White House must listen to wise voices over US-China trade war

  • American elder statesmen have stressed the need for ongoing dialogue between the two sides in order to avoid an economic ‘iron curtain’ from descending
PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 8:40pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 November, 2018, 8:40pm

The planned summit in just three weeks between presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump should raise hopes that issues plaguing Sino-US relations can be resolved amicably. But bilateral dialogue between officials does not inspire confidence. Divergent approaches hinder the advance of shared interests. It has not always been like that and does not have to be now.

Reminders of that came from elder statesmen at this week’s Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore, including two American veterans of landmark events in relations between the two nations. Henry Kissinger needs no introduction as former president Richard Nixon’s envoy in establishing diplomatic ties; former treasury secretary Henry Paulson led economic dialogue with Beijing under former president George W. Bush; and Vice-President Wang Qishan, one of Xi’s most trusted aides, was introduced to the forum as “the most influential political figure” in China. If the thoughts conveyed in their addresses had a common thread, it was the paramount importance of continuing dialogue to efforts to de-escalate the trade war and reverse a slide in bilateral relations.

Kissinger best summed it up with his advice to the two sides to speak openly to each other about their “red lines” and the concessions they were willing to make to avoid conflict. The challenge was to maintain a fundamentally cooperative relationship amid inherent differences of approach. Indeed, Kissinger’s view was echoed by Xi at a meeting between the two after the forum. Xi is reported to have said Beijing and Washington should “accurately assess” each other’s strategic intentions, and that while China wanted to resolve problems with the United States through dialogue, Washington must respect its interests.

China, US need to ‘accurately assess’ strategic aims, Xi tells Kissinger

Wang said China was ready to engage with the US on matters of mutual concern to resolve their trade war, noting that both sides wished to expand cooperation on the economy and trade. Paulson said problems the two sides faced and the divergence of views had become much broader. “Unless [they] are addressed we are in for a long winter in US-China relations,” he said, adding a warning that a new economic “iron curtain” could descend between the powers.

It is reassuring to see a bipartisan consensus that frank, constructive engagement is needed between China and the US to avoid a full-on collision course. As Michael Bloomberg, founder of the global financial services organisation that bears his name, summed up: “When you’re talking, at least you’re not fighting.”

That such bipartisan voices are being heard just before the summit expected to be held on the sidelines of the G20 in Buenos Aires shows all is not lost; reason can still rule. The question ultimately is, who in the White House is listening.