China, economically ascendant, has become increasingly assertive in asserting its economic, political and territorial claims. The United States, which has long treated the country as something of a charity case, now sees it as a rival and, increasingly, a threat. Although some tension is inevitable, the rhetoric in both countries has taken a belligerent turn. There is little trust or cooperation, even on issues of clear mutual interest, such as tackling the Covid-19 pandemic or tackling climate change.
The hardening on both sides was on the agenda this week. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a provocative visit to Taiwan to underscore America’s support for its democratic government, and China mounted an overheated response, staging military drills that encroached on airspace and Taiwan’s territorial waters to underscore its determination to establish sovereignty over what it considers its own. China announced on Friday that it would also suspend communication with the United States on a number of issues, including climate change and drug trafficking prevention efforts.
It is in everyone’s interest that the two most powerful nations on the planet find ways to ease these tensions. Over the past half-century, beginning with President Richard Nixon’s landmark visit to China in 1972, the leaders of the United States and China have repeatedly chosen to prioritize shared interests over conflict. . Building this relationship, despite all its flaws, has contributed a lot to the stability and prosperity of the world.
The Biden administration has abandoned the xenophobic rhetoric of the Trump White House, but it has not offered its own vision for striking a balance between competition and cooperation. Instead, he has conducted America’s relationship with China largely as a series of crisis management exercises, imposing sanctions for China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong while seeking its cooperation on Covid, climate change and the war in Ukraine.
The United States could take several concrete steps that could help improve relations.
First, instead of relying on punitive trade policies rooted in fear of China as an economic rival, the United States must focus on competition by investing in technical education, scientific research and development. industrial. It is high time for President Biden to break with the Trump administration’s failed gamble to bully China into making economic concessions by imposing tariffs on Chinese imports.
On Tuesday, Biden is expected to sign the CHIPS Act, which includes nearly $53 billion to support domestic production of semiconductors, the building blocks of the digital age. It could be described as taking a page out of China, except that the United States was the first major practitioner of this type of industrial policy.
The United States must also move beyond the old idea that economic engagement will gradually transform Chinese politics and society. Instead of trying to change China, the United States should focus on building stronger ties with China’s neighbors. Fostering cooperation between nations with disparate interests — and in some cases, their own long histories of conflict — is no easy task, but recent history teaches that the United States is more effective at advancing and defending their interests when they do not act unilaterally.
Taiwan is an important part of this project. Mrs. Pelosi’s visit was untimely. The Biden administration’s most pressing foreign policy priority is helping Ukraine defeat the Russian invasion, and Taiwan’s setback makes it even harder to persuade China to limit its support for Russia. The substance of Ms. Pelosi’s message to Taiwan, however, was on point. The United States has long supported Taiwan’s maturing democracy, and it is in America’s interest to treat Taiwan as a valued ally.
The United States has long maintained a policy of “strategic ambiguity” toward Taiwan, selling arms to its government while refusing to make any security commitments. Arming Taiwan remains the best way to help. But clarity could also help.
Tensions over Taiwan are rising for three interrelated reasons: the self-governing island has become more democratic and staunchly self-governing; China, under the authoritarian leadership of Xi Jinping, has become more belligerent; and the United States responded to both trends by offering Taiwan stronger expressions of support.
When Mr Biden stated bluntly in May that the United States would defend Taiwan against a Chinese attack, his aides insisted he did not want to change American policy.
But the White House should be clear that America’s commitment to recognizing only one Chinese state – the “one China policy” – has always been based on the mainland’s peaceful conduct toward Taiwan. .
None of these efforts — to strengthen the US economy and build stronger alliances — are intended to isolate China. Rather, they provide a stronger foundation for the Biden administration and its successors to engage China on issues where there are real differences but also real opportunities for progress, including climate change.
Treating China as a hostile power is a counterproductive simplification. Both nations occupy large chunks of the same planet. They disagree on the meaning of democracy or human rights, but they share certain values, the most important of which is the pursuit of prosperity.
The uncomfortable reality is that the United States and China need each other. There’s no better illustration than the cargo ships that continued to move between Guangzhou and Long Beach, California, during Ms Pelosi’s visit – and will continue long after she returns.