China are stalled, many of its allies are still working with China closely. By aligning with these partners and letting these allies lead in discussing common interests with China, the United States is simultaneously finding more common grounds with China and preparing itself for future cooperation with China. In the case of denuclearization of Korea Peninsula, various bilateral engagements between South Korea, North Korea, the United States and China have made plausible progress, which possibly would not happen without the active role played by both Koreas in communicating between the United States and China.
Finally, we must admit that there are issues that Washington and Beijing do not share interests in, but these issues are still of common concern and must be dealt with carefully through close cooperation and honest communication. Because if China and the United States cannot reach a workable consensus on these issues, it will put the current international order at high risk, and the international order is something that is simply too important to fail. Right now, the stances of the two countries are so strong and pre-determined that they leave little room for any kind of negotiation or compromise. But this was not always the case, and it should not be the case. Both China and the United States need to think innovatively and even disruptively to reach cooperation, and both need to be more confident about making changes and compromises in this bilateral relationship. China needs to be braver in opening up its market for American companies to compete equally and to protect foreign intellectual properties, while the United States also needs to be more confident about its dedication to openness, to welcome the Chinese scholars and intellectuals, and to equally treat Chinese investment in America. Reiteration of hardline stance won’t create trust, only changes and adjustments can help the two move towards a more cooperative future.
Every time I feel pessimistic about the US-China relationship, I look at my NYU Shanghai campus. I can always feel the vibrancy within the exchange of ideas and the audacity to cooperate and build new things in this grand experiment of cooperation between China and the United States. All of these actions will not be easy or painless, but our predecessors have set an excellent example by breaking the ideological constraints in the Cold War and establishing a new framework for international order several decades ago. It’s our time and we shall begin.
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