Re-thinking U.S.-China Relations

U.S. President Barack Obama, left,  and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands following the conclusion of their joint news
U.S. President Barack Obama, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands following the conclusion of their joint news conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

It does not reflect well on a supposedly civilized nation to hear contenders competing to lead it gratuitously demean the head of another civilized society -- especially one that is 4,000 years older, and which has arguably fed more of its people for a longer period of time than any other civilization.

By their intemperate comments on the forthcoming state visit of President Xi Jinping, the likes of Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Donald Trump have provided evidence that they are ill-suited to lead the United States through the numerous problems and pitfalls confronting the shrinking global village the world is rapidly becoming.

Many members of the electorate may have difficulty appreciating the magnitude of the wrong-headedness as well as rudeness of the remarks of these presidential contenders because of the one-sidedness of virtually all of the "reporting" on China, treating it as almost on a par with North Korea. As his official visit draws nigh, President Xi's demonization at the hands of the media -- and many members of Congress along with presidential candidates -- will make it difficult for the Obama administration to assume anything other than a more or less confrontational approach to U.S.-China relations.

But brinksmanship with China on almost any score is even more irrational than with Iran for promoting legitimate U.S. interests, and potentially far more dangerous for worldwide political and economic stability. In the first place, confrontation will almost surely not be effective. China will not be bullied. On the other hand, the U.S. has a far greater capacity to influence the country positively than negatively, suggesting strongly that cooperation rather than confrontation -- or even competition -- would be in the best economic, military, social and environmental interests of both nations.

And probably in the best interests of the world as well. Increased tensions and mutual distrust between the U.S. and China instead of close cooperation will eliminate what may well be the best option for developing measures to halt the slide into economic, social and political chaos that is currently underway over much of the globe -- war, immigration, drought, refugees, financial crises , inter- and intra- national inequality, failed states, increasing environmental degradation -- which neither the U. N., World Bank, European Union, NATO, IMF or any other international institution, singly or in tandem, seem capable of dealing with any longer on their own.

Cooperation must be based on trust in order to be effective. And because the United States is still the biggest kid on the block, we must take the initiative in quieting the China-bashing rhetoric to begin the transition to a trusting and genuinely cooperative relationship.

Here are a few steps the Obama administration might easily take to begin building that trust without compromising our security or economic conditions:

First, bracket considerations of democracy and individual rights for the immediate future, and instead deepen the discussion and commitments initiated last autumn on climate change; that was a good beginning, but much, much more needs to be done to salvage our environments, and it needs to be done soon. The U.S. and China are the world's greatest polluters. Hammering the Chinese on individual rights at this time, on the other hand, will not do anything but annoy them, especially when we totally ignore their insistence on providing social rights to their citizens, which the number of "zombie factories" in China show they still take seriously.

More conversations on democracy can also wait until 1) the U.S. has a better understanding of the difficulties of implementing it at any level above the village (where it is in place), and can perhaps later provide assistance in realizing it; and 2) such conversations are not selective, as is presently the case (e.g., with China, but not Saudi Arabia) justifying China's cynicism about the true purpose behind our supposed altruism.

There is much else the Obama administration can initiate during President Xi's visit. It can also offer to sponsor China's becoming a major player in the IMF and promise to support the inclusion of the renminbi for drawing rights instead of obstructing it at the next round. This will not only assist the Chinese in their current efforts to move to more domestic consumption and foreign investment, it would be healthy for the American export economy and stock market as well. In exchange, we should oblige China to play a larger role in IMF affairs, which can strengthen measurably the IMF's ability to better regulate the increasingly unstable world of international finance, and perhaps cooperate more closely with its newer, China-sponsored Asian counterpart.

Turning to security issues, the U.S. should acknowledge China's legitimate security concerns in the South China Sea just as we claim for ourselves in the Caribbean; and then it should finally ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty, as Chia and 165 other nations did many years ago, after which in conjunction with discussions of issues of species extinctions, pollution and overfishing now rampant in our oceans, convene an international gathering of maritime nations to revisit and revise maritime law as needed, including land claims.

Relatedly with respect to the sea, we should explore the joint creation of an international naval patrol force on the model of the "1000 ship navy" first proposed by the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen. All maritime nations would contribute ships to this navy, under US command tactically. This navy's tasks would be to check terrorism on the high seas, smuggling and piracy, and provide humanitarian aid worldwide in catastrophic conditions, as Mullen envisaged it. Thus China -- the world's largest importer of oil -- could be reassured of the openness of the South China Sea without having to build a blue-ocean navy it otherwise does not need, and can ill afford when all costs are taken into account.

President Obama might also urge once more that China sanction North Korea, without which other sanctions are of only limited effectiveness. But while China has certainly been sorely tried in recent years by its neighbor, it is understandably reluctant to cease supporting it. To overcome this reluctance Obama should promise that when/if the north and south reunite the U.S. will not station any troops nor place any nuclear weapons in the North. In the same way, in exchange for China's disavowal of the use of force against Taiwan the U.S. can promise to halt all arms sales to it.

Note that none of these initiatives cost very much, and jeopardize our security not at all. The rewards for these and similar initiatives are potentially great, but will not be achieved either by appeasement or threat, or with the immediate self-interest of either of the parties uppermost in mind. Most important problems now have global dimensions, and consequently the two greatest economic powers must work cooperatively and not competitively for the global whole.

Only joint negotiations can address these problems and that requires trust, not demonization. After trust is slowly achieved other, more intractable problems might be negotiated, such as greater economic integration, Tibet, a strengthened United Nations, cybersecurity, and disarmament.

Would the Chinese go along with the initiatives suggested here? We'll never know unless we try. If just one or two of these topics were put forward during President Xi's visit later this month, it would begin building more trust between the two countries, which is currently in very short supply. And trust is needed on a large and lasting scale if the world is to have any real chance at being a peaceful one in the future.

As cooperation deepens, the conversations might deepen as well, going beyond the geopolitical to become a genuine dialogue between civilizations -- individual rights and social rights, democracy and meritocracy, security and liberty; the right and the good, divinity and a human-centered religiousness, and more. Both sides might well learn much from the other, as civilized societies should.

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