With the pandemic still rampant and economic recovery an enormous challenge, China and the United States should put aside their own interests, find common ground and strengthen cooperation. The China-US virtual summit indicated the two countries are ready to restore working relations. Quarrels will be normal, but some diplomacy is much better than none. The Thucydides trap is not inevitable and avoiding it would be in the best interests of all the people in the world.
China’s rapid economic progress has benefited a great deal from economic cooperation with US, but the US gained a lot, too. Over the past 40 years, Chinese and American businesses have profited and people in both countries prospered as a result. American companies found a reliable, cheap and well-trained labor force and versatile manufacturing base, thus reaping remarkable profits. American consumers have enjoyed quality daily necessities at competitive prices, which helped the US avoid the scourge of inflation and other economic difficulties.
The global economy has developed to varying degrees in many countries over the past 40 years, driven by China and US, its two economic engines. The US has played a leading role in science, technology and high-end manufacturing, while the industrialization of American technology has mostly depended on China. China-made or China-assembled products, from shoes to Apple cellphones, go out to the world market. Meanwhile, many countries have found markets for their products in China and US, which has led to the expansion of globalization and complex, yet efficient supply chains.
Since the establishment of diplomatic relations, China and the US both recognized the complexity of their relations. Whenever difficulties appeared, the two countries have always insisted on separating economy from any political or sensitive strategic issues, rarely ever considering military options. Trade and investment have grounded the relationship for decades. Now, there are countless connections, large and small, closely linking the two countries. Once political, military and toxic trade relations are the paramount focus, it will be very difficult to straighten out relations or maintain the peace. This will bring confusion to the world and cause immeasurable concerns.
Still, with the continuous expansion of people-to-people and cultural exchanges, including tourism, cultural and educational exchanges, the two countries have become culturally closer and developed a better understanding – at least until the negative rhetoric soured the atmosphere. Friendship among people is the cornerstone of China-US diplomatic relations. The two countries should strive to avoid interfering in normal people-to-people and cultural exchanges, keeping the geopolitical out of this important sphere of diplomacy.
An easing of tensions?
Over the next several months, tensions between China and the US are expected to ease. Further fruitful communication between China and the United States in various fields will happen, especially in trade and people-to-people exchanges. The attitude of some countries that followed Washington in opposing and curbing China could change their attitudes. There may even be positive signs with regard to the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
Yet, expect the anti-China rage from both political parties in the US to continue – and for some years still. The fundamental contradictions between the two nations are structural and complicated. They will remain so for decades.
Indeed, it is widely accepted that it is not possible for China-US relations to return to where they were before Trump. The two countries need to explore a new relationship that will be a marked by a complex framework of confrontation, competition, exchange (including over new technology, trade and differences in values) and cooperation (on pressing international issues such as climate change and Iran’s nuclear program).
Stable communication between China and the US, especially at high levels, is essential. These are, after all, the two most powerful countries in the world. In the past, serious conflicts (such as the Korean War) have developed mostly because of a lack of understanding that comes from interaction and consultation. Good communication can prevent or manage conflicts, while poor communication increases mutual suspicion and quite possibly leads to problems not just for the two countries but for every nation involved with them. There is an opening for effective preventive diplomacy now; the opportunity should not go to waste.