For their National Interests, the US and China Must Continue to Engage

In a 2013 photo, people walk in front of the Apple store on Nanjing Road in Shanghai, China.

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In a 2013 photo, people walk in front of the Apple store on Nanjing Road in Shanghai, China.

Four former Congressmen return from a China trip with new perspectives.

At a moment of historic tensions in the U.S.-China relationship, America must continue to engage with China on a broad range of issues, extending beyond even critically important trade disagreements. Both countries must redouble efforts to identify areas of mutually beneficial cooperation and to encourage healthy competition. Doing so can help prevent a dangerous spillover of tensions that would irreversibly damage the bilateral relationship and, by extension, global peace. It is in this spirit that at this very contentious time in the relationship, our bipartisan delegation of former U.S. senators, in partnership with the Former Members of Congress Association and the China-United States Exchange Foundation, traveled to China to meet with senior leaders of government, business, and academia along with top American diplomats and business organizations.

From the capital of Beijing with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, to the Yangtze River port of Wuhan with the American Chamber of Commerce, to China’s largest metropolis in Shanghai with scholars at Fudan University, we found a strong desire to maximize dialogue with Americans. It made clear the immense value that relations with the United States hold in Chinese policymaking circles. For many years, the Chinese have closely studied this country. It was evident that our counterparts were astute students of America, but by no means do they understand America well enough. And we in the United States clearly still have much to learn about China. 

To comprehend China, and to better reflect on how to interact with it, we must learn more about its history and understand how the country’s past shapes its present worldview. We will not successfully fathom China by solely viewing it through an American prism, nor will we be able to understand the forces and experiences that guide Chinese thinking. To put bilateral relations on a more realistic footing, it is best to remedy this deficiency through an increased focus on China in our education system, with first-hand experience through trips like ours, as well as more expansive visits by sitting officeholders that are accompanied by robust programs of cultural and educational exchange.

Encouraged by Nixon’s visit in 1972 and subsequent U.S. engagement, China embarked on market reforms that since 1978 have yielded an average GDP growth of nearly 10 percent a year, by World Bank estimates. In this fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history, more than 850 million people lifted themselves out of poverty. In 2019, the forty-year anniversary of U.S.-China diplomatic relations, China has never been more confident of its future. Yet even in the incredible optimism and emerging power that many Chinese feel, there remains a deep and entrenched memory of China’s “century of humiliation,” the years from 1839 to 1949 remembered by the Chinese for the foreign interventions, imperialist intrusions and civil wars that brought their country to a low points in its long history.

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Yuan Ming Yuan, the old Summer Palace in Beijing, is one such reminder. It was once an immense complex of magnificent structures and home to the Qing Emperors. In 1860, during the Second Opium War, foreign armies looted the palace and burned it to the ground. Today only ruins remain, along with signs proclaiming it a monument dedicated to “national humiliation.” As it reminds the Chinese people what happened when China was weak and incapable of self-defense, the symbolism for the present day is lost on no one.

Some in China believe that the United States considers its rise inimical to American interests and that the U.S. will work wherever possible to contain it. For its part, the United States has its own concerns. Americans worry that Chinese economic and military strategies indicate an intent to marginalize the United States and displace its leadership around the world. For our future and China’s, both sides must work diligently to mitigate the trends of enmity and brinkmanship.

There is enough space in the world for both the United States and China to grow and succeed without upending one another’s destinies. Suspicions are not simple to allay, particularly with highly diverse political systems and cultural distinctions. There remain valid concerns that many American political and corporate leaders have when it comes to issues such as intellectual property or free access to markets. Clearly, trust is hard to build and easy to dissipate. But we have no choice but to try. The United States and China must enter agreements and understandings that are verifiable and fully implemented. Both countries must find a mutually satisfactory equilibrium that takes account of objective realities and each other’s core national interests.

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