Can Washington transcend cold war narrative and avoid ‘decoupling’ with China?
Published: Jan 15, 2024 10:17 PM
Photo: IC?

Photo: IC

There was no official relationship between the US and China until the Nixon-Kissinger visits in the early 1970s. Then the really huge change took place in 2001 when the US supported China coming into the World Trade Organization. From that point on, the relationship was very much a win-win. 

Trade exploded between the US and China. China obviously leveraging its low-cost labor was the beneficiary of a huge increase in its export trade. The US was also a winner because it was able to stock its shelves with goods of high quality at a much lower cost from China which enabled the US to keep inflation down.

Some people would point to the job implications, as this led to a shift of jobs from the US to China. But we can always go back and debate whether the job sacrifice of the US side was compensated by the impact of holding down inflation. In a nutshell, the first era was a positive one. 

When it came to Era Two, which was under Trump's leadership, what happened was that he totally misread the realities of COVID-19 and dismissed it as a common flu that would ultimately go away. He wanted to divert attention away from this misreading and so he decided to basically make China the public enemy No.1.

The pandemic became a politicized issue. Both the Republicans and the Democrats adopted it, and the media reinforced it. There was virtually no communication during that period. 

What ultimately happened was cooler heads prevailed. It became clear to both the Chinese leaders and the US leaders that constantly attacking the other side, as opposed to getting dialogues going and looking for common ground, was not the right answer.

So we had the visits of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen to China. We had the summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden. Out of that came some very constructive initiatives. 

One was a commitment to look at opportunities to improve communications on both sides and create win-wins. It's still in the early stages of the third era. But the rhetoric has been very constructive. 

If you go back to the end of the second era under Trump, there was a lot of discussion about economic "decoupling." I think both sides discovered the same thing - the inner links between China and the US on trade and many other dimensions are far too extensive and far too important for "decoupling" to ever be practical.

I think one of the main lessons learned is that the US just has a very poor understanding of who China is and how it became who it is, and therefore it's very difficult to negotiate and develop a longer-term relationship. Then finally, there was very little personal interaction between the two countries, which was largely a US issue. 

If you look at the student population from China going to the US, in its heyday there were 300,000 to 400,000 students a year. The number of US students going to China was around 15,000 several years ago and is today down to less than 350 per year. When you have a complete lack of communication, it's very difficult to get to know the other side well enough to feel comfortable and be able to create a win-win situation. 

Looking forward, more people-to-people exchanges would make the most sense. We're already starting to see it with leaders of government, such as the military. 

We need a lot more on the business side. The people in the US who deeply understand China are the business people who have been doing business in China for a long period of time.

The China-US relationship has gone through these three phases. It's at a more positive phase than it's been in the past, there's much more appreciation and there are many win-wins to be had. Hopefully, we're going to see real progress, which will benefit both sides.

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