How America and China can get along better

At last, tensions between China and America are showing signs of easing, albeit with the occasional setback. At the recent G7 summit, President Joe Biden predicted a near-term “thaw” in relations between the two countries. Last week China’s commerce minister met his American counterpart and the US Trade Representative. This followed talks between America’s national security adviser and the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s Foreign Affairs Commission. This week, however, China’s defence minister, Li Shangfu, reportedly rejected a request from his American opposite number, Lloyd Austin, for a meeting at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security forum being held in Singapore on June 2nd-4th. The apparent reason for the snub: Mr Li is still under American sanctions, imposed by the Trump administration.

Expectations may not be high on either side, but the recent on-off thaw provides an opportunity for a more lasting improvement in relations between the world’s two largest economies. They need to act quickly to avoid the situation becoming more dangerous as the window won’t stay open indefinitely. Here are a few things both sides might want to consider.

First, they should reintroduce and institutionalise regular communication between their government officials and agencies. During Barack Obama’s time in office, America and China operated nearly 100 official channels of dialogue. Even the China-bashing Trump administration kept several open. Now there are almost none.

Ministerial meetings are important, but so are working-level communications. Despite long-simmering tensions, the two countries’ military top brass were in regular contact until a Chinese balloon—which the Americans claimed was a reconnaissance vehicle, to Chinese denials—was detected over American airspace earlier this year. This contact needs to resume as soon as possible, preferably in person so that each side can more easily read the other’s signals and emotions. One way to build mutual confidence would be to discuss strengthening two memorandums of understanding signed during Mr Obama’s time in office: one on notification of major military activities, the other on air and maritime encounters.

Second, the two countries need to expand people-to-people exchanges in academia, business and so on. It would help if there were more direct flights between them. American and Chinese carriers are currently allowed to make only 24 round-trips per week between them, compared with more than 300 before the covid-19 pandemic. This summer I plan to take some of my students to visit America. They have a sincere interest in understanding the country. But many are put off by expensive airfares, long visa-application queues and the prospect of multi-leg flights of more than 24 hours.

Academic links are important but remain difficult. Scholars from America and China have begun to visit each other again this year, but numbers remain low. Many on both sides are still unwilling or afraid to make the journey, fearful for their personal safety or that it will be seen at home as politically incorrect.

With scant face-to-face communication in the past three years, both Beijing and Washington have become echo chambers. This has encouraged a Manichean worldview, which has been exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. As a result, Chinese and American academics have developed bizarre imaginings about each other. The two governments need to come to an arrangement that ensures that scholars from both sides can visit their counterparts with ease and dignity.

Third, China and America need to work harder to resolve issues that have created tension between them. One is drugs. Washington wants more support from Beijing on fentanyl, which has flooded America; China strongly rejects allegations that it is the source of the chemicals used by Mexican drug cartels to make the synthetic opioid. Meanwhile, China has made reasonable requests that America remove certain Chinese institutions, such as the Institute of Forensic Science and the National Narcotics Laboratory, from its “entity list”, which imposes licence requirements and other restrictions.

The fourth and perhaps most difficult task is to construct clear borders amid heightened economic and technological competition. It is popular nowadays to talk about “small yards and high fences”. All countries have the right to a “yard” that needs to be protected for national security. Building a fence is therefore inevitable. However, the most important thing is not the size of the yard but how clearly defined the fence is. It is hard to move forward—in diplomacy, in business or in academic relations—if the border is nebulous. “De-risking” sounds reasonable, but sometimes it creates more risk. In the case of the West and China it could disrupt the workings of the world economy for decades.

The two sides have shown that deals can indeed be reached to clarify the height and position of the fence. In 2022 the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB), America’s accounting regulator, signed an agreement with the Chinese to co-operate over the supervision of PCAOB-registered accounting firms in China. The pact marked an important breakthrough after years of rising tensions over access to the accounts of American-listed Chinese companies. The two countries may need dozens of agreements like this, covering a wide range of issues. The PCAOB deal shows what is possible.

The strategic rivalry between China and America is hard to reverse. Whether they want rational competition with clear borders or unpredictable competition without rules is the question that must be decided in the coming months.

Da Wei is a professor and director of the Centre for International Security and Strategy and vice-chairman of the China Forum at Tsinghua University.

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