Can China and US coexist and escape Douglas Paal’s forecasted dilemma?
Published: Feb 01, 2021 08:15 PM

China-US relation. Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

In the era when groups of senior thinkers occupied the mainstream of American think tank circles, the US view of China was generally rational and tolerant, defined by frequent dialogues, which I miss very much.

The scholar I miss the most is Douglas Paal. Paal used to work in the CIA, and later served as senior director for Asian affairs in the White House during the George H. W. Bush administration, and director of the American Institute in Taiwan. He is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He is tall and burly, like Dwayne Johnson, and somewhat awe-inspiring when talking with him - especially for the first time.

However, after talking with him for several times, Paal started to give me a different image, that he is elegant and gentle. In 2012, I had a two-hour conversation with him. What impressed me up to now was when he said "huo lu" several times in Chinese, meaning the way of living together. He thought it was the biggest challenge that China and the US would face in the future. This sentence has become a prophecy, and a dilemma that China and the US have to deal with in their competition.

From the US' perspective, China's development is ambitious and aggressive, directly threatening the US' global leadership. From China's point of view, the US constantly provokes China, deprives its basic development rights, and curbs the rejuvenation of the nation. The world is worried that the relationship between the two countries seems to be one step away from the state of "life and death." The "Paal Dilemma" seems to have emerged. Is it possible that only one of the two countries can survive at last?

Now there are four realities China and the US must face. 

First, neither China nor the US can contain one another's self-evolution. There is no way for the US to curb China's development. China should also pay attention to US anxiety.

Second, what Trump left are negative assets. If the two countries want to move forward, they must discard Trump's legacy. After US President Joe Biden assumed office, he called most leaders of the G20 countries, but not China. This is probably because of Trump's poisonous influence. Trump should not become the obstacle for bilateral ties.

Third, if China and the US continue to battle each other ferociously, the two and the rest of the world will suffer. In the past four years, no country in the world has chosen either Washington or Beijing. This fully demonstrates that the international community hopes for normalized development with China-US relations. Also, John Kerry's role as US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate is very important so the two countries can address climate change to benefit humanity.

Fourth, both China and the US have strengths that each can learn from. For China, the technological innovation and financial development of the US are worth learning from. For the US, China's policy of "targeted poverty alleviation" and infrastructure development hold many valuable lessons.

In the US, the disparity between the rich and the poor is increasing, society is becoming more divided, and racial conflicts as well as partisan rivalry are also intensifying. The Biden administration needs to do its utmost to solve its domestic problems, and suppressing China will not help solve the US' problems. 

China is facing problems too, such as the gap between the rich and the poor, north and south disparity, and urban and rural uneven growth. Regarding these, China still needs to consider anti-crisis measures, anti-pollution policies, anti-poverty campaigns, and anti-corruption drives as its main development tasks. Fighting with the US will not help China's development in any way.

After Biden assumed office, some think tank scholars I know have joined the US government. In bilateral dialogues among young scholars from China and the US over the years, I have witnessed their wisdom, vitality and academic skills. However, it will take some time to see whether or not they will inherit the manner of American scholars of the last generation, turning US views toward China back on a rational track. 

The last time I met Paal was in January 2019. He lamented that he and a number of China hands like him were aging, and that future China-US ties will depend on the younger generation. I think the next generation of think tanks must have the ability and wisdom to offer reasonable advice to policymakers, so as to fulfill the missions of helping the two countries escape Paal's forecasted dilemma.

The author is professor and executive dean of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China. wangwen2013@ruc.edu.cn
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