In a world haunted by the specter of nuclear war, needlessly aggressive competition among nations could lead to an apocalyptic catastrophe. Yet, from January 1st to August 30th of 2022, 92 “close encounters” occurred between the military forces of the United States and China, both heavily armed nuclear powers. What is driving this conflict and how can we de-escalate it?
Taiwan is of paramount importance. The U.S. government’s “one China” policy is based on the idea that there is only one China, and its Shanghai Comuniqué of 1972 formalized its acknowledgement of People’s Republic of China leadership. Subsequent statements solidified the U.S. commitment to respecting China’s “territorial integrity.”
Even so, through its “Six Assurances,” the U.S. government made concurrent, contradictory commitments in support of Taiwanese sovereignty and self-governance. And, in recent years, its stance on the subject has become markedly pro-Taiwan. The U.S. government has made large arms sales to Taiwan, the U.S. military has stepped up its patrols of the Taiwan Strait, and top U.S. politicians like Nancy Pelosi have begun visiting Taiwan. Pelosi’s Taiwan visit prompted China’s Foreign Ministry to cancel three valuable avenues of dialogue between the US and Chinese militaries.
Intense economic and technological competition and allegations of economic coercion are also pivotal issues, while polarizing posturing in both countries has further widened the divide. The recent closure of Confucius Institutes in the United States, despite any clear evidence of Chinese Communist Party propaganda and indoctrination, attests to growing American distrust of China. Anti-China sentiment has also assumed a racist undertone, with one U.S. op-ed warning of the ubiquity of Chinese Communist Party “termites.” Conversely, the intensification of Chinese nationalism has fomented anti-American sentiment in China.
To ease U.S.-China tensions, we should discern the core factors escalating tensions. According to Professor Stephen M. Walt of Harvard, the root cause is not each country’s political system or leadership style, but a zero-sum mentality about the global distribution of power. According to this zero-sum way of thinking, the more global and regional power China enjoys, the less powerful and secure the United States is.
A more productive approach would be to look for areas in which the United States and China could cooperate.
Climate change is clearly a major issue on which the United States and China can and should work together. Both countries should collaborate to jointly develop green technologies and promote compliance with international agreements like the Paris Accords. Another possibility for collaboration has been suggested by Zhou Bo, a top retired Chinese military officer and a senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University, who has promoted joint U.S.-China UN peacekeeping operations in Africa to strengthen ties between the two countries. Furthermore, the denuclearization of North Korea is a key project that might generate consensus between the two nations.
U.S.-China relations can also be improved by enhancing economic interdependence. The current calls to decouple the U.S. economy from China’s are not only economically unwise, but would greatly hamper both countries’ capacity to address global threats like climate change. Yoichi Funabashi, a prominent Japanese journalist and foreign policy scholar, advocates for a new Trans-Pacific Partnership that includes China and the United States. Such an agreement could enhance peace in the Indo Pacific by improving U.S.-China economic relations and enabling middle powers like Japan to assume a more active political role in the region. Greater economic interdependence would help guard against military escalation in East Asia.
In addition, the United States and China could enhance cultural connections by reopening Confucius Institutes in the United States, investing in organizations that promote intercultural dialogue like the Asia Society, the U.S.-China Cultural Institute, and the United States Heartland China Association, and increasing the number of Chinese and American students studying abroad. The Asia Society, for example, has organized a “Story Circle” program to foster intercultural dialogue between American and Chinese students. Strengthening interstate cultural ties would not only ease U.S.-China tensions, but would greatly benefit the United States by enabling American journalists to better educate the Chinese public about the United States and by retaining talented Chinese professionals working in the United States.
Moreover, reforming international institutions like the United Nations and strengthening global governance could provide crucial steps toward improving US-China relations.
For example, the UN Security Council consists of five permanent members that have veto power and make all the decisions, including Russia, China, and the United States. Unfortunately, this makes the Security Council ground zero for great power rivalry. By increasing the number of permanent members in the UN Security Council and eliminating the veto, the UN could strengthen the legitimacy of the Security Council and enhance its ability to address regional conflicts, including great power competition. New forms of global governance could also dampen US-China tensions, such as a “United Federation of Nations” promoted by world federalist organizations like Citizens for Global Solutions.
A final reform is placing conflict resolution front and center in U.S.-China diplomacy. The UN Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs’ Standby Team of Mediation Experts could increase its involvement in mediating between the United States and China. Furthermore, coalitions of middle powers like the EU and ASEAN could cooperate to foster internal unity among their member states, strengthen multilateral institutions in East Asia, and demand peaceful U.S.-China relations in the Indo Pacific. Involving civil society and non-governmental organizations in U.S.-China relations is crucial, as this could de-escalate interstate tensions by challenging polarizing rhetoric.
The world is tending toward isolationism as populist politicians repudiate multilateral organizations in favor of stronger national sovereignty. Yet, to avoid the destruction of our global commons―either through a quick nuclear catastrophe or the slow violence of environmental devastation and inequality―we must not simply counter this troubling trend. We must pluck up the courage to create a world radically reimagined and rewired through compassion and cooperation, fundamentally reflective of our truest selves.