A New York Times editorial notes that the United States has long treated China as some kind of charity case, but now sees it as a rival and increasingly a threat. While some tensions are inevitable, rhetoric has taken a belligerent turn in both nations.
The relationship between the USA and China does not have to be so tense
Tightening on both sides was seen this week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi paid a provocative visit to Taiwan to underscore American support for her government, and China has responded by holding military drills to underscore its determination to establish sovereignty over what it sees as looks at his territory. China announced on Friday that it is also suspending communications with the United States on a range of issues, including climate change and efforts to prevent drug trafficking.
It is in everyone’s interests that the two most powerful nations on earth find ways to ease these tensions. Over the past half-century, beginning with President Richard Nixon’s pivotal visit to China in 1972, the leaders of the United States and China have repeatedly chosen to prioritize common interests over conflict. Building that relationship, for all its shortcomings, has done much to bring stability and prosperity to the world.
The Biden administration has shed the xenophobic rhetoric of the Trump White House but has not offered its own vision for a balance between competition and cooperation. Instead, he has largely run US-China relations as a series of crisis management exercises, imposing sanctions while striving for cooperation on Covid, climate change and the war in Ukraine.
There are several concrete steps the United States could take to improve relations. First, instead of relying on punitive trade policies based on fears that China is an economic rival, the United States should increase its competition by investing in technical education, scientific research, and industrial development. It is high time for President Biden to break completely with the Trump administration’s failed tactic of intimidating China into economic concessions by imposing tariffs on Chinese imports.
On Tuesday, Biden is expected to sign the CHIPS Act, which includes nearly $53 billion to support domestic production of semiconductors, the building blocks of the digital age. This could be described as one side of China, apart from the fact that the United States was the first major practitioner of this type of industrial policy.
The United States must also move beyond the old notion that economic engagement would incrementally transform Chinese politics and society. Instead of trying to transform the Asian giant, the United States should focus on building stronger ties with China’s neighbors. Fostering cooperation between nations with differing interests — and in some cases their own long histories of conflict — is no easy task, but recent history teaches that the United States is most effective in promoting and defending its interests when it does not act unilaterally.
Taiwan is an important part of this project. Ms. Pelosi’s visit came at an awkward time. The Biden administration’s top foreign policy priority is Ukraine.
The United States has long maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” over Taiwan, but has sold arms to its government. When Biden bluntly said in May that the United States would defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack, his advisers insisted he had no intention of changing US policy.
But the White House must be clear that the US commitment to recognize a single Chinese state, the “one China policy,” has always been based on the mainland’s peaceful behavior toward Taiwan.
None of these efforts, strengthening the US economy and building stronger alliances, aim to isolate China. Rather, they provide a stronger basis for the Biden administration and its successors to engage China on issues where there are real differences but also real potential for progress, most notably climate change.
Treating China as a hostile power is a self-destructive simplification. The two nations occupy large parts of the same planet. They don’t agree on the importance of democracy or human rights, but they share some values, the most important of which is the pursuit of prosperity.
The uncomfortable reality is that the United States and China need each other. There is no better example than the cargo ships that continued to operate between Guangzhou and Long Beach, California during Ms. Pelosis’ visit and will continue to operate long after her return.