How the US and China can get back from the brink and restore diplomacy

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How the U.S. and China can get back from the brink and restore their diplomacy

The U.S. and China are hurtling toward trouble. The relationship is stressed in unprecedented ways, on several fronts: an increasingly vitriolic debate over Chinese actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, trade and tech wars, and even fears of an actual conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea. The status quo is so unstable that unless fresh initiatives are undertaken, we may soon reach a point of no return.

What should the U.S. be doing? Given Beijing’s increasingly authoritarian form of statecraft, is cooperation still possible? And — how did we get to this impasse?

Let’s start with that last question.

How hopes were dashed

I am among those China specialists who watched the breakthroughs that marked the Deng Xiaoping era of “reform and opening” and allowed ourselves to dream of a China that would slowly morph from its revolutionary past to a more democratic future. Few of us foresaw that the Chinese Communist Party would reverse its reformist rudders as precipitously as it has under President Xi Jinping.

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of that beguiling dream — born when Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger made their landmark visit to China, and which culminated with the normalization of relations between the U.S. and China in 1979. For decades, we enjoyed the comforting assumption that more exchange and trade would lead China toward a more open and tolerant society. As President Bill Clinton put it while trying to sell China’s admission into the World Trade Organization in 2000: “If you believe in a future of greater openness and freedom for the people of China, you ought to be for this agreement.” Other countries had a similar mindset. The German version was “Handel durch Wandel” or “change through trade.”

Filled with such hopes, nine U.S. presidents ramped up trade relations, academic exchanges, civil society collaboration, cross-border investment and even military-to-military cooperation. Interests converged well enough so that at a 2011 White House news conference, President Barack Obama could tell his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao, “We welcome China’s rise. I absolutely believe that China’s peaceful rise is good for the world, and it’s good for America.”

You don’t hear American leaders saying anything like that today. China-naysaying is now a bipartisan activity in Washington, shared by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and many in between. As for China, Xi is animated by visions of American decline and what the CCP calls “the east wind prevailing over the west wind.” Other Chinese leaders regularly deride the American political system for producing division, inequality and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol — all, they say, clear signs of Western democracy’s inherent weakness and failure. Meanwhile, a recent white paper from China’s State Council Information Office touted China as “a model of socialist democracy that covers all aspects of the democratic process and all sectors of society. It is a true democracy that works.”

China’s new swagger

However one describes the current Chinese state, it is now fortified by a dynamic economy, an expansive Belt and Road Initiative (the largest-scale infrastructure project the world has ever known), a growing and much-modernized People’s Liberation Army, and a muscular form of xenophobia that is challenging U.S. interests and the world order.

Meanwhile, to ensure what he calls China’s “rejuvenation,” Xi is seeking to restore the supremacy of the CCP over everyday life, stifling the media, arresting dissenters, abolishing the 10-year term limit that governed past leadership successions, bullying neighbors with punitive trade policies and proclaiming that Taiwan will be reunified with the motherland “sooner rather than later,” even if force must be used.

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As former National Security Council adviser for Asia, Evan Medeiros, recently observed in a speech at Harvard University: “We have been forced out of the era of engagement into a new era where the best we can hope is not even peaceful coexistence, such as we had with the Soviet Union, but competitive coexistence.”

We’re finding that “coexistence” is as urgent today as any element of U.S. foreign policy. As Medeiros reminds us, “never before in U.S. history have so many of our interests been so connected with one of our principal security challenges.”

So we’re left with a paradox: Even as China irradiates our relations with antagonism, we still share a planet and a wide range of shared interests, including intricately linked supply chains that tie us together. We are locked in a standoff that Kurt Campbell, the current National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, describes as “not a problem to be solved” but “a condition to be managed.”

Avoiding conflict: A roadmap

If there is a roadmap to a better future, it will involve an artful melding of carrots and sticks.

Let’s start with some basic assumptions.

First, every democratic country needs to acknowledge the challenges that a nationalistic and aggressive People’s Republic of China — supercharged by a dynamic economy and an advanced technological base — actually poses.

Second: Americans must recognize that U.S. unilateralism will be an insufficient deterrent to China’s grand design, and that only new and collaborative confederations between allies, partners and friends that span our common interests — from trade and military security, to democracy and the environment — have a chance of deterring Xi’s global ambitions.

Third, the world must understand that the tailspin in U.S.-China relations will not be rescued by any 1972-style “big bang” diplomatic moment that transforms things overnight.

Fourth, everyone must understand that passivity or appeasement in the face of Beijing’s bullying behavior abroad and autocracy at home will only make things worse.

So, if China continues to act aggressively and unrepentantly in such hot spots as Xinjiang and Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea, among others — and to punish countries that question these actions — what effective new “sticks” can and should be deployed?


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A first involves leveraging what we might call a “coalition of the China-wary.” It was such an alliance structure that deterred the USSR during the Cold War, and a variation on the theme offers the best hope of deterring China now. In fact, the U.S. has already begun catalyzing and nurturing such coalitions: The Quad (U.S./India/Japan/Australia), AUKUS (Australia/UK/U.S.), a more vigorous U.S.-Japan Security Alliance and an enhanced Five Eyes (an intelligence collaboration between the U.S., the U.K., Australia, New Zealand and Canada) are already up and running, and have helped put China on notice that its policies and actions have real consequences. This is particularly true when it comes to Taiwan. Japan and Australia have let Beijing know that aggression against Taipei will not only damage their bilateral relations, but that they may well come to Taiwan’s defense.

There are other ways in which these alliances should leverage their collective power. More countries need to create an entities list such as the one Washington keeps, a system that requires U.S. firms to obtain special licenses to trade with Chinese companies deemed to endanger national security; the U.S. should draw up a slate of Chinese actions that would trigger further restrictions on foreign investments in China; and all allies in that China-wary group should collectively mandate more multinational freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS is the military acronym) in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.

Xi should also be forewarned that if he doesn’t trim his jib, there will be other consequences: an expanded boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics; further restrictions from the U.S., Taiwan, Korea, the Netherlands and Japan on microchip technologies; and perhaps most important, a clearer expression from a broader group of nations that if China embargoes, blockades or orders a frontal attack on Taiwan, it can expect a confederation of countries to respond not just by limiting trade, but by collaborating in Taiwan’s defense and isolating China in global markets.

The message matters

That said, subtlety, even some new sensitivity, will be critical. This is where the “carrots” come in.

China has a well-honed historical narrative of national aggrievement that allows its leaders to argue — often with merit — that their country has been humiliated in the past and deserves to be more respected in the present. To conduct effective diplomacy with Xi’s China, the U.S. will need to better understand this history and the complex psychology that has allowed the CCP to see the democratic world as an interlocking web of unprovoked “hostile foreign forces.” Given that the CCP’s first impulse is to take umbrage and play the humiliation card whenever faulted by foreign governments, we need to have a deeper familiarity with the wellsprings of sentiment from which such responses flow.

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Xi’s dilemma is that he wants to be internationally respected, even as he acts in ways that are undeserving of such respect. President Joe Biden’s dilemma involves navigating an increasingly aggressive Chinese posture in the increasingly hawkish anti-China atmosphere that now envelops Washington. But just as Biden must push back, he and other global leaders must also resist the temptation of inflammatory rhetoric. It does little good, for instance, to call Xi “a thug,” as candidate Biden did in 2020. Instead of ad hominem attacks, we must try — in the words of Mahatma Gandhi — to “hate the sin, but not the sinner.” As repellent as we may find some Chinese government behavior, we still need its cooperation to prevent conflict and solve world problems. After all, few complex global issues will be possible to manage without China’s buy-in.

Elusive “common ground”

When it comes to those elusive “carrots,” the U.S. must identify and figure out how best to cultivate the bits of common ground that still remain between the U.S. and China. It’s a substantial list — one that offers hope: jointly preparing for the next global health crisis, cooperating on medical research — cancer in particular, confronting threats from North Korea and Iran, managing nuclear proliferation, agreeing (as the two sides have, at last, begun to do) on reciprocal arrangements for journalists to be based in each country and, perhaps most important, working together on climate change.

These are all critical — for the two nations and for the world. And every item on the list would benefit from some personal diplomacy.

Paging past presidents?

Which brings us to one more specific “carrot” — and potentially a very meaningful one for Beijing. Xi has always liked the idea of a so-called G-2, a gathering that recognizes the U.S. and China as unrivaled powers on the global stage. Meanwhile, he and his predecessors have always appreciated personal, high-level diplomacy, because it gives them greater standing at home.

And so: Biden should propose to Xi that they jointly take a significant step beyond their late-2021 virtual summit. Call it the U.S.-China “two-on-two.” The first move would be for both presidents to appoint two trustworthy former officials — think Obama and trade negotiator Charlene Barshefsky or Clinton and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice on the U.S. side. A second step would be to dispatch them to a neutral country (Singapore, Iceland and Switzerland come to mind) to meet and game out roadmaps for de-escalation. Then, once this foursome has come up with several plausible scenarios, they would submit them to their current presidents as the basis for a special presidential summit.

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By launching such an initiative, Biden would demonstrate American leadership and a commitment to diplomacy that, even as he pushes back against Beijing, would signal the importance he places on easing tensions. Unless both sides are willing to give a little to get a little, progress will remain elusive.

Given the high stakes and tensions of the moment, we need to employ all the “sticks” and “carrots” we can, with the dual aim of candidly expressing our concerns while at the same time seeking to repair some of the badly damaged bridges of the U.S.-China relationship. That repair work is critical: It’s necessary for a healthier global economy, the salvation of the planet and as a way to prevent miscalculations over Taiwan or the South China Sea from leading to war.

The alternatives are almost too frightening to contemplate.

  • Orville Schell
    Orville Schell

    Special Contributor

    Orville Schell, Arthur Ross director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations, is a longtime China observer, author, journalist, and former dean and professor at the University of California, Berkeley.