Zhou Mingwei, former President of the China International Publishing Group, speaks at a symposium to commemorate the 40th anniversary of normalization of China-U.S. diplomatic relations in Atlanta, the United States, on January 18 (COURTESY PHOTO OF THE CARTER CENTER)
The China-U.S. diplomatic relationship, which turned 40 this year, is now the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world and should not be affected by trade tensions or other differences, politicians, officials and scholars from both countries said.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter set the tone when he said the bilateral relationship is "too important to be destroyed or set back by hatred or misunderstanding between the two countries" at a symposium commemorating the 40th anniversary of the normalization of China-U.S. relations in Atlanta from January 17 to 19.
"Instead of celebrating, many Americans, inside and outside of the government, are questioning the benefits of the diplomatic relations and our policy of engagement. This policy, that has given us 40 years of peace, is unfortunately deeply troubled," Stephen Orlins, President of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, said.
Orlins said it is within the power of both governments to put the relationship back on track. The leaders should show the same bravery that Carter and Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping demonstrated 40 years ago to normalize bilateral relations.
Since the two largest economies have different cultural traditions and different stages of development, disagreements and frictions are inevitable at times. "The key is in the attitude toward the differences and disagreements and how the problems are dealt with," Zhou Mingwei, former President of the China International Publishing Group, said.
Divorce no option
The best solution to the problems, the participants concurred, is through closer cooperation rather than disengagement.
"The U.S.-China relationship is like a strange marriage with no therapist or counselor," David Shambaugh, Director of the China Policy Program at the George Washington University, said. "But divorce is not an option. Divorce means war."
Since it became the second largest economy and began playing an increasingly important role in the international system, China is seen as a "rising power" that could pose a threat to the United States, the established power. There is increasing misunderstanding about China, which could result in strategic miscalculations with dire consequences.
Cui Tiankai, Chinese Ambassador to the U.S., said if people learn more about the history of the Chinese civilization and China's goal, they will have a much better understanding of why China is seeking modernization and national rejuvenation. They would understand why China believes in reform and opening up as the key to success and its commitment to peaceful development for itself and joint efforts with other countries for a community of nations with a shared future.
"Such understanding and trust can be achieved through more effective communication and coordination. When this is done, the possibilities of miscalculation will be greatly reduced," Cui said. "Facts prove that cooperation is in the interests of both countries. We have no better option than cooperation."
Zhou echoed him. "The U.S. should objectively view China's development, which is based on its own logic and doesn't aim to surpass or overwhelm any other country," he said. "It should also take an objective view of the desire of the Chinese people to develop their economy for a better life." On the other hand, China should make it clear that its strategic goal is to succeed in its own development rather than challenge anyone. "How China and the U.S. assess each other's strategic intentions will directly influence the policies they adopt and the type of relationship they develop. We cannot afford any mistakes on this fundamental issue," he said.
The speakers also agreed that competition between the two countries is not a negative thing. "Competition is not a zero-sum game, it's dynamic and revolutionary," Shambaugh said, adding that a competitive relationship between China and the U.S. should comprise cooperative competition, competitive interdependence or competitive coexisting. Both will need guardrail buffers and confidence-building mechanisms to guide this competition.
Zhou said neither the U.S. nor China has sufficient experience in dealing with each other as the top two economies. Moreover, the U.S. has never worked with a country with such a large population and rapid growth momentum. So, prejudice, conflicts of interest and the influence of populism could easily lead to zero-sum thinking. The key to preventing such confrontations lies in whether these two major countries can coexist and co-develop in the new era, go beyond the traditional thinking that if one wins, the other loses, and join hands for the greater good.
"China has no wish to be America's enemy. It would be also unwise and wrong to antagonize a major country with a population of 1.4 billion and a prosperous economy that shares extensive common interests with oneself," Zhou emphasized.
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Cui Tiankai, Chinese Ambassador to the U.S., and Li Xiaolin, President of the Chinese People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries at a recent event in Atlanta, the United States, on January 18 (COURTESY PHOTO OF THE CARTER CENTER)
Listening to the people
The consensus was that the China-U.S. relationship goes beyond bilateral impact. If the two countries are on good terms, the whole world will benefit.
Susan Thornton, former acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, said, "We all know, as do our partners around the globe, that this is the most consequential relationship for the future of our planet and our children. Future peace, stability and prosperity depend on our continued ability to navigate our differences and find common ground."
Cui echoed that, saying, "The people of our two countries and the whole world are looking to us to do more for the shared interests of mankind, and it has never been so important for China and the U.S. to work together. We should never lose sight of the greater good of world peace and prosperity as our goals. We should always bear in mind the long-term interests of our two peoples."
Orlins had an added perspective: "People understand that the real threats of climate change, terrorism, economic crisis and pandemics can be combated only when the United States and China work together." Because of this understanding and the strong and unbreakable bonds between the Chinese and U.S. people, in the end, the people will pressure their governments to emphasize the common interests of the two countries, as opposed to the conflicting interests.
While being pessimistic about the U.S.-China relationship in the short term, Orlins said, "In the long term, my vision of U.S.-China relations is an optimistic one that focuses on cooperation."
Zhou held similar views, saying, "In the long term, we should be confident, and our confidence stems from the Chinese people and U.S. people. When building our relationship, we need to listen carefully to the voices and wishes of ordinary people."
(Reporting from Atlanta, the United States)
Copyedited by Sudeshna Sarkar
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