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Considering the future of US-China diplomacy [excerpt]

Since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Sino-US relations have overcome an intense impasse, adopting a much more intricate relationship driven by interdependent economies constant competition.

The following excerpt from The Third Revolution, Elizabeth C. Economy of the Council on Foreign Relations identifies ways that the United States and China might improve their diplomatic relationship.

There are many examples of successful US diplomatic efforts with China that have yielded important benefits globally. With US lead­ership, the two countries found common ground in advancing global cooperation on climate change, arresting the spread of Ebola, and preventing the development of nuclear weapons in Iran. Such coopera­tion is inevitably hard won. However, Xi Jinping’s ambition for China to assume a position of leadership in a globalized world has the potential to provide the United States with greater leverage in encouraging China to do more on the global stage.

Two areas of pressing importance where both countries could exert significant leadership and bolster their bilateral relationship are the global refugee crisis and the North Korean nuclear threat. Although the United States itself is less a leader in responding to refugee crises than previously— now seeking to limit the number of refugees it accepts— it continues to provide significant financial support globally for refugee support and relocation. China, however, has remained largely silent as millions flee conflict in the Middle East. Even more inexplicably, it has only reluctantly stepped up to help address the refugee crisis in its own backyard: the more than 650,000 Rohingya fleeing violence in Myanmar and seeking refuge in Bangladesh. It has limited its support to an offer to facilitate a bilateral dialogue between Bangladesh and Myanmar and a cautionary statement that the crisis should not slow down progress on the Bangladesh- China- India- Myanmar economic corridor—part of Beijing’s BRI. The United States, which has pledged tens of millions of dollars in aid for the refugees, threatened sanctions, and called for an investigation into the atrocities, should call on China as a regional and global power to do more.

The two countries found common ground in advancing global cooperation on climate change, arresting the spread of Ebola, and preventing the development of nuclear weapons in Iran.

Much as it did in the case of the Ebola epidemic, the United States should quietly draw attention to Beijing’s limited response, press it to provide financial as well as other assistance, and encourage it to use its extensive economic leverage in Myanmar to help bring a halt to the violence. Moreover, a coordinated response by the United States and China to provide assistance for the Rohingya’s safe passage back to Myanmar, assurances of citizenship, or resettlement elsewhere would send an important signal to Myanmar to resolve the crisis. As transpired in the case of climate change, it could also mark a first step in a broader international effort to address the global refugee crisis.

Cooperation between the United States and China is also essential in meeting the challenge of North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program. Both countries have devoted significant attention to the issue and agree on the objective of denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula, but options are limited. The Trump administration has per­suaded China to adopt increasingly tough trade and other sanctions on North Korea, but the sanctions have yet to bring North Korea to the negotiating table. A preemptive military strike on North Korea would engender retaliation and devastating human and economic losses in South Korea, along with the potential to draw both the United States and China into military conflict. Simply allowing North Korea to con­tinue on its current path directly endangers the security of the United States. And China’s double freeze proposal— in which the United States and South Korea freeze their military exercises in exchange for North Korea freezing its development and testing program— failed to engage the relevant parties.

Nonetheless, a combination of diplomacy and sanctions led by the United States and China remains the most viable path forward. Full enforcement of current sanctions by China is a first and necessary step. For its part, the United States should commit in earnest to a variant of China’s “freeze for freeze” proposal, agreeing to some “modest ad­justment to conventional military exercises” while the parameters and sequencing of a potential agreement are determined. The United States and China could also take a page from their own history of diplomatic opening and use sports or culture to open the door to North Korea. There is no clear path forward, but setting the stage for more formal negotiations would be a first step.

As China’s ambition and footprint expand, the need for technical cooperation will grow.

Most US‒China diplomatic engagement operates not at the level of grand bargains to address global challenges, but at the more mundane level of technical cooperation around the big issues of global govern­ance. The United States and China cooperate on a wide range of issues, including drug trafficking, cybercrimes and the dark web, counter-ter­rorism, and clean energy, among others. While these cooperative efforts do not often make headlines, they begin to build an institutional infrastructure for cooperation. And as one US state department official mentioned to me, “when you take politics out of the equation, cooper­ation can be quite good.”

As China’s ambition and footprint expand, the need for technical cooperation will grow. Future areas could include developing rules for limiting space debris or marine pollution in the Arctic, both of which are building blocks in a much larger area of potential conflict in global governance between the United States and China. Another issue of particular importance is coordinating standards for development finance. Working with Chinese development banks to ensure Chinese companies adopt best practices in the environment, re­garding labor, and in transparency as they advance the BRI is essential to preserving the competitiveness of American companies. The United States could further its economic interests in this regard by joining the AIIB.

While advancing US interests through diplomatic engagement with China represents the ideal in the Sino-American relationship, the often differing values, priorities, and policies of the two countries necessitates that the United States also maintains a range of alternatives in its toolbox. Partnering with allies and others in Asia, Europe, and else­where is an important element of US policy toward China. President Trump’s call for greater burden sharing does not need to be understood as a retreat by the United States from global leadership, but rather as an opportunity for other regional powers to assume a greater role in addressing shared challenges.

Featured image credit: President Trump’s Trip to Asia by The White House / Shealah Craighead. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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