Chang Fan | January 1, 2019
Responding To: Managing U.S.-China Cooperation and Competition
Managing Cooperation Between U.S. and China
The key to continued cooperation is to sustain engagement. It is vital that the United States and China maintain open lines of communication in order to clarify misunderstandings and align interests. In the past year, U.S.-China relations has taken on an increasingly hostile and strained tone. Actions by both sides are responsible for the development of an unstable and unaccommodating atmosphere in which collaboration and competition have been depicted as a zero-sum game. Yet, leaders should take heed of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s statement to Congress in 2001: “China is not our enemy, and our challenge is to keep it that way”. Any prospect for continued cooperation must begin and end with the understanding that global challenges require the United States and China to work together.
The United States must maintain the longstanding policy of constructive engagement. The policy has come under fire by experts who believe that the U.S. policy has failed. They point to constructive engagement’s shoddy record: China’s failure to liberalize politically, reform its economic markets sufficiently, and to adopt the norms and standards of the liberal world order. According to this argument, China’s military modernization program, influence operations, and predatory economics are further indications of policy failure. However, the jury is still out. Constructive engagement has been and continues to be in successful in changing Chinese behavior for the better. Since China’s accession into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, the policy has brought about opportunities for the United States and China to anchor existing ties and collaborate in new areas. In the past two decades, the two countries have amassed an exemplary record of cooperation: economic stabilization after the global financial crisis, climate change, North Korea denuclearization...etc. On balance, the policy has afforded the United States and China the mediums to work out differences and cooperate in mutually beneficial areas.
Of course, the policy is not perfect and requires tinkering to be effective going forward. The developments of the past year have highlighted the shortcomings of the constructive engagement policy. As a result, the Trump administration has moved closer to a policy of disengagement through its trade policies and inflammatory rhetoric. In the 2018 National Defense Strategy, the administration designated China to be a revisionist power. This is problematic because it mischaracterizes the nature of China’s challenge, reinforces zero-sum game notions, feeds extremist views on both sides, and encourages antagonistic, broad solutions. More importantly, the strategy document represents a shift away from constructive engagement toward policy options that would entail acceptance of adversarial stances and facilitate great power competition. This deterioration in relations must be arrested. Disengagement and/or war are not the solutions. U.S.-China relations require more constructive engagement and more options, not less.
In a talk at the Wilson Center in September 2018, Henry Kissinger stated that “the peace and prosperity of the world depend on whether China and the United State can find a method to work together...to handle our disagreements.” In order to overcome disagreements, the United States and China must reject the impulse to disengage. From the state to the individual, constructive engagement calls for continued dialogue. Dialogue requires two consensual sides. In working out their differences, both the United States and China will need to demonstrate patience and respect for mutual interests and concerns. At the highest levels of both governments, leaders need to tamp down on rhetoric that feeds into extremist, hawkish narratives. At the individual level, businessmen, students, and tourists must continue to interact and build the educational and civic bonds that will keep the two countries tied together for global benefit. Ultimately, our relationship will define the extent to which we are able to resolve our disagreements and realign our common interests. In thinking about the challenge of U.S.-China relations moving forward, I am reminded by then-General James Mattis’ advice for the United States and China to ‘cooperate where we can, and compete where we must’. As 2019 begins, I believe our challenge is to ensure that cooperation is always an option at the table and that competition is not the totality of the bilateral relationship.
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