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Commentary: US and China can't pretend their only problem is communication

There are fundamental questions the US and China will need to answer to accommodate China's rise, according to Brookings Institution's Jeffrey A Bader.

Commentary: US and China can't pretend their only problem is communication

US President Donald Trump poses for a photo with China's President Xi Jinping before their bilateral meeting during the G20 leaders summit in Osaka, Japan, Jun 29, 2019. (Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque)

Washington DC: With the November presidential election looming, many China watchers are focused on what the outcome could mean for relations between Washington and Beijing. That question is no doubt a crucial one.

At the same time, many trends in that all-important relationship are of course longer-term than one presidential administration. What are the long-term prospects for US-China relations at this stage?

The differences between the United States and China on political, economic, ideological, technological and security issues are real. They can and must be managed through dialogue, but we can’t pretend that we simply have a communications problem. 

Both sides know better. The basic framework for the relationship going forward is likely to be strategic competition, with cooperation in discrete areas, hopefully covering many subjects. 

There could instead be strategic rivalry, which would be more adversarial and require cool heads to manage disputes. 

Or the relationship could degenerate into a Cold War, which would be in the interest of neither the United States nor China.

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A US-China cold war would not be like the US-Soviet one, which was largely military and ideological. A cold war would begin with radical decoupling and disengagement, which regrettably we are already seeing. 

It would descend and expand from there. It would fracture the international community on issues on which there should otherwise be widespread cooperation. It would build walls between economies, scientists, scholars, and ordinary people. 

It would likely foment ethnic stereotyping, discrimination, and hatred. It would prevent two great civilisations from benefiting from each other’s strengths and contributions. It would exacerbate an arms race that would crowd out domestic priorities. 

Above all, it would increase the risk of military conflict, even if neither side desires it.


How do we avoid such an outcome? There are fundamental questions the US and China will need to answer.

Chinese staff members adjust US and Chinese flags before the opening session of trade negotiations between US and Chinese trade representatives at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, Feb 14, 2019. (Photo: Mark Schiefelbein/Pool via REUTERS) FILE PHOTO: Chinese staff members adjust U.S. and Chinese flags before the opening session of trade negotiations between U.S. and Chinese trade representatives at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China February 14, 2019. Mark Schiefelbein/Pool via REUTERS

For the United States: Is it willing to accept a peer competitor, particularly one with a different political system and ideology? In principle, the answer should be yes, but there is an action/reaction mechanism in US politics. 

An administration that fully accepts China as a peer inevitably will have to endure and beat back harsh attacks from a nationalist opposition. So it will require long-term steadiness, not a one-off decision. 

The United States can sustain such a view if China accommodates to the traditional stabilising role of the United States in East Asia rather than seeking to undermine it.

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For China: Can it comfortably integrate and assimilate into a rules-based international order created and historically dominated by the United States, and characterised by certain norms, such as on trade, protection of intellectual property rights, privacy, digital freedoms, rule of law, due process, transparency, law of the sea and human rights? 

(I would add that it is essential that the US failure to show traditional respect for the rules-based international system over the last several years must be corrected, as well.)

Can China adjust to these norms, or will it simply demand that its national system be respected? Can it find ways to ensure that its activities in international affairs are consistent with these norms, or at least do not undercut them, while maintaining its own political, economic, and social system?

File photo of the US and Chinese national flags. (File photo: REUTERS/Damir Sagolj) FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his speech as he and China's President Xi Jinping meet business leaders at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, November 9, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

A lesson of the past few years is that, in a globalised world, it is difficult for the international system to function well if there is a large gap in attitudes and practices among major countries regarding these norms.

China made the fundamental decision 40 years ago to join the international system, from which it has derived great benefits and to which it has made important contributions. 

But the world’s accommodation of China’s unorthodox practices when it was a relatively minor player is a different matter entirely.


Today, China has become a dominant actor. China, along with the United States, is now an elephant in the canoe. The elephants have to be careful, or they can swamp the canoe and everyone in it.

For understandable historical reasons, China is especially fierce in safeguarding its sovereignty and asserting the sovereignty of nations and non-interference as the foundational principles of international norms. 

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No more than the United States can China be expected to renounce that position. But China will need to do more than invoke its sovereignty under Westphalian principles if it is to be a leader in the international system and enjoy its full benefits.

The country has not yet completed the journey it began in 1978 toward full integration into the international rules-based system. 

For example, it needs to accept the full obligations of developed countries in the World Trade Organization, open its Internet and level the information technology sector playing field for foreign participation on a reciprocal basis, and provide complete transparency to the World Health Organization and international health experts.

It will need to lead by example. It will be hard for China to make such changes. 

The United States can provide an example, and serve its own interests, by showing that it intends to adhere to the rules-based system that it played the key role in creating.

Jeffrey A Bader is a Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy at the John L Thorton China Center. This commentary was the outcome of a virtual dialogue on the challenges of US-China relations, where China’s Ambassador to the United States, Cui Tiankai, offered remarks and answered questions, and first appeared on Brookings Institution's blog Order from Chaos.


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