American experts call for getting US-China ties back on track

The previous US administration failed to develop a coherent strategy on China and did not solve any problems in the bilateral relationship.
The previous US administration failed to develop a coherent strategy on China and did not solve any problems in the bilateral relationship.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (XINHUA) - In areas ranging from trade and investment to people-to-people exchanges, the China-United States relationship is at a low point rarely seen since the two countries established their diplomatic ties.

Over the past few years, this most important bilateral relationship in the world has deviated from course due to disruptions by irresponsible policies, a Cold War mentality, and ideological biases triggered by a handful of US politicians.

As a new administration has taken office in Washington, US experts, in their recent conversations with Xinhua, have been calling for seizing the opportunity to bring bilateral ties back on track.

Some US foreign affairs pundits said that the previous administration failed to develop a coherent strategy on China and did not solve any problems in the bilateral relationship.

"It's a very long story, there's a very open question about whether the approach of Donald Trump to China was even really a strategy," said Dr Daniel Russel, vice-president for International Security and Diplomacy at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

Dr Russel, who served as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs under the Barack Obama administration, told Xinhua that the Trump administration's biggest failure was that they never worked to solve any problems in the US-China relationship.

"The tariffs that Donald Trump put in place...ultimately were paid by American consumers and retailers, and because he needed to give big subsidies to US farmers, then that also came out of the pocket of the American taxpayers," he said.

"Donald Trump allowed his very aggressive and hawkish advisers to say things and to take actions that didn't perhaps reflect what he believed or what he was trying to accomplish other than to get reelected," he said.

Some Trump administration officials touted so-called "principled realism" in guiding its China policy, a notion that scholars disagreed with.

"The lack of principles...in terms of being able to come up with a strategic integrated foreign policy is exactly what has been missing," said Dr Arne Westad, Elihu Professor of History and Global Affairs at Yale University.

Dr Westad also mentioned that the China report issued by the US State Department Policy Planning Staff last November suggested that the US approach was not realistic.

"The longer this administration has served in office, the more ideological it has become," he said.

Over the past years, the tensions between China and the US prompted many observers to draw parallels with the Cold War, as the terms of "A New Cold War" and "Cold War 2.0" often appeared in headlines and policy debates.

Some US lawmakers and former officials, either overtly or covertly, embraced the Cold War notion in their remarks and articles.

Leading Cold War historians, however, stressed that the Cold War analogy conspicuously misinterprets China-US relations.

Dr Melvyn Leffler, Edward Stettinius Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Virginia, told Xinhua that the Cold War analogy grossly exaggerates the nature of the threat that lurks in the international environment.

The renowned historian on US foreign policy said that the geopolitical and ideological contexts in the late 1940s were totally different from the current situation.

"I do not think that the two countries are involved in a zero-sum contest, and I do not think that China wants to overthrow the established international economic order, as did the Soviet Union," said Dr Leffler.

"Moreover, given the nature of Chinese-American economic interdependence, both countries have much to gain from cooperation," he said. "Such economic ties did not exist at all during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union."

Dr Westad, who co-edited "The Cambridge History of the Cold War" with Dr Leffler, agrees with the distinction.

"It's very different because China operates globally within a market-driven international economic system, which has been the reason why China has been able to move out of the terrible poverty that the country was living under during most of the Cold War and establishing itself as an international great power," Dr Westad told Xinhua.

Additionally, he indicated that given several powers are rising in today's world, the international order is becoming more multi-polar than bipolar.

As Dr Leffler and Dr Westad rejected the Cold War analogy, they also pointed out that China and the US could draw lessons from that era.

The Cold War teaches that even rivals could try to pursue mutual interests, said Dr Leffler.

"China and the United States face much more serious threats in the long run from climate change and disease spread. There are compelling reasons for both governments to pursue collaborative efforts that further their vital security and economic interests," he said.

Dr Westad said China and the US need to be prepared for a world that is much less stable than that during the Cold War.

"What they have to do is to try to find common ground where it's possible to find common ground, but at the same time, try to define what the differences between them are, in ways that would not lead to war," he said.

When asked about his expectations regarding the Joe Biden administration's approach on China, Dr Leffler said "it is important for both countries to step back, modulate their competitive instincts, and focus on areas of mutual interest, and there are plenty of areas for fruitful cooperation".

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this week said that US-China relations contain competitive and cooperative aspects, and he put tackling climate change on the cooperation list.

"I don't expect that President Biden will have any trouble competing with China in some areas and cooperating with China in other areas," said Dr Russel. "He's not going to be disrespectful of China, he's not going to deliberately antagonise China just for ideological reasons."

Dr Russel highlighted Mr Biden's assumption of office as "some kind of last-minute reprieve" for bilateral ties.

"We cannot afford to mishandle or waste this opportunity," the former assistant secretary warned.

"The prospect of the US and China putting our bilateral relationship back on a constructive track that can engage with the real challenges and the difficulties that we both face...is by no means guaranteed."

Dr Russel said that it is insufficient for Beijing and Washington to cooperate on public health issues, climate change, and counter-proliferation, calling on the two countries to find a way to deal with fundamental disagreements.

"Both sides are going to have to make tremendous efforts, exercise good judgement, caution, restraint, but also show courage in tackling some areas of real difference," he said.