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We Need to Pull U.S.-China Relations Back from the Brink. Here’s How.

Like it or not, the U.S. and China are in the process of “decoupling.” The two countries find themselves drifting dangerously back into a state of growing distrust, and even antagonism. This comes after almost a half century of relying on some version of the “engagement” policy that began in 1972, when President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger met with Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai in China in a historic break-through that ended the Cold War stand-off.

Both sides have their narratives and grievances that prevent them from being able to engage in the kind of flexible “give a little and get a little” diplomacy that might arrest the downward spiral. The Americans are fed up with contending on an un-level field as the Chinese government shuts them out of whole sectors of its economy; expropriates intellectual property; denies visa access to journalists, scholars, and civil society representatives it disfavors; and refuses reciprocal rights to American media outlets, civil society organizations, and academic institutions. On their part, Chinese officials insist that the Nixon-Mao meeting was premised on the U.S. accepting the People’s Republic of China’s unique Party-government mix and that the U.S. is to blame for breaking this grand bargain. On matters pertaining to China’s territorial integrity (be they Taiwan, Hong Kong, or the South China Sea) Chinese officials are scornful of what they see as non-stop challenges by the White House and Congress alike that seem to compete with each other in de facto invalidation of China’s legitimacy. As for American complaints about market access to China, Chinese officials point to long-standing U.S. restrictions on Chinese access to sensitive technologies and areas of investment in the U.S., and they remind critics that the overwhelming majority of American and other foreign investments profit from the Chinese market.

As an increasingly unfriendly bi-partisan consensus towards China has formed in Washington, a more pervasive sense of nationalistic resistance has gripped Beijing. This puts the two countries at a dangerous inflection point in which the areas of contention have expanded far beyond just trade. At the same time, areas of obvious common interest such as climate change, pandemics, and nuclear proliferation go increasingly ignored. Unless something can be done soon to arrest the downward slide in this most central of global bilateral relations, the promise of U.S.-China “engagement”—a policy based on the assumption that greater interaction would slowly render these two very different systems of politics, economics, and values more convergent—will come to an end.

The U.S. has been seized by a new populism and is now led by a president schooled in reality show theatrics and fired by impetuosity, while in China reform momentum has ebbed and the country is led by a leadership generation whose worldviews are heavily impacted by their youthful years during Mao’s revolution. Efforts at diplomacy between the two governments are suffering from a leadership vacuum that is leaving the forces of divergence to triumph over those of convergence. At the same time, the demonstrations in Hong Kong and the resistance to “unification” with China in Taiwan have helped undermine the hope of “engagement,” and the experiment in the U.S. and China getting along with each other despite myriad differences is being pushed ever closer to an abyss. As the bilateral relationship erodes, neither side seems able to seize the moment and propose the kind of game-changing counter-scenario needed to halt the now ineluctable process of decoupling and find a new balance point. Unless one of the two presidents steps out of character very soon and shows some truly creative and proactive leadership, it is hard to imagine how a train wreck will be avoided.

So what could presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping do to turn this complex super-tanker of a relationship around? They might take advantage of this 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1 and jointly declare that each side recognizes there is, in fact, a crisis in the bilateral relationship that has also begun to negatively influence not just Sino-U.S. relations, but the entire global order. This would involve a joint declaration of urgency calling for a new special, presidential-level effort to supplement existing channels of interaction with a bold new initiative.

First, the two presidents, who throughout all the charges and counter-charges have nonetheless managed to maintain a relatively good personal relationship, should each appoint trusted high-level “special advisors.”

Second, the special advisors should each designate a small “working group” of four or five knowledgeable people (from diplomacy, think tanks, academia, the military, and business) to work with them in formulating new national counter-scenarios for how the U.S. and China could begin to approach each other.

Third, these special advisors and their working groups should meet together in a neutral place to compare proposals and to hammer out one or two consensus proposals.

Fourth, these road maps should then be submitted to Presidents Trump and Xi for their consideration and adoption.

Fifth, a new joint communique should be released to serve as a common road map spelling out guidelines for future interaction.

Even if this process failed to produce an implementable accord, it would at very least represent a good faith effort by both sides that would help calm global anxiety and world markets during this increasingly volatile time. What is more, it might help transform the U.S.-China interaction from one that is teetering on the edge of becoming irredeemably adversarial into one that is at least seeking overarching solutions. Such an initiative would in a sense return us to the world of 1972, when despite the fact that China was in the throes of a tectonic political movement (The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution) and the world was in a global ideological struggle (The Cold War), the two countries still found a way forward by resolving some issues and simply setting others aside in recognition that they were irreconcilable at the present time. This is not a bad model.

Such an initiative would take bold, confident, and creative leadership by men able to step beyond their immediate prejudices and the present stand-off. Any such solution would still not prevent all “decoupling,” especially in key areas of national security such as 5-G, AI, and robotics. However, it could help arrest the precipitous downward slide the two nations are now in and stabilize the overall relationship. The alternative is more of what we have seen over the past two years, with a very uncertain end game.