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What America and China Must Not Forget—A Commentary by Paul Gewirtz

A somewhat shortened version of the following commentary was published in The New York Times on January 18, 2011.

What America and China Must Not Forget
By Paul Gewirtz 

Two starkly different paths for U.S.-China relations have become apparent as President Obama and China’s President Hu Jintao are holding their Summit Meeting in Washington this week. The first path is one of cooperation and actions that build trust and create mutual benefits. The second path is continuing the current downward drift in relations with ever expanding mistrust and conflict.

The first path is clearly preferable, but an increasing number of people in both countries question whether it is achievable. The fact that the U.S. and China have many common interests does not mean that we will inevitably pursue them. Nor does China’s rising economic and military power mean inevitable conflict, as fatalistic doomsayers in both countries are arguing. It is still within the power of human beings to determine the path that the relationship takes. Having traveled to China dozens of times over the last decade and returned from my most recent visit just last week, I remain optimistic.

The benefits of cooperation are clear. The U.S. and China are now so entangled in a mutually beneficial economic relationship that conflict -- whether escalating trade protectionism or belligerent rivalry for spheres of influence or military provocation – would inflict major harms on both countries. And U.S.-China cooperation is essential if the planet is to find solutions to numerous global problems – including climate change, energy scarcity, nuclear proliferation, genocides, and pandemics.

The central problem in the U.S.-China relationship right now is mutual mistrust. Large numbers of Chinese in and out of the government believe that a declining but still powerful U.S. is out to stop China’s rise, and is actively seeking to overthrow the government. Meanwhile, large numbers of Americans fear or feel frustrated by China’s rapid economic rise, particularly at a time of our own economic difficulties, and watch China’s growing military power and voracious appetite for resources with concern.

This situation can create a sustained and reinforcing cycle of mistrust which produces greater enmity and conflict. Indeed, this is a moment at which prophecies can be self-fulfilling, particularly prophecies of conflict. Because of uncertainties, we need to take hedging steps and project our power even as we pursue cooperation. But it is undoubtedly true, as former U.S. Secretary Defense William Perry has said, “If we treat China as an enemy, it will surely become one.”

In spite of China’s greater self-confidence and assertiveness, there is reason to expect that we can work with China to pursue common interests cooperatively, as we already have done on various fronts. Today’s China is not the Soviet Union, seeking world domination and spreading a poisonous ideology. Today’s China is not Germany in the 20th century, with wide territorial ambitions and recklessness about the costs this would impose on its people.

Americans often see China as a collectivist autocracy with a culture and society very different from our own. But although China is a one party authoritarian state where numerous human rights abuses take place, to a much greater extent than Americans realize, China is not a monolith. The reality on the ground is that China is multifaceted and constantly changing. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. Many political dissidents are being harshly repressed, but this coexists with wide freedom that most Chinese have in their day to day lives. Cheerful entrepreneurial energy is everywhere. People in the government and the citizenry have and express many diverse viewpoints.

The work I have done in China for more than 10 years has put me in constant contact with Chinese reformers both in the government and outside the government. Their work is difficult and frequently bounded, but it has made a difference on many fronts, including much greater government transparency and responsiveness to public opinion, many good reforms in China’s legal system, effective environmental activism, an often surprisingly robust media, and rising expectations of better and fairer governance. China’s leaders understand that the country faces huge domestic challenges resulting from unbalanced growth, and are largely focused on addressing those. China certainly has the internal capacity to follow a development path that benefits both itself and the rest of the world.

There is only one way to dispel the mutual mistrust that currently exists in the U.S.-China relationship – acknowledge it, clarify and emphasize common interests, and work together to produce concrete results that demonstrate each side’s good faith and the benefits of cooperation over conflict. Our leaders need to tackle the large issues that contain the potential for conflict and opportunities for cooperation, with parallel dialogues by leaders and experts outside of government. People-to-people exchanges need to be expanded to produce a firmer foundation for positive U.S.-China relations. It isn’t naive to think that these things are possible, although it is certainly naive to think they will be easy.

The U.S. needs to give China incentives to follow a beneficial developmental path – incentives that inevitably will include both carrots and sticks, both reassurances and pressure, but that take place within a framework of cooperation and growing trust. China, in turn, needs to take actions that assure the U.S. that it will be a fair economic competitor, abide by international legal norms, provide more reassurances about its growing military power, and play a stronger global role in addressing challenges such as North Korea.

As Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner said with appropriate frankness in a speech last week, there are some things that China wants from us that we will do only if China does some things that we want. We also need to remember that there is a Chinese version of the same point: there are some things the U.S. wants from China that China will do only if the U.S. does some things (or refrains from doing some things) that China cares about.

Human agency – the tenacious and skillful pursuit of better relations between the two countries by people of good will – can sustain and expand prosperity and peace for both powerful countries. That is why the Summit and the period ahead in U.S.-China relations are so important.

Paul Gewirtz is a graduate of and professor at Yale Law School and Director of The China Law Center. He served in the Clinton Administration and worked on the two Summit meetings between President Clinton and China’s President Jiang Zemin.