Cui Tiankai, Chinese Ambassador to the United States, delivers a keynote speech at the China-U.S. Relations: 40 Years & Beyond forum in New York on September 17 (ZHAO WEI)
On the 40th anniversary of the normalization of China-U.S. diplomatic relations, a diverse group of diplomats, athletes, entrepreneurs and economists has advocated a more creative approach to resolving trade tension between the two largest economies in the world, with the bottom line that the bilateral relationship had endured in the past and would continue to do so in today's era of greater engagement.
"We have learned from the past four decades that cooperation is the only right option for us. It is something we should always uphold," Cui Tiankai, Chinese Ambassador to the United States, said in his keynote speech at the China-U.S. Relations: 40 Years & Beyond forum in New York on September 17, speaking against a backdrop of a 14-month trade dispute between the two countries and the specter of a global recession.
Recalling bilateral warmth
In 1970, Connie Sweeris was the reigning U.S. table tennis champion. The next year, she became a "ping-pong diplomat" when she joined a nine-member team of U.S. table tennis players who were invited by the Chinese Government to play exhibition matches in China. The matches would become a historic icebreaker for then U.S. President Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972 and the subsequent normalization of bilateral ties in 1979.
At the forum, Sweeris recalled her 1971 trip to China: "[Then Chinese] Premier Zhou [Enlai] greeted us with an old Chinese saying, 'What a joy to have friends from afar'!"
Even after four decades, Sweeris remembers the friendship match at Beijing's Capital Indoor Stadium and of course climbing the Great Wall.
Kenneth Quinn, a former U.S. ambassador and current President of the World Food Prize Foundation, had another travel story to share. The native of the midwestern U.S. state of Iowa described how Xi Jinping, then vice president of China, visited Iowa in 2012 and quoted Mark Twain on seeing the sun over the Mississippi River.
"To have [a deputy head of state of another country] speak about my country that way was so impactful, so dramatic. It left a very, very deep impression on me," Quinn said. "The next day, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Chinese Minister of Agriculture and Rural Affairs Han Changfu signed the U.S.-China strategic cooperation agreement on agriculture."
Echoing Quinn's recollection of the cooperation between the two countries in the past, Craig Allen, President of the U.S.-China Business Council, said "We have a glorious history. We have a mutual responsibility to ensure that the success of the past continues into the future."
The council is a non-profit organization of approximately 200 U.S. companies that do business with China, including Amazon, Airbnb and Apple. Allen said more than 90 percent of its member companies reported profitability in the Chinese market in 2018.
"If we could break the ice 40 years ago when there were virtually no exchanges and interaction, then in today's world of interdependence, with the two countries being each other's biggest trading partner and main investor… there is absolutely no reason for the future to be going against the tracks of history," Zhou Shuchun, Chief Editor of China Daily, the co-host of the event with the Bank of China, said.
The blame game
Stephen Roach, a senior fellow at Yale University's Jackson Institute of Global Affairs, called the China-U.S. trade dispute "a bilateral blame game."
On May 8, the U.S. accused China of backtracking on the negotiations to address their trade tension. Then at a press conference in June, Wang Shouwen, Vice Minister of Commerce of China, said, "Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," calling the U.S. actions in the past month the main reason for the negotiations floundering.
In August, U.S. President Trump imposed another round of 15 percent tariffs on $112 billion of Chinese imports, including a wide range of consumer goods. China then retaliated with new tariffs on $75 billion worth of U.S. goods.
"To resolve problems in relationships, both partners need to work together to agree on mutual responsibility for the roles they play causing problems. And I would say that's true of the U.S., it's also true of China," Roach said.
He rejected the U.S. mindset of blaming China for the deficit in bilateral trade, saying the U.S. "had trade deficit last year with 102 countries."
"When nations are short of savings and want to invest and grow, they must borrow surplus savings from abroad and run current account deficits in order to attract foreign capital," Roach said.
In response to the drastic call for "decoupling China and the U.S." by Trump's trade advisors, Cui said it "goes against globalization and the tide of history."
"Considering China's advantages in cost, market and supply chain and its growing edge in innovation, to decouple from China is to decouple from opportunities," the ambassador said.
Chinese and U.S. table tennis players play a match to mark the 48th anniversary of the China-U.S. “ping-pong diplomacy” in Yorba Linda City, California, the United States, on April 10 (XINHUA)
A more creative approach
Chinese Vice Premier Liu He led a delegation to Washington, D.C. in early October for the 13th principal-level trade negotiations.
But Roach thinks the two countries need "a more creative framework" to resolve their differences. "You cannot fix a multilateral problem with 102 deficits by solving it on a bilateral basis," he said.
Quinn said that China and the U.S. should seek common ground and joint missions such as agricultural missions and lifting Africa from poverty. "The single greatest challenge human beings have ever faced is, can we, given climate change and all the other issues, sustainably and nutritiously feed the 9 billion people on earth by 2049?" he asked.
Roach proposed a fresh approach to negotiate issues that can build the relationship on the basis of mutual trust.
"I'm looking for macroeconomic adjustments in both countries where we save more and China saves less," he said.
"I'm looking for joint leadership in the cyber area. This is a global problem, not a bilateral problem. And finally, I think we need a richer and deeper and a more continuous dialogue between us, rather than having these periodic phone calls, dinner parties."
Allen stressed that both governments are signatories to the World Trade Organization, sharing a common framework and a common language. "Let's resolve the problems in accordance with our commitments," he said. "We believe we are not far away from that, but we just need to focus on the core problems and resolve them in a respectful, positive and constructive manner."