Finding Common Ground with China

“It seems clear to me we need to establish some common-sense guardrails,” President Biden told President Xi Jinping in their November 16 virtual summit. Xi reportedly replied to his “old friend” with a metaphor about boats finding their way together through rough waters.

This meeting of the two leaders was only the third time they have communicated directly; the other two were telephone calls. Nor was it the usual summit: no preliminary fanfare, no final communique, no evident agreements on the numerous contentious issues in US-China relations. Yet it was an important event.

In the midst of all the wrangling between the US and China about human rights, trade, Taiwan, and a host of other issues, a central concern both countries share is how to manage the relationship. What is the most effective structure for ensuring that conflict over issues doesn’t spill over into actual military conflict?

In the Obama era, the answer was numerous US-China dialogue groups focused on specific issues. Under Trump, these were largely abandoned, without sustained diplomacy to replace them. Biden has not restored the dialogue groups. His national security team is made up of people who believe that engagement with China has not produced many results.

Consequently, we don’t have a structured way to address not only old problems with China that are intensifying, such as over Taiwan and trade, but also new problems, such as on nuclear weapons.

Biden’s comment about establishing “common-sense guardrails” is self-evidently correct, as is Xi’s opening comment that the two countries need a “sound and steady” relationship. But how to structure relations remains the burning question.

I submit that the way forward is to make engagement with China a US strategic objective. The reason is simple: China is one of the two most important challenges for US national security, the other being the climate crisis. And engaging China is in the national interest.

Advantages for the United States include avoidance of dangerous confrontations and decreased likelihood of misperceptions and miscommunications; recruitment of scientific talent from China; reduction of tariff barriers that result in lower costs to consumers and increased competitiveness for trading firms; opportunities to reduce military spending from force reductions in Asia and avoidance of an arms race; more opportunities for people-to-people exchanges; participation in each other’s trade networks and a variety of other multilateral fora; promotion of public health research and climate change mitigation; wider cooperation in UN peacekeeping operations and other programs; opportunities for nuclear weapon reductions; a greatly improved security climate across Asia; and cooperative efforts on aid to developing countries. Most of these US advantages are also positives for global security.

One has to ask: Are US national security objectives served by not engaging China? Does forming a coalition of states to confront China on its human rights violations or its militarization of the South China Sea islands induce changes in Chinese policy? Do high tariffs on Chinese exports change their trade policies? Does upgrading relations with Taiwan actually add to its defense?

To be clear, naming and shaming China’s repression of human rights, refusing to abide by its unilateral takeover of some South China Sea islands, seeking to reduce the trade deficit with China, and maintaining “strategic ambiguity” on defense of Taiwan if attacked are all appropriate policies. But these aims are not served, and in fact are undermined, by pressure tactics. The Chinese will respond with pressure of their own, with the predictable result that tensions will rise even more.

Some high-level Chinese commentaries suggest that engagement would be welcome in Beijing. The Chinese foreign ministry, in its response to the Biden-Xi meeting, had this to say: “The key is that both sides should meet each other halfway and use actions to create a good atmosphere to ensure that the meeting achieves positive results. . . . China is open to all options that are conducive to the development of Sino-US relations.”

Notably, that statement was from the ministry’s so-called “wolf warrior,” Zhao Lijian, who is usually associated with vitriolic comments on US policies. I suspect that he and the ministry were told to reflect Xi’s position on striving for “coexistence” and “win-win” solutions.

And China’s veteran America watcher, Wang Jisi, a longtime proponent of US-China engagement, offers the opinion that the best hope for resolving US-China differences is to address their different “mindsets.” He writes:

“Whereas the Chinese insist on identifying principles, the Americans want action on immediate issues. The Chinese believe in first ‘finding common ground while reserving differences,’ which means agreement on a set of principles, including mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”

Bridging the US-China divide is a huge challenge, but Professor Wang’s advice offers a starting point: finding common ground. The climate crisis is surely just such an opportunity, and one that would “create a good atmosphere” for further progress in reducing tensions and building trust.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.