When I speak with foreign policy experts in Washington, DC, and elsewhere, the conversation inevitably turns to America’s relationship with China. And this isn’t just a concern for the elites: the question of how to manage the relationship is on the minds of ordinary citizens.
It should be. Our relationship with China is the most important binational relationship in the world, and it has become vexed and increasingly confrontational. We are in a kind of tit-for-tat, escalating pattern of attacks over tariffs and currency.
The rise of China, of course, is one of the defining developments of the first part of the 21st century. China’s growth has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and made the country a global economic power.
An aggressive and authoritarian China now plays a large role in the world militarily, economically, politically, and diplomatically. It seeks to dominate the region and influence the world.
China’s rise has made some of its neighbors uneasy, if not alarmed. In this country, influential figures argue that China is an existential threat to America. In rhetoric that recalls the Cold War, they argue the Chinese Communist Party must be overthrown.
Our systems are very different and even at odds, but I do not think China insists or expects that the United States, or the world, will follow its model. It is not a dominant military power, and is not likely to become one. Our relationship with China swings between cooperation and confrontation, engagement and disengagement. There are thousands of daily interactions, many of them economic, between the two countries.
How can we improve the relationship, or at least stop the deterioration? The best American response to China is to work with our partners to create a more open, free and prosperous world order, one based on our shared values, and in which China is welcome to participate — and to continue pressing China to develop as a more humane and tolerant society, respectful of its citizens and neighbors.
To work effectively, this relationship needs more transparency, interactions, and dialogue. We should not be naive about China’s intentions and actions. Our interests and actions often clash — and will continue to do so.
We should welcome its scholars, researchers and visitors, including the more than 360,000 Chinese students who study in the United States. We should not try to lead an anti-China coalition. Instead, we need to work closely with our allies, especially Japan and South Korea, to develop and implement clear strategies based on our fundamental values and interests, and prepare to manage the long term relationship.
Importantly, our foreign policy should not hurt ordinary Chinese people. Our response to China’s aggressive behavior and human rights abuses should be targeted on Communist Party leadership.
My contacts with China’s leaders over the years persuade me that many influential Chinese want a pragmatic and cooperative relationship with the United States. We should welcome that approach and try to strengthen the role of those leaders.
Each country must accept and be prepared to live with the other. Our expectations about China must be realistic. We are not going to stop its economic growth, or prevent it from increasing its influence. Nor are we going to bring about transformative change in its political and economic systems. It will continue to be a formidable competitor, and we should embrace that competition with resolve and confidence. Our progress in dealing with climate change, economic crises, nuclear proliferation — and a host of other problems will depend on our joint efforts.
This is one relationship we had better get right. The world is watching.
By Lee H. Hamilton