Post #318: Finding Common Ground with China

Readers note: An audio version of this blog is available at https://www.podserve.fm/episodes/44104/26-finding-common-ground-with-china.mp3

“It seems clear to me we need to establish some common-sense guardrails,” President Biden told President Xi Jinping in their November 16 virtual summit. Xi reportedly replied to his “old friend” with a metaphor about boats finding their way together through rough waters.  This meeting of the two leaders was only the third time they have communicated directly; the other two were telephone calls. Nor was it the usual summit: no preliminary fanfare, no final communique, no evident agreements on the numerous contentious issues in US-China relations.  Yet it was an important event.

In the midst of all the wrangling between the US and China about human rights, trade, Taiwan, and a host of other issues, a central concern both countries share is how to manage the relationship.  What is the most effective structure for ensuring that conflict over issues doesn’t spill over into actual conflict?  In the Obama era, the answer was numerous US-China dialogue groups focused on specific issues.  Under Trump, these were largely abandoned, without sustained diplomacy to replace them.  Biden has not restored the dialogue groups.  His national security team is made up of people who believe that engagement with China has not produced many results. Consequently, we don’t have a structured way to address not only old problems with China that are intensifying, such as over Taiwan and trade, but also new problems, such as on nuclear weapons. 

Biden’s comment about establishing “common-sense guardrails” is self-evidently correct, as is Xi’s opening comment that the two countries need a “sound and steady” relationship. But how to structure relations remains the burning question.

I submit that the way forward is to make engagement with China a US strategic objective.  The reason is simple: China is one of the two most important challenges for US national security, the other being the climate crisis.  And engaging China is in the national interest. Advantages for the United States include avoidance of dangerous confrontations and decreased likelihood of misperceptions and miscommunications; recruitment of scientific talent from China; reduction of tariff barriers that result in lower costs to consumers and increased competitiveness for trading firms; opportunities to reduce military spending from force reductions in Asia and avoidance of an arms race; more opportunities for people-to-people exchanges; participation in each other’s trade networks and a variety of other multilateral fora; promotion of public health research and climate change mitigation; wider cooperation in UN peacekeeping operations and other programs; opportunities for nuclear weapon reductions; a greatly improved security climate across Asia; and cooperative efforts on aid to developing countries.  Most of these US advantages are also positives for global security.

One has to ask: Are US national security objectives served by not engaging China?  Does forming a coalition of states to confront China on its human rights violations or its militarization of the South China Sea islands induce changes in Chinese policy?  Do high tariffs on Chinese exports change their trade policies?  Does upgrading relations with Taiwan actually add to its defense?  To be clear, naming and shaming China’s repression of human rights, refusing to abide by its unilateral takeover of some South China Sea islands, seeking to reduce the trade deficit with China, and maintaining “strategic ambiguity” on defense of Taiwan if attacked are all appropriate policies.  But these aims are not served, and in fact are undermined, by pressure tactics.  The Chinese will respond with pressure of their own, with the predictable result that tensions will rise even more.

Some high-level Chinese commentaries suggest that engagement would be welcome in Beijing. The Chinese foreign ministry, in its response to the Biden-Xi meeting, had this to say: “The key is that both sides should meet each other halfway and use actions to create a good atmosphere to ensure that the meeting achieves positive results. . . . China is open to all options that are conducive to the development of Sino-US relations.” Notably, that statement was from the ministry’s so-called “wolf warrior,” Zhao Lijian, who is usually associated with vitriolic comments on US policies.  I suspect that he and the ministry were told to reflect Xi’s position on striving for “coexistence” and “win-win” solutions. And China’s veteran America watcher, Wang Jisi, a longtime proponent of US-China engagement, offers the opinion that the best hope for resolving US-China differences is to address their different “mindsets.”  He writes: “Whereas the Chinese insist on identifying principles, the Americans want action on immediate issues.  The Chinese believe in first ‘finding common ground while reserving differences,’ which means agreement on a set of principles, including mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” 

Bridging the US-China divide is a huge challenge, but Professor Wang’s advice offers a starting point: finding common ground.  The climate crisis is surely just such an opportunity, and one that would “create a good atmosphere” for further progress in reducing tensions and building trust.

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9 Comments

  1. Thanks “old Friend”. 🙂

    I agree on the point about the need to prioritize strategic focus. Possibly the problem is that the US has no or few strategic principles for China to engage on and our foreign policy has collapsed after our Middle East debacles. I know more about China’s goals than I do our own.

    The dummies in our brain trust play jump rope while China links the world through strategic investment.

    Supplying the world covid vaccines and antibiotics, to Mention one area, seems like a great strategic imitative but our smarties will see it as a one-off jump jump instead of a big opportunity to sell America and link global aid alliances.

    I was taught once that if you read the newspaper you can find the stuff of grand strategy. Ha!

    (I worry most about Taiwan a place that I love).

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  2. Mel,

    Passed you around the world, again🤓.

    Searching for common ground & principles with China raises the question of definitions: ground & principle?

    John Holdridge, my Montgomery county neighbour & friend in 1970-3 struggled with Chou En-lai while preparing the Shanghai Communique for signatures by the two Principals. Faxes were a new means of diplomatic exchange, lesser lights in Beijing & D.C. worked 24/7 in the weeks leading up to the grand meeting. It would be interesting to pull them out of National Archives fifty years later to explore the same issues & definitions in both languages. Have we enjoyed progress or suffered regress? Our Third Great Leader surely will answer that? Imagine being Biden’s & Xi’s official interpreters in that 3.5 hour meeting last week! The language of power equivalence is fascinating.

    John

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

  3. Wise. The U.S. should learn from their own historian Barbara Tuchman in “The Proud Tower”. 77 years after Waterloo and the end of the Napoleonic Wars, France and Russia concluded an Entente. This alliance made Germany feel encircled, and was a key point in the descent into the First World War. China has long felt encircled by the U.S. 77 years after the end of the Second World War is 2022. The biggest mistake the U.S. can make is to further encircle China. Tuchman’s later book, no-one should forget, was “The Guns of August”.

  4. Hi Mel,

    Your post “Finding common ground” is excellent. In particular, I like your referencing Wang Ji Si’s words (quoted below).

    He (and you) are pointing to the most important of questions: guidance by principle or by rule of law, the two fundamentally and historically different approaches to both societal norms and state governance. A most recent example staring us in the face is the historic principle of Chinese ownership of Taiwan that Beijing is asserting with its recent flyovers of the island’s distant southern defense zone, while it is the array of international laws providing for Taiwanese autonomy that the US bellows about.

    Because the US and China approach all matters from such fundamentally divergent world views, tension  between the two civilizations will fluctuate in often unpredictable ways. This is true of the enormous and critical economic conflict that underlies all discussions of Taiwan: the rest of the world believes it cannot afford to lose the state of art microprocessor mfg. capabilities of Taiwan, and China may see no other way to continue its economic growth without it. Yet, what is nudging us all into constant state of anxiety is an underlying realization that while we are so constantly and obsessively shouting at one another over our differences, we seem to be “speaking in tongues.” As a consequence, worried people here in China are ever more often approaching me with queries about the chances of war.

    Thus, it is our principle duty to patiently manage relations, never ignoring the fact that China and the US will at best move closer only over the course of many generations. Until then, we must do our best to ease tension, not aggravate it with drum-beat-boasting of our cultural-political superiority and verbal cannonades over the defense of Taiwan and its world-leading semiconductor industry.

    Thank you for guiding us towards “mutual respect and win-win cooperation,” the only safe and sane path.

    -Joe / Chengdu

  5. Mel, Very nice piece. Very thoughtful argument for engagement. Well done. All the best, Pete

    On Fri, Nov 19, 2021 at 12:11 AM In the Human Interest – Mel Gurtov wrote:

    > Mel Gurtov posted: ” Readers note: An audio version of this blog is > available at > https://www.podserve.fm/episodes/44104/26-finding-common-ground-with-china.mp3 > “It seems clear to me we need to establish some common-sense guardrails,” > President Biden told President Xi Jinp” >

  6. Hi Mel,

    Asleep at the wheel somehow . . . just catching up with your excellent common ground piece.

    Any interest in developing it a bit for APJ? I enclose a few suggestions, but APJ can certainly use a broader discussion of the issues and I
    know you’ve got plenty to say on this.

    Cheers,

    mark​
    Mark Selden
    Editor, The Asia-Pacific Journal: http://apjjf.org
    Homepage
    Dying for an iPhone: Apple, Foxconn and the Lives of China’s Workers out now.

    ________________________________
    From: In the Human Interest – Mel Gurtov
    Sent: Thursday, November 18, 2021 8:12 AM
    To: Mark Selden
    Subject: [New post] Post #318: Finding Common Ground with China

    Mel Gurtov posted: ” Readers note: An audio version of this blog is available at https://www.podserve.fm/episodes/44104/26-finding-common-ground-with-china.mp3 “It seems clear to me we need to establish some common-sense guardrails,” President Biden told President Xi Jinp”
    Respond to this post by replying above this line
    New post on In the Human Interest – Mel Gurtov
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    Post #318: Finding Common Ground with China
    by Mel Gurtov

    Readers note: An audio version of this blog is available at https://www.podserve.fm/episodes/44104/26-finding-common-ground-with-china.mp3

    “It seems clear to me we need to establish some common-sense guardrails,” President Biden told President Xi Jinping in their November 16 virtual summit. Xi reportedly replied to his “old friend” with a metaphor about boats finding their way together through rough waters. This meeting of the two leaders was only the third time they have communicated directly; the other two were telephone calls. Nor was it the usual summit: no preliminary fanfare, no final communique, no evident agreements on the numerous contentious issues in US-China relations. Yet it was an important event.

    In the midst of all the wrangling between the US and China about human rights, trade, Taiwan, and a host of other issues, a central concern both countries share is how to manage the relationship. What is the most effective structure for ensuring that conflict over issues doesn’t spill over into actual conflict? In the Obama era, the answer was numerous US-China dialogue groups focused on specific issues. Under Trump, these were largely abandoned, without sustained diplomacy to replace them. Biden has not restored the dialogue groups. His national security team is made up of people who believe that engagement with China has not produced many results. Consequently, we don’t have a structured way to address not only old problems with China that are intensifying, such as over Taiwan and trade, but also new problems, such as on nuclear weapons.

    Biden’s comment about establishing “common-sense guardrails” is self-evidently correct, as is Xi’s opening comment that the two countries need a “sound and steady” relationship. But how to structure relations remains the burning question.

    I submit that the way forward is to make engagement with China a US strategic objective. The reason is simple: China is one of the two most important challenges for US national security, the other being the climate crisis. And engaging China is in the national interest. Advantages for the United States include avoidance of dangerous confrontations and decreased likelihood of misperceptions and miscommunications; recruitment of scientific talent from China; reduction of tariff barriers that result in lower costs to consumers and increased competitiveness for trading firms; opportunities to reduce military spending from force reductions in Asia and avoidance of an arms race; more opportunities for people-to-people exchanges; participation in each other’s trade networks and a variety of other multilateral fora; promotion of public health research and climate change mitigation; wider cooperation in UN peacekeeping operations and other programs; opportunities for nuclear weapon reductions; a greatly improved security climate across Asia; and cooperative efforts on aid to developing countries. Most of these US advantages are also positives for global security.

    One has to ask: Are US national security objectives served by not engaging China? Does forming a coalition of states to confront China on its human rights violations or its militarization of the South China Sea islands induce changes in Chinese policy? Do high tariffs on Chinese exports change their trade policies? Does upgrading relations with Taiwan actually add to its defense? To be clear, naming and shaming China’s repression of human rights, refusing to abide by its unilateral takeover of some South China Sea islands, seeking to reduce the trade deficit with China, and maintaining “strategic ambiguity” on defense of Taiwan if attacked are all appropriate policies. But these aims are not served, and in fact are undermined, by pressure tactics. The Chinese will respond with pressure of their own, with the predictable result that tensions will rise even more.

    Some high-level Chinese commentaries suggest th

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