China and the United States: The Endgame?

News | February 07, 2019

As a decidedly competitive relationship between the United States and China continues to complicate geopolitics across the Asia-Pacific, the EastWest Institute convened a comprehensive discussion to promote innovative solutions in charting a new course toward greater cooperation between the two nations.

Held at its New York headquarters on January 29, 2019, the roundtable was the final in a series of three U.S.-China strategic seminars. 35 high-level U.S. and Chinese policymaking influencers representing a wide array of constituencies provided the much-needed exchange of ideas and opinions.

Admiral William A. Owens, former vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and co-founder and executive chairman of the Red Bison Advisory Group, joined Ambassador Cameron Munter, EWI’s president and chief executive officer, to chair an exploration of challenges and opportunities emerging from the current trajectory of U.S.-China security and economic tensions.

Discussion ensued relating to 11 proposed areas on which the United States and China ought to engage in reaching agreements for maximizing opportunities for the betterment of U.S.-China relations:

  1. To institutionalize a formal channel of communication on Asia-Pacific security concerns, the United States and China should co-sponsor a Northeast Asia consultative organization for security—analogous to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)—that would involve Japan, South Korea, China, Russia and the United States.
  2. To reverse the downward spirals of tariffs and intensified protectionism, the United States and China should reach a free trade agreement, especially one including sub-agreements on precluding intellectual property theft. This agreement would set an example to inspire other countries to follow suit or to form larger institutions that could also involve Japan, South Korea or Russia.
  3. To effectively cope with emerging cyber issues, the United States and China should institute a policy of “no first use” on cyberattacks, which could possibly be extended to space observation and communications.
  4. To reinforce commitment to world peace, the United States and China should intensify collaboration on reducing and countering international terrorism.
  5. To bridge longstanding gaps in mutual understanding, the United States and China should dramatically increase people-to-people exchanges, especially in the realms of military, business and education. The Vice President of the United States and the Premier of China would ideally lead the program.
  6. To more closely align U.S. and Chinese perceptions on the positive role of the United States nuclear umbrella over Japan and South Korea, the United States and China should foster collaboration and understanding on that front.
  7. The United States and China should collaborate for peace concerning the world’s most troubled countries, including North Korea, Iran and Venezuela, among others.
  8. The United States and China should lead a discussion of the future and reform of multinational organizations, including the United Nations and the Bretton Woods system, among others.
  9. The United States and China should lead and intensify collaboration to tackle global warming.
  10. The United States and China should initiate collaboration on quantum sciences, biometrics and artificial intelligence.
  11. The United States and China should lead attempts to reduce or eliminate nuclear warheads around the world, with the inclusion of Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, India, France and Russia.

A U.S. expert posed the question of whether these proposals would be practical enough to help steer the U.S.-China relationship toward cooperation rather than competition.

  • In response, a U.S. expert maintained despite the need to balance priority and feasibility, the discussion process is inherently valuable.
  • A Chinese expert stated the significantly declining level of trust has made it more difficult to put the recommendations into action. This expert argued that should the U.S.-China relationship be recalibrated under the current leaders, and that rivalry, instead of mutual trust, would be the more realistic starting point.
  • The same Chinese expert argued that, compared with China, the United States, as a democratic nation, has better capacity to “self-correct” its contributions to the downward trend in mutual trust.

Referring to the recommendation of a free-trade agreement between the two nations, a U.S. expert expressed concern regarding acute bilateral tensions and raised the question of how policy can alleviate tensions.

  • A U.S. expert stated that it is in China’s best interest to protect Chinese industries negatively impacted by protectionism in China vis-à-vis their U.S. counterparts. This expert argued that this viewpoint will prevail until either the Chinese government removes protective measures for Chinese companies, or the U.S. government implements measures to protect American businesses in China.
  • This same U.S. expert noted that U.S. allies, including Japan and the European Union, are uncomfortable operating outside of the WTO system and imposing tariffs to counter the Chinese protectionist practices.
  • This expert posited that the United States and China must come to an agreement on a set of rules that would maximize benefit for both countries.
  • A U.S. expert noted the importance of rule-based institutions in the implementation of free trade agreements, particularly their functions in mediating disputes and exercising authority over the enforcement of rules.

An expert suggested that Africa provides an apt case study for future collaborative opportunities between the U.S. and China, as the influence from both countries on the continent extends to both competition and cooperation, and this dynamic will likely to intensify in the future.

The EastWest Institute will take the discussion into account as it develops agenda for upcoming U.S.-China dialogues.