The beginning of a shift toward more win-wins
Published: Nov 20, 2023 07:45 PM
Illustration: Xia Qing/GT

Illustration: Xia Qing/GT

The China-US relationship was, in my view, relatively positive until COVID-19 hit the US and former president Donald Trump made a tactical decision to pivot away from his poor handling of COVID-19 and distract everybody by focusing on China as the "enemy." 

Shortly after he went down that road, predictably the whole relationship between China and the US deteriorated pretty dramatically. It got to the point where we went through a number of years during COVID-19 where there was almost no personal interaction at senior levels between the leaders of China and the US. 

But when you think about the style of communicating, there are a couple of main differences between China and the US. The Chinese tend to be very subtle and indirect communicators. The Americans tend to be more in-your-face and very direct.

The second, and the most fundamental, difference is that communications in China, from a government perspective, are largely managed top-down. So the messages get crafted, syndicated, and then communicated by many people in a very consistent way. Communication in the US is very much bottom-up. Anybody can speak their mind regardless of however qualified. And that applies not just to communication, but also to taking action.

The meeting between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping during the APEC meeting is regarded, at this point, as a huge success. Prior to the meeting, expectations were low. But if you look at what's happened so far, I think the good news is that both Xi and Biden were saying roughly the same thing. They were saying that the conversation has been both constructive and candid and is laying the groundwork for a lot more communication to come. Apart from that, there were also a couple of very tangible things that came out of the Xi-Biden meeting.

For example, it is widely known that fentanyl has been an enormous problem in the US, and the number of deaths each year due to fentanyl overdose is extremely high, approaching 80,000. And it has been communicated that China has made a commitment to dial back quite a bit the volumes of fentanyl materials that are ultimately getting shipped to North America through Mexico. 

The second one was the concern on both sides about the lack of close military-to-military communications. Whether it's planes that are in the same space or boats that are basically within collision range of each other, China and the US need to have a system where both sides can talk to each other to cool things down and basically defuse the situation. I think real progress had been made and an agreement was reached which is an important step forward for both countries.

Both Xi and Biden understand that the popular phrase of "decoupling" was just totally unrealistic, because the interplay and interdependencies between the US and China economically, whether in terms of trade or supply chain, are too deep, too strong and not really replaceable. Both countries started with the idea that there has to be an opportunity to find win-wins in the non-sensitive areas that can help both countries' economy. That was a very important start to create the right mind-set to find opportunities for a win-win.

In order for the two countries to maintain momentum going forward, I think there are a couple of things that are important. One is the rhetoric on both sides has to remain constructive and positive. And it needs to be taking up more time and attention. So you need to be able to counterbalance that with positive messages and results. Thus, in these two areas of fentanyl and military interaction, both sides need to be able to point to real solid agreements and progress that people find credible.

The other thing that's starting to open up is the recognition that an area ripe for this kind of dialogue is climate control. Obviously, both countries are ultimately impacted by what the rest of the world does in this space, and the rest of the world is looking for China and the US to take the lead. So it's important that we see some real progress on that side as well.

The meeting between Xi and Biden is a great start. We're going to look back on it in another three to six months and say that was the beginning of a shift in the tone of the dialogue, toward win-wins and away from the negativity that has dominated the airwaves so far.

The author is a speaker on China-US relations and author of the book Powerful, Different, Equal: Overcoming the misconceptions and differences between China and the US. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn