US-China Relations: Is There a Way Out of the Abyss?

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Panelists debate approaches to reducing tensions between Washington and Beijing

Quick take:

  • It appears there is little room for common ground as the US and China remain stalemated on many issues.
  • To address this, the US is working on building “guardrails” to avoid conflict in competitive areas, a senior American diplomat said.
  • Meanwhile, China is grappling with what it views as inconsistent US policies, according to a Stimson Center analyst.
Opposing fists colored with Us and Chinese flags
Image: Yaorusheng via Getty Images

HONOLULU (April 7, 2022) -- US-China relations have grown even more strained recently following America’s diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics, the blacklisting of more Chinese firms, and the implementation of a new US law that restricts imports from the Chinese region of Xinjiang, aimed at curbing forced labor abuses there. With the exception of some degree of bilateral agreement on climate change, it appears there is little room for common ground as the two countries remain stalemated on many policies, including trade, technology and security, labor laws and human rights.

Is there any way to reduce tensions between Washington and Beijing? That question was debated a recent East-West Center online panel discussion moderated by National Public Radio correspondent Julie McCarthy. (View video of the panel.)

Slipping into a new Cold War
Mingjiang Li, an associate professor and provost’s chair in international relations at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said that US-China relations are at a “very crucial moment,” and many analysts worry that the relationship could “slip into a new Cold War.” 

Li suggested, however, that the US could smooth tensions by focusing less attention on human rights issues that China says are internal matters. “Too much US intervention in China's domestic politics may actually not be helpful in changing China politically,” he said.

But America’s concerns about China’s human rights abuses are not likely to go away, according to Rick Waters, US deputy assistant secretary of state for China, Taiwan and Mongolia. In addition, he said, “The challenge of managing this relationship is complicated immensely by the increased aggressiveness of Chinese foreign and external policies. We face a competitor potentially capable of combining economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to mount a type of sustained challenge that we have not seen in the international system.”

To address that, he said, the US is working on building “guardrails” in competitive areas to avoid conflict. Meanwhile, as the US reckons with China’s advancement, it is focusing on protecting American economic and security interests and “reducing the risk to the American people of PRC cyber activities.”
 

Still room to cooperate
The Biden Administration’s approach to China was crystallized in a March 2021 speech by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who said the relationship would be “competitive when it should be, collaborative when it can be, and adversarial when it must be.”

Yet  that approach “creates a lot of confusion in China,” said Yun Sun, director of the Stimson Center’s China Program.  “Chinese have been grappling with what they perceive as a US inconsistency and self-conflicting approach: While the US sees competition and cooperation on separate tracks, China sees everything as connected.

A relationship defined by competition is destined to be toxic, and diverging interests will always win over commonalities, she said. Still, Sun said she believes there remains room for the two countries to cooperate. They just need to keep communication channels open, especially after a lapse during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are plenty of issues that the two powers could focus on,” Sun said, naming potential shared interests in reducing proliferation of nuclear weapons in North Korea, climate change, and others. “Cooperation between US and China will generate significant benefits and impact for the world,” she said.

Waters agreed, noting that the State Department is focused on keeping “people-to-people” channels open and recently resumed issuing student visas after a pandemic-related pause. “We don't want to lose sight of the areas in which we remain convinced that our interests align,” he said.