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December 31, 2018

Responding To: Managing U.S.-China Cooperation and Competition

From Foe to Friend and Back Again

Aaron Baum

It took just eight months for China to shape shift from the second greatest threat in the fight against the Soviet Union to America’s greatest ally in that decades-long battle. China’s military capabilities did not change between Kissinger’s secret visit to China in July 1971 and President Nixon’s historic February 1972 trip, but through diplomacy we neutralized a danger and formed an ally out of thin air.

Back then, the United States and China united to face a mutually greater menace: Russia. There are no such foes nowadays for us to jointly resist; some even consider China the new Soviet Union. Transnational threats, not great power conflict, are now humanity’s existential risks, yet thankfully the principle that helped defeat the Soviet Union back then can help us solve these new hazards: perception. It is a simple yet important point. How we decide to perceive the other party defines how we do or do not engage. Both countries in the world’s most important bilateral relationship must reckon with how to redefine perceptions in an era of mistrust.

Subnational Engagement

Contrary to popular belief, U.S.-China relations are not at an all-time low, because American cooperation with China is not defined by Trump. For instance, while Trump pulled out of the Paris Climate Agreement, 17 states representing more than 40% of the U.S. population have formed the U.S. Climate Alliance to maintain their climate commitments. My home state of California—an early leader of the group—has cooperated with China where Trump has fallen through, signing agreements on solar tech, electric vehicles, and carbon pricing. Michigan is working with China on autonomous vehicles, Chicago has agreed on a $1.3 billion manufacturing deal that’s bringing hundreds of jobs to the city, and more. It is important for policymakers who believe the bilateral relationship is on its last legs to remember the everyday engagement that keeps the U.S.-China relationship alive.

Mutual Respect

The “win-win” in China bringing jobs to Chicago is clear, but it’s harder to find in Xinjiang and the South China Sea. But for both types of engagements, officials must strive for mutual respect and establish appropriate perceptions. Here’s how that can happen: First, don’t confront when you should cooperate. President Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy labeled China a “strategic competitor,” in part leading to the indiscriminate tariffs that wreaked havoc on global markets. China may have selfish geopolitical aims in territorial disputes, it may not harbor those same aims in developing new technologies. Washington should learn to understand when confrontation is and is not appropriate.

Second, don’t preach when you should listen. Dean of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service Joel Hellman has said in preparation for the celebration of the school’s centennial anniversary that we lie at an inflection point for the liberal international order: the past 100 years have chronicled that system’s rise, and if we don’t play our cards right, the next 100 years could watch it fall. Populism in the developed world and authoritarianism in the developing world are not flashes in the pan to be ignored or squashed. Rather, they indicate something rotten in the state of the Western-led order. Rather than plugging our ears and sticking to the same globalist line we’ve used, we ought to listen more to the complaints against it.

Then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson expressed the traditional Western absolutist attitude during his visit to Africa in early 2018. African and international commenters found Tillerson’s critique of Chinese investment in Africa paternalistic, hypocritical, and unhelpful. And while the BUILD Act will certainly support private sector growth in Africa, America creating an alternative development model to compete with China’s alternative development model that was itself created to compete with the American-led World Bank is certainly a roundabout and ineffective answer to the problem.Listening can do a lot of good. When I asked Chinese academic Wu Xinbo of Fudan University why China has bodies like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank compete with Western institutions, I listened with respect rather than suspect. He, like respected American academics, believe that the developing world’s complaints about the World Bank are legitimate. China created the AIIB in response to the frustrations shared by many countries.

All that being said, China has even more work to do on its ability to listen to the West. As short-sighted as visits like Tillerson’s may be, Chinese concentration camps in Xinjiang, violations of international maritime law, and support for ruthless dictators are unquestionably more reprehensible.


The United States is and ought to be concerned about China’s rise. But the response to that concern should not be rejection of what makes America a country that ought to be emulated. We should embrace free trade, not reject it. We should be excited for high-tech competition, not attempt to destroy it. Right now, we perceive China as a smarter, faster, and soon-to-be more powerful contender that we can’t beat with good-old fashioned competition. That’s why we’ve resorted to confrontation. Let’s instead re-invest in our own capabilities and see the China challenge as a welcome step in our continual efforts to improve our institutions and ourselves.

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