US-China relations: Turning crisis into opportunity?

There is a window of opportunity for both countries to find common ground.

Expert comment Updated 7 July 2021 Published 26 March 2021 3 minute READ

The latest bilateral talks between the US and China show that the evolving dynamics between the two countries are becoming increasingly complex. The stakes are high and too much is on the line to let the US-China rivalry escalate into a military conflict. Instead, both countries need to come together to develop a joint vision for a sustainable and peaceful world.

In recent years, several simplistic narratives seem to have taken hold in the US-China relationship, chief among them, that liberal democracies are under threat by the rise of non-democratic competitors around the world, particularly China, who seemingly threaten the international rules-based system.

This narrative has played out in an intensifying ‘media war’ between Western and Chinese media outlets. In the West, the unfolding of what Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky have termed the manufacturing of consent seems to be taking place, pushed by the mainstream media, focusing on getting tough on China, and therefore, fostering public debate only within the parameters of China as a rival.

Pushing narratives too hard on either side runs the risk of an ideological stand-off.

In China, state ideology led by Xi Jinping is driving an equally simplistic counter-narrative often characterized by paranoia and victimization. It operates in a much less subtle and often more aggressive way arguing that the West is in decline, while China is rising, and anti-China forces are a threat to the country’s sovereignty.

Furthermore, concerns about the human rights situation in China are merely dismissed as interference by foreign countries in Chinese domestic affairs, with recent international support for the democracy movement in Hong Kong being a case in point.

However, both narratives in the West and China are dangerously oversimplified. In order to distract from domestic problems, such as the internal crisis of liberal democracies, there seems to be an element at play termed diversionary foreign policy, where leaders adopt high-risk strategies against international threats. Indeed, to prove their competence at home, countries tend to ‘talk tough’, as demonstrated during the recent exchange between the US and Chinese delegates at their meeting in Anchorage, Alaska last week.

But pushing these narratives too hard on either side runs the risk of an ideological stand-off where rational arguments and problem-solving mechanisms are no longer effective thereby threatening a sustainable and peaceful world and a potential breakdown of the global world order. 

Realizing a common future?

Henry Kissinger has described a potential conflict between the US and China as having grave consequences for both sides – more disastrous than World War I. But, to avoid such an outcome, both countries need to develop a new narrative for the future of the planet that ensures global sustainability, prosperity for all and peaceful societies.

Indeed, as relations worsen in many areas, much hinges on the two countries working together on global climate change – a challenge great enough to transcend all other differences. Cooperation on climate change is one of the areas both the US and China have agreed on in previous years and the Paris goal of staying below 1.5 degrees warming can only be achieved together. Indeed, the transition to a global net zero economy provides immense investment opportunities for both economies.

Much hinges on the two countries working together on global climate change.

But, to make climate change collaboration work in practice, intense compromises will have to be made. Both Britain and the EU can facilitate discussions in order to prevent escalation between the two sides, while strengthening the multilateral system, including the UNFCCC, will be key for achieving long-term security of the international rules-based order.

Global climate talks have been derailed previously due to US-China disagreements, for example, at the COP15 in Copenhagen 2009. The UK and Italy, as hosts of this year’s COP26, should therefore make it a priority to keep US-China relations stable and ensure COP26 is a success. A detailed plan of action will be required to ensure the US and China contribute to global climate efforts rather than undermine it.

From Earth to the stars

Beyond addressing climate change, another common quest should be space exploration. During the recent US-China talks, the latest NASA mission to Mars was highlighted as an example of what international collaboration can achieve.

The Chinese side has said it would welcome cooperation on a joint space exploration project while Biden’s space advisors have urged him to initiate space cooperation with China. NASA can still work with China under current frameworks and technology regulations but these doors for cooperation might be shut if further restrictions and sanctions are put in place.

This is a real opportunity that should not be missed. Instead of engaging in a space race based on the dynamics of the Cold War, the challenges of exploring our solar system can provide a positive opportunity for bilateral cooperation.

The challenges of exploring our solar system can provide a positive opportunity for bilateral cooperation.

The International Space station, for example, is a model of how peaceful scientific exploration can facilitate international collaboration between countries which differ in other areas. Indeed, inviting Chinese scientists onboard to join could be a crucial first step to bettering relations between both the US and China.

Interestingly, Hollywood has shown us how it can work. In the movie, The Martian, the world has changed for the better, where the two superpowers, the US and China, work together to save an astronaut, played by actor Matt Damon, who has been left behind on the red planet. Like the movie, there is a window of opportunity for both countries to find common ground, and it should not be missed.