With Trump in the White House, don’t count on the US and China finding common ground any time soon
Robert Delaney says the US president’s scorched-earth approach to international relations is a deal-breaker. To ease tensions, much may depend on the depth of personal relationships between Americans and Chinese, outside politics
Some of the most well-regarded analysts of the US-China relationship gathered in Washington last week to reflect on the first 40 years of official diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China and to put forward predictions about the next four decades.
Reflecting the enormity of the subject, discussions at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies ranged widely, from the possibility of armed conflict between the world’s two largest economic powers to sentimental accounts of personal contacts.
Former US trade representative Charlene Barshefsky, for example, spoke of a man on the street in Beijing, who flagged her down and held her by the arm until he found an English speaker so he could convey his appreciation for her work getting China into the World Trade Organisation. “You gave my son a better future,” the man told Barshefsky, according to her account.
The story drew a rare mid-panel round of applause from a rapt audience of China watchers, and the usual acrimony around the subject of China and the WTO dissolved into a feel-good moment.
However, irony was the main thread that weaved throughout this celebration of the diplomatic milestone, given that Washington and Beijing are moving further into the relationship’s most fractious period so far.
Except for key moments like Richard Nixon’s meeting with Mao Zedong and Barshefsky’s handshake with China’s chief WTO negotiator Long Yongtu, the accumulation of personal, one-to-one connections between Americans and Chinese – those absent of any corporate or geostrategic objectives – have been more effective than the efforts of the policy advisers and diplomats.
This is true of Sino-US relations even long before 1949, when scholars, missionaries, political ideologues and traders formed an international community whose members wanted one thing above all else from their own government and society in general: greater understanding of the other side, to offset the suspicion and violence that had often flared often between the two.
The glue of these people and these relationships will need to be strong as we move further into the recent tensions caused by a long-running trade imbalance and unequal market access because those at the top in Washington and Beijing are in no mood to concede on the most crucial issues.
It seems that no debate about US-China relations these days is complete without references to the Thucydides Trap – the theory that direct military conflict is often likely when an emergent national power’s influence threatens that of the incumbent top dog – and author Graham Allison’s book about how China’s rise has all the markings of historical scenarios that led to war.
On the final panel in Washington last week, China’s ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, declared amid the Thucydides debate that Beijing’s ambitions “have nothing to do with transfer of global dominance from the US to China”.
While we should not reject Cui’s declaration as insincere, it’s worth noting that domestic propaganda suggests the top leadership has every intention of reassuming the “Middle Kingdom” status China enjoyed for centuries before European colonialism.
On Washington’s part, President Donald Trump’s scorched-earth approach to international relations does not bode well for the kind of cooperation necessary to avoid the Thucydides Trap.
Trump is right to expect action to address the mammoth bilateral trade deficit. And Chinese efforts to acquire US technology probably warrants closer scrutiny. But, as with everything about Trump, the methods proposed to meet these objectives are overwrought.
The rationale behind his blocking of Broadcom’s purchase of Qualcomm was flimsy. Also, threatening to block Chinese citizens from undertaking research at American universities fails to recognise the great contributions that academic exchange has brought to both countries.
Rather than shutting down such fruitful commercial and academic exchanges, the US companies developing advanced technologies and institutions conducting sensitive research need to do a better job protecting their secrets. China is not the only country trying to steal them.
The vast majority of Chinese students are only looking for the same thing that the man who grabbed Barshefsky wanted for his son: a better future.
Robert Delaney is the Post's US bureau chief, based in New York