The U.S. and China seem headed for conflict. Every day, news headlines offer new reasons for Americans to dislike, distrust and disengage from China.
The relationship between the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies, has often been called the most consequential bilateral relationship on earth, but it also may be the most fraught with conflict and misunderstanding. For the past several years, the relationship has grown steadily worse.
Even as the leaders of the two countries address contentious issues involving competition and national security, American companies would like them to be mindful of how important it is to keep the lanes of commerce open and to consider that business cooperation between the two countries can be helpful.
For officials like Antony Blinken, who met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on his first visit to Beijing as U.S. secretary of state two weeks ago, it is vital to make every effort to understand a nation that is changing quickly and which in turn is creating a potential threat to America’s way of life. This threat, and the gap in America’s collective understanding of China, have always been at the backdrop of conversations about the country.
Diplomat Ji Chaozhu was the translator for a meeting like Blinken’s half a century ago when then-National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger traveled to Beijing for a top-secret meeting with Premier Zhou Enlai.
In his book “The Man on Mao’s Right,” Ji recounted how Kissinger opened his remarks by saying, “Many visitors have come to this beautiful and, to us, mysterious land.”
Zhou is said to then have held up his hand to interrupt, “When you have become familiar with China, it will not seem as mysterious as before.”
According to Ji, Kissinger was visibly startled by Zhou’s breach of protocol, but set aside his prepared talking points and the two began forging a relationship of trust and mutual respect that historians agree was key to the normalization of relations between the U.S. and China.
That was then and this is now, but the two sides should still look for an opening to rebuild trust and find some level of understanding and appreciation for the other’s position. Blinken’s visit helped, but both governments should consider whether this could now be the time to put aside their respective talking points.
Beijing feels threatened by the presence of American military forces close to its shores. Conversely, the U.S. is committed to security alliances with nations around China’s periphery that would be destabilizing if unraveled.
Commerce can play a role by keeping our countries engaged until trust can be rebuilt. But with the two governments pulling the nations apart, companies are left stuck in the middle.
Both governments are attempting to bring companies into alignment with their respective policy goals.
“We believe — and we expect the business community to understand — that the price of admission to China’s market must not be the sacrifice of our core values or long-term competitive and technological advantages,” Blinken said last month. “We’re counting on businesses to pursue growth responsibly, assess risk soberly and work with us not only to protect, but to strengthen our national security.”
Americans working in China would strongly object to any suggestion that they sacrifice American values or act irresponsibly.
American multinationals are not in the business of selling national security secrets or undermining U.S. leadership in technology. On the contrary, American businesspeople see themselves as responsible representatives of their nation, eager to share its values and best practices. There will always be a few bad actors, but the overwhelming majority of American businesspeople are proud of the fact that they do things the right way. They do not cut corners, they abide by the rules and they respect the rights of individuals.
Just as Blinken sees a role for American business in the bilateral relationship, Chinese officials are taking up the point as well.
Qin Gang, who met with Blinken as China’s foreign minister, conferred with business leaders in Shanghai two years ago on his way to taking up the role of ambassador to the U.S. He said then that American companies should play a more active role in explaining to our government that efforts to decouple from China would be misguided and unhelpful.
While our group shared his concerns about the negative effects of decoupling, we were obliged to point out that Beijing plays a role in this as well. What is China’s so-called Great Firewall, if not an effort to silo the internet and keep China and its digital economy separate from the rest of the world?
In China, cooperation with the government and compliance with its regulations have become more challenging. Global companies are having increasing difficulty managing export controls, sanctions and countersanctions. America’s export controls present challenges, but Chinese legislation, such as the recent cybersecurity law that mandates the localization of data, can be vague and change frequently, putting foreign companies in a bind.
For the past four decades, the U.S. and China have lived in relative peace. This peace has enabled and nurtured a commercial relationship that has made both countries more prosperous than either would have been on its own.
It is undoubtedly desirable, and still possible, for the two countries to find a path forward that each can comfortably live with. Working together would lead to advances in how we manage everything from climate change to global pandemics and resources in the Arctic.
Choices are being made now that will shape the relationship between the U.S. and China for years to come. The right choices can take us in the direction of more trade, more jobs, more prosperity, and above all, more peace for both nations.