Time to redraw mental map of Sino-US issues

Robert Lawrence Kuhn suggests the use of new mental frameworks to shake up tired thinking about the issues that trouble Sino-US relations, so that workable solutions may be found

This week, the fifth round of the US-China strategic and economic dialogue is being held under all-new co-chairs: US Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, and China's State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Vice-Premier Wang Yang . While presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping developed some personal rapport at the recent Sunnylands summit, the issues of contention between the incumbent superpower and the emergent one remain vexing. Will anything now change?

Look at the list: undervalued currency (manipulation), trade imbalances, cyber-espionage, industrial stealing, territorial claims, border disputes, North Korea, Iran, Syria, resource competition, product dumping, market protectionism, state-owned enterprise monopolies, pollution, global warming, poor intellectual property protection, little rule of law, worrisome nationalism, military opacity, media control, Tibet, Xinjiang , religious freedom, human rights - and so it goes.

Each side believes all issues are equivalent in the sense that, for each, "we are right; they are wrong - we have the facts, know the truth, hold the moral high ground". "Negotiations", then, become a euphemism for coercing the other side to bend to its will.

Part of the problem is that the list is a jumble and whatever's hot at the moment - cyberespionage of late - leaps to the top.

Better, perhaps, is to consider issues in sets, linking and playing them via common characteristics. Might more sophisticated, sensitive policies emerge?

As a backdrop, some honesty: here's what many on each side, deeply suspicious of the other, really think.

In the US, China-bashers believe China, playing by its own rules, is a looming political and military challenger, an economic superpower whose opaque intentions are intimidating. China acts solely in its own interests, critics argue, even to the detriment of the international order - for example, supporting rogue states like North Korea, Iran and Sudan. China is a mercantile predator that keeps its currency artificially low to boost exports and steal jobs, they say, and allows hacking and industrial theft.

Moreover, China's authoritarian government abuses human rights to maintain party control, and its mounting military power, especially its modernising blue-water navy, betrays expansionist ambitions.

In China, America-bashers believe the US seeks to "contain China" and thwart its historic resurgence. This is the real reason America supports Taiwan - not as a worthy democracy, but as an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" with which the US can threaten China while keeping the motherland divided. They see America encircling China via military alliances with South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam and India; forcing open China's markets to control its industries and exploit Chinese consumers; restricting Chinese companies operating or acquiring in the US; hacking into China's computers and sending spy planes to patrol its shores; fomenting "extremism, separatism and terrorism" in Tibet and Xinjiang; and injecting Western culture to overwhelm Chinese culture, eroding China's independence and undermining its sovereignty.

How to deal with such sweeping, invidious suspicions? The normal way is to array issues of contention by content categories - economics, diplomacy, military, reform, and so on. But the normal way hasn't worked very well.

Failure should engender change. So, here are two alternative ways of thinking about US-China issues, to provide fresh perspectives for viewing issues and novel ways for addressing them. One way is to array issues of contention by their strategic and emotional "valencies" (powers), irrespective of their content. So, issues of high strategic and low emotional importance to the US would be Iran, North Korea and territorial claims; and currency and resource competition to China.

Issues where both are high would include cyberespionage and undervalued currency for the US; and Taiwan, Tibet and territorial claims for China.

Issues where both are low would be global warming for the US; and intellectual property rights for China.

Issues that are of low strategic importance but carry emotional weight would be human rights and religious freedom for the US; and border disputes for China.

The normal way is to array issues by content categories. But that hasn’t worked very well

If it is not obvious into which category each issue should be placed, this counts for, not against, the efficacy of the method. The more policymakers consider the strategic and emotional valencies of issues of contention, the more they will gain insight into the essence of issues. For example, high emotional issues are generally handled best when shielded from public glare. Alternatively, by pressing on low-strategic, high-emotional issues, but then conceding them in an implicit trade-off, progress may be made on high-strategic, low-emotional issues.

Another way is to array issues of contention by adversarial-complementary "vectors" (directions) and means of optimum actions.

Consider four categories from the US perspective: adversarial/ must appreciate (Taiwan, Tibet, human rights, media control, military opacity); adversarial/can ameliorate (cyberespionage, undervalued currency, trade imbalances, border disputes); complementary/different means (North Korea, global warming, pollution, intellectual property rights, rule of law); complementary/similar means (disease control, clean technologies, terrorism, organised crime, drug trafficking).

How can such vectors inform policy? By differentiating, say, North Korea, where the US and China have complementary goals (denuclearisation and stability), though using different means to achieve them, from, say, trade imbalances, where US-China positions are naturally adversarial, though can be ameliorated, subtle differences can enable artful suggestions.

How can fresh takes on US-China issues facilitate negotiations? Take two classic styles: solve one problem at a time, starting with easier ones, so that when one encounters hard problems, the landscape is simplified and both sides are prone to compromise; or solve all problems in parallel, not in series, thus retaining the leverage of using simple problems to solve hard problems.

But neither style targets the essences of bilateral issues, and thus both may miss clues or pathways.

When the next crisis in US-China relations hits, as it must, a better idea for breakthroughs are frameworks that exploit "valency and vector" (power and directional) relationships among issues of contention, thus enabling policymakers to become more astute in analysing multiple issues and more nuanced in their synchronised negotiations.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: A different pattern