Center for American Progress

What Joins the United States and China and What Divides Them?

What Joins the United States and China and What Divides Them?

Although the United States and China must work to resolve their differences, they can take steps to improve the lives of their citizens in the meantime.

President Barack Obama walks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Annenberg Retreat in California. (AP/Evan Vucci)
President Barack Obama walks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Annenberg Retreat in California. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Next week, President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet on the sidelines of the third Nuclear Security Summit in the Netherlands. The summit will highlight an issue on which the United States and China have cooperated to a degree in the past: nuclear proliferation. But the bilateral meeting will also cover more touchy subjects, including the current crisis in Ukraine, cyber theft, and regional territorial disputes. Such is the ever-dual nature of U.S.-China relations in the modern era.

When remembering that the United States and China are huge, complex nations with dramatically different histories, geographies, cultures, and political systems, it is amazing that they cooperate as well and as often as they do. Every day behind the scenes, America and China act on the inescapable truth that their challenges, opportunities, and destinies are intertwined in the small world they share. Along with other nations, their navies coordinate to battle pirates; their coast guards cooperate to police illegal fishing in the North Pacific; together, their diplomats negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program; their customs officials work to detect radiation in cargo containers in ports; their doctors monitor pandemics; their finance officials develop rules on tax havens; and their scientists jointly pursue renewable energy technologies. Many policymakers see the cooperation glass as half empty, but it is also half full.

The United States and China cooperate at the working level despite the fact that long-standing and seemingly intractable differences divide them. In the new book Debating China: the U.S.-China Relationship in Ten Conversations, I paired renowned American and Chinese policy experts and asked them to write letters back and forth to each other about key issues in the relationship, including these very difficult ones. As I reviewed the essays, I was struck by the collegiality between the pairs of authors and their fervent desire for a constructive relationship. But it was also clear that, as former Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg observes in the conclusion, “uncertainties and anxieties about the underlying motives and strategies of the two protagonists [are] a common thread running through the volume.”

In the chapter on climate, development in third countries, and, to some degree, economics, the authors shared some fundamental assumptions and goals, which allowed them to push past their concerns to discuss policy options. Kelly Sims Gallagher, a professor at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, and Qi Ye, director of the Climate Policy Institute at Tsinghua University, endorse expanding joint research into energy efficient technologies, while Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, and Zha Daojiong, a professor at Peking University, explore several ways the United States and China could coordinate better over projects in developing countries. Barry Naughton, a professor at the University of California at San Diego, and Yao Yang, a dean at Peking University, agree on the need for certain reforms of the Chinese economy, if not on currency.

But in other exchanges—including those on human rights, Taiwan, and regional security—the conversations did not move much past the authors’ different frameworks. Zhou Qi at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Andrew Nathan of Columbia University take wildly different approaches to human rights and political systems; this is not surprising, given the vastly different political systems and values in America and China. Zhou describes the role of human rights and democracy promotion in U.S. foreign policy, points out U.S. hypocrisy, and outlines in broad terms how the Chinese conception of rights differs from that of the West, as it is based more on individual duties than rights and freedoms.

Nathan, for his part, names specific dissidents wronged by the Chinese system and points out that, “International human rights law calls for political freedom and accountable government. These are not controversial values in China. … Chinese leaders have endorsed them, and Chinese people seek them.” Zhou then states that the assignment was not to criticize the other’s human rights records and refuses to engage in the tit for tat that Nathan views as constructive. Finally, Nathan observes that he and Zhou disagree on “how to define the issue itself upon which we disagree.” This conversation will not get easier any time soon: Beijing’s renewed crackdown on dissent continues, and media reports suggest that Western values are among the dire threats that China’s new National Security Council is charged with addressing.

Differences also eclipse common ground on Taiwanese policy. Because Taipei’s current leadership is on board with a stabilizing approach to cross-Strait relations, tensions are lower than they have been in decades. But Jia Qingguo of Peking University and the Stimpson Center’s Alan Romberg show that this calm is not attributable to harmony in national interests or in underlying perspectives on the political status of this island. Jia names Taiwan as “the most important and sensitive” issue in Sino-American relations and argues that America wants to keep Taiwan politically separate from the mainland. Romberg disagrees vehemently, citing America’s longstanding “One China” policy and stating that the U.S. interest is in promoting peace and stability and discouraging provocation by either side. Taiwan’s status is so important to Beijing—a matter of fundamental sovereignty, in fact—that Jia equates it to Texas or Hawaii and asks Romberg how Americans would feel if China claimed it did not want to abandon the citizens there to Washington.

Military relations are similarly conflicted, and it is not hard to understand why. Military professionals in both countries take the other country to be a potential adversary when planning future scenarios. Whether over Taiwan or another contingency, a Sino-American confrontation, while disastrous, is certainly—and unfortunately—imaginable.

Christopher Twomey, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, worries about self-perpetuating spirals that are pushing both countries to arm themselves. America responds to a new Chinese weapon system or concept with a new military concept that then prompts a Chinese response. Senior Colonel Xu Hui at China’s National Defense University does not think this is a problem of self-perpetuating cycles and instead blames “hostile U.S. intentions.” He states that “the main obstacle in the constructive development of Sino-American military relations is not so-called ‘spirals’ but American security conceptions and strategic intentions toward China.” He offers a constructivist argument: In assuming that the United States and China are adversaries, Twomey is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. At the same time, Xu explains that many Chinese analysts believe that the United States’ rebalance to Asia was designed “to contain China’s rise.” Twomey cites evidence of large-scale, Chinese government-sponsored cyber attacks and points out how dangerous these activities are in a realm where “red lines are unclear.” Xu claims that determining the origin of such attacks is not technologically feasible, and, in turn, Twomey cites voluminous evidence to the contrary, including a number of independent reports that link attacks to the People’s Liberation Army.

Even on the issue of North Korea, which has been a locus of U.S.-China cooperation in the past, Mike Green of CSIS observes that he and Wu Xinbo, a dean at Fudan University, are “talking past each other.” China and America both want a nonnuclear peninsula and stability, but tactics differ on how to achieve both goals. Green asserts that, “The North Koreans will not let us buy stability, no matter how much China is willing to pay; they will only rent it and then charge a higher price later when their capacity to threaten us increases.” Wu responds that the Chinese approach will work better in the long term; like Chinese medicine, it will treat the cause of the disease—in this case, North Korea’s security concerns.

Where interests, assumptions, and goals differ on these issues, another author, Wang Shuo, managing editor at Caixin Media, sums it up best when he writes, “Better mutual understanding solves problems caused by misunderstandings, but not problems that have nothing to do with misunderstandings.”

We are thus left with this fundamental question: How far can the United States and China push cooperation when they remain opposed and distrustful on deeply important issues? Cooperating in the face of suspicion and differences is frustrating and hard, but choosing not to cooperate is far worse. The only solution is to keep trying. As I wrote in my own exchange with Yuan Peng, vice president of the China Institutes of International Studies, if China and the United States wait for resolutions to their major differences to work together, the problems that plague them both will grow. Global warming, crime, disease, nuclear proliferation, and poverty will only get worse without Sino-American cooperation and the positive involvement of many other nations.

Building up a matrix of international rules and effective organizations through which the United States, China, and others can cooperate—if only, as Yuan puts it, “case by case” and “step by step”—is the best approach to take. What is “new” in the “new model of major power relations,” the latest framework for the U.S.-China relationship, is the web of international rules and institutions that channel rivalry, bound disputes, and promote cooperation. While the United States and China work to resolve their differences, they can still take steps forward to improve lives on both sides of the Pacific.

Nina Hachigian is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Nina Hachigian

Senior Fellow