What Better U.S.-China Cooperation Might Look Like

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(Photo: Whitehouse.gov)

President Obama did not distinguish himself as a statesman during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recently concluded state visit. Nor did he do any better with President Vladimir Putin when they sparred a few days later at the UN General Assembly.

China and the United States, in fact, did not reach any accords of substance, with the exception of the two initiatives on cyber theft and climate change that Xi unilaterally and capably addressed. At the UN, the United States appears to have lost the initiative to Russia in dealing with Syria. And by continuing to insist that the Assad regime must be replaced, Obama left himself vulnerable to Putin’s charge that Washington’s unilateral and uninvited military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq were ultimately responsible for the concatenation of horrors that the Middle East has endured for over a decade now and that is now spreading to Europe.

It would be a mistake however, to blame Obama for these turns of events, although the Tea Party naysayers in Congress will surely continue doing so, as will many of the Republican presidential candidates. But the aggressive and threatening (and in the case of Xi, insulting) stance the right-wing critics advance can only exacerbate an already dangerous and increasingly destabilizing global situation. However important domestic issues are right now or might become next year, American voters in the 2016 election must listen very carefully as the candidates describe how they will conduct foreign policy in a world where the United States can no longer bend unwilling nations to its will except by destroying them.

Powerful though our military remains, belligerence should no longer have a place in our diplomatic tool kit.

Complex as the problems now threatening the world truly are, most of the policies and­­ resources to alleviate them are already present, but we lack the will and the proper motivation to implement them. In the end the problems are neither political nor economic. Nor are they, except at the margins, geostrategic. Rather, they are moral, and the key to understanding how to deal with them was provided by another world leader visiting the United States at almost the same time: Pope Francis.

In speech after speech, Francis insisted that climate change, hunger, poverty, disease, inequality, and aggression are basic issues of morality. Therefore, the solutions to these problems had to be negotiated within the conceptual framework of morality, not power politics. Moreover, as the pope made clear by his actions and words, solutions to the problems had to be negotiated by people of good will, with compassion, sensitivity, faith in humankind, and intelligence, but most importantly, with trust and mutual respect among the negotiators.

Unfortunately, trust and true respect are scarce commodities in almost all thinking about U.S. foreign policy. Anyone attempting to put in a good word for Xi Jinping gets labeled a mouthpiece for Communist Party propaganda. Xi, according to the dominant U.S. media narrative, is only concerned with maintaining and enhancing his personal power. He harasses and at times incarcerates dissidents, seemingly with no concern for individual human rights. And the Chinese government tolerates, if not instigates, cyber theft of industrial and technological secrets. President Putin is equally easy to demonize, emerging in the U.S. media as a land-grabber (Crimea) and a fomenter of secession (eastern Ukraine).

The poisoned atmosphere generated by the liberal and conservative media alike toward these leaders — and their predecessors going back almost a century — make it very difficult to accept the pope’s urging to negotiate on the basis of trust and mutual respect. Xi and Putin are indeed less than saints by a fair measure. But that’s very different from thinking that they don’t really care about their citizens or their culture, or about issues threatening the survival of the planet as a human habitat.

The “Threats” of China and Russia

Critics point to China’s construction of military installations on islands it claims in the South China Sea as proof of the country’s aggressive, expansionist intentions. Thus far no one has suggested that the claims themselves are illegitimate — only that other countries, particularly Vietnam and the Philippines, make competing claims.

Whatever the resolution of the matter, this construction would give the Chinese at most one overseas military installation — compared to the 700-plus bases occupied by U.S. forces, costing upward of $150 billon a year. China’s armed forces are half again as large as the United States’ (2.2 million to 1.4), but China’s population is four times that of the United States. More importantly, China’s People’s Liberation Army is responsible for patrolling an 8,000-mile border with a not-always-friendly Russia. The American military does not have responsibility for our borders. But almost 200,000 U.S. military members are stationed beyond our borders — while the Chinese have none. Although the Chinese have been almost doubling their military budget every year for the past six, it still only spends about a quarter as much money as the United States, which spends as much as the rest of the world combined.

The Chinese regrettably harass, intimidate, and occasionally incarcerate those who speak out against the government, curbing individual rights to free expression. But a major reason for their present economic difficulties is that they haven’t abandoned their long-held policy of a right to a job and job security for workers. Hence the Chinese government does not close many of the “zombie factories,” the state-owned factories that have become non-productive, especially in the steel and cement sectors.

These kinds of figures and policies in comparative perspective could be expanded tenfold. And other arguments could be made on Russia’s behalf. But the point should be clear. To a non-ideologue, the nation most concerned with power, influence, and expansion is the United States, hands down. And this was the case even before our invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and with NATO cover, Libya, or the widespread use of drones throughout the Middle East.

To follow the pope’s advice, the Obama administration and its successors must marshal arguments to at least initially forestall negative public opinion and grant a measure of trust that President Xi’s actions do not betoken a thirst for any kind of world domination. Perhaps he (and Putin) might genuinely care about the wellbeing of his peoples and the fate of the planet. Equally challenging, of course, is to get President Xi (and Putin) to trust us, because our past words and deeds have provided so many reasons from them not to.

A New Agenda

Assuming that appropriate regrets are expressed at the proper time, sufficient to alert the Chinese that the game has changed, let us briefly examine a few specific areas where Sino-U.S. relations might be transformed by thinking cooperatively rather than competitively. On the following five issues — North Korea, the South China Sea, naval competition, Taiwan, and the economy — the two countries could indeed deepen trust and lessen suspicion.

Believing that only even stronger sanctions can bring North Korea to the negotiating table on nuclear disarmament, Secretary of State John Kerry is pressing China to join in imposing them. China, however, is reluctant to do so, even though it has become sorely peeved at its neighbor in recent years. One thing the U.S. could offer in return for Chinese cooperation would be a pledge not to station any American troops or nuclear weapons in North Korea when the two countries reunite, as sooner or later they must. Such a pledge would clearly restrict our future options, but it is almost certainly worth the effort.

On the dispute in the South China Sea, the United States should first make clear to the Chinese that it understands and sympathizes with their legitimate security interests in the area just as Washington claims the same in the Caribbean. Second, rather than suggest a legalistic manner of hemming China in, the United States should show its deep commitment to the need for maritime law among all nations by signing the Law of the Sea, as 166 other nations (including China) did years ago. Then Washington should promise to end the provocative reconnaissance flights close to the Chinese mainland and invite all the disputants to settle the various conflicts in accordance with maritime law, with ourselves guaranteeing impartiality in the proceedings.

On naval issues more generally, the United States should impress upon the Chinese that their single aircraft carrier — a retrofitted old Soviet model — is no match for 10 in the U.S. navy, and that it will be very expensive to build another nine to catch up. China wants to keep open the sea lanes in the Straits of Malacca as well as the South China Sea, through which it imports over 90 percent of its oil.

It would be much better if a number of ships in the Chinese navy joined the United States and all other willing nations to form a “1000 ship navy,” as admiral Mike Mullen called his idea when he formulated it shortly before becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Fleshed out, the idea is to have large, coordinated mini-fleets under general U.S. leadership patrolling the oceans as protection against piracy, smuggling, drug running, and terrorism, and capable of providing humanitarian aid in relatively short order to victims of typhoons, tsunamis, hurricanes, and other natural disasters. This would give China and all other maritime nations in the region the security they need and save them the cost of a huge navy buildup. It would be cheaper for the United States as well, and of great humanitarian benefit around the entire globe.

The United States will continue to promise to protect Taiwan from outside aggression. But if China pledges never to attempt to take the island by force, Washington will pledge in return never to sell or give it any armaments in the future.

On economic issues, China has begun to bring its finances into equilibrium even as it struggles with its “zombie factories.” Beijing has also asked the International Monetary Fund for special drawing rights, a complicated affair that in essence would allow the yuan into the club of elite currencies, enabling much greater foreign investment, and thereby hastening the necessary transition from an export-led focus on production to a consumer-driven import economy. Such a transition is necessary if China is going to make its state-owned factories productive again and regain its position of being the major engine of the global economy, which is important for everyone.

By not vetoing China’s request at the IMF meetings toward the end of the year, the United States runs a risk of the yuan replacing the dollar as the world’s currency in the near future. At the same time, approval of such a measure would be a huge boost to the Chinese economy, a significant boost to the U.S. economy, and therefore a good stimulus for other economies as well. So Washington should not veto Beijing’s bid.

With a few agreements like these in place, both sides might generate enough trust to discuss more difficult issues, not the least of which is strengthening the United Nations. As the world grows more chaotic, international institutions seem increasingly incapable of reversing the trend. Neither the IMF nor the World Bank is able to stabilize the world’s financial markets, and the development of an Asian alternative shows no sign of helping matters (though giving China special drawing rights at the IMF would help coordinate inter-bank efforts at stabilization). The EU might disintegrate, dividing into creditor and debtor countries. There seems nothing constructive for NATO to do. UN peacekeeping forces aren’t keeping any. Indeed, the UN has not ended any conflict in the last 25 years. Virtually no one pays any attention to the International Criminal Court (least of all the United States).

A globalized world, like it or not, is in dire need of world institutions of government and economics. A reformed UN is right now the best candidate for the task of such governance and economic regulation, but the cultural diversity between and within the member states will make the reformation difficult. If China and the United States can bridge their myriad differences to generate enough trust to solve mutual problems, it would be a critical first step in re-injecting moral purpose into the international institutions the world so desperately requires.

Henry Rosemont, Jr. is distinguished professor emeritus at St. Mary’s College of Maryland and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.