In the United States, support for a cooperative relationship with China is evaporating fast. I increasingly hear frustration from business leaders about structural trade issues. The military is concerned about aggressive geopolitical moves by Beijing. And prominent voices in both political parties are striking an increasingly confrontational tone. Legitimate concerns have led to a vicious cycle, with each negative development further poisoning an already shallow well of good will.
The cycle has to be reversed. In the United States, the business community, policy analysts and the media should create a climate that encourages elected officials to pursue a constructive relationship. The same is true in China, albeit in a different political system. Leaders in both countries should recognize our imperative self-interest in working together on hugely consequential transnational issues, especially two threats to life on earth as we know it: nuclear weapons and climate change.
No single country can tackle these threats alone, and existing international institutions have proved inadequate. The best chance for successfully dealing with these overarching issues — as well as other transnational issues like pandemics, terrorism and cybersecurity — is for the world’s two largest national economies to catalyze global action.
In a conversation I recently led at the Council on Foreign Relations, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, alluded to this, remarking that “history will remember those who took the lead in the mist.”
The surest way for that to happen is to forge a constructive relationship between our two countries. Absent that, it is imperative that we put our differences aside to tackle these two existential challenges.
As the two largest economies, the United States and China can set the tone for a global effort against climate change by investing in clean-energy technology, adopting strict environmental rules and encouraging their trading partners to do the same. (Of course, the current administration does not accept the reality of climate change, but future administrations will hopefully recognize the urgency of action.)
Cooperation is also needed to address the spread or possible use of nuclear weapons. North Korea’s continued development of fissile materials and missiles is an apparent contravention of its recent agreement with the United States. And North Korea isn’t the only concern. Pakistan, for example, has a weak government and uncertain controls over its nuclear arsenal.
The arc of human history is one of frequent conflict. Unless you believe human nature is likely to change, that suggests a serious risk that nuclear arms will be used at some point by state or nonstate actors. United States-China cooperation to limit nuclear proliferation among states, the diversion of nuclear material to terrorists and other risks would make us all safer.
The most promising prospect for tackling these challenges is to put our countries’ economic relationship back on steady footing. The tenor of the relationship gets set at the top, so it’s time for Presidents Trump and Xi Jinping to work out their current trade disputes within a framework that prioritizes cooperation.
The administration’s antipathy toward China sometimes seems driven by an irrational anger over trade deficits. Virtually all mainstream economists see the president’s theory that our trade relationship should be evaluated by the bilateral trade deficit as analytically wrong.
On the other hand, China has contravened some widely accepted trade and investment norms by, for example, subsidizing exports, restricting imports, protecting national champions, imposing buy-China mandates and, at times, requiring foreign companies to share their intellectual property with Chinese partners.
These structural policies present a complex problem. They’re embedded in China’s economic model, and the United States needs to recognize that it can’t simply demand that China change that model. And China needs to recognize that its system creates some unacceptable consequences in the trade arena.
From there, the two countries should be able to identify reasonable solutions. Washington’s approach should have been multilateral and quiet, joining with other countries, including our European allies, Brazil, Mexico and Japan to approach Beijing as a united bloc; hopefully it’s not too late to walk this path.
We’ve bridged our economic and political differences before. When I served as Treasury secretary in the 1990s, the United States and China worked together to stem the Asian financial crisis. And though the current administration has withdrawn from the Paris climate agreement, bilateral cooperation was integral to its creation in 2015.
We must look beyond the daily headlines about trade to the more consequential problem of ever-greater friction between the United States and China. For the future of humanity, not to mention our immediate economic interests, our two countries must recognize our mutual self-interest in a constructive relationship and act accordingly.
Robert E. Rubin, secretary of the Treasury from 1995 to 1999, is co-chairman emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.