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Talk and walk


This year marks the 50th anniversary of former US president Richard Nixon's visit to China. The visit was a dramatic turning point in world politics and the beginning of a new chapter in the US-China relationship.

The ensuing US-China detente contributed to the easing of the East-West tensions and the ultimate collapse of the Cold War structure. It also paved the way for the rise of China, whose financial stability helped the world weather the storm during global economic downturns including the financial crisis of 2008. China also spearheaded East Asia's growth into one of the world's top three economic powerhouses along with North America and Europe. In a nutshell, the visit 50 years ago was one of the boldest moves ever made on the diplomatic chess board of world politics and turned out to be mutually beneficial for both the US and China over the next several decades.

With the onset of the 21st century, however, this picture began to change. The US-China relationship became strained in a growing number of areas. It was firstly tested in trade and then in technology. Now it seems to be finance and security. The relationship is increasingly turning into a zero-sum competition. While all three Cs (cooperation, competition and confrontation) are present to some degree, it is unclear how they will shape the overall character of the US-China relationship. It is also unclear how long it will take until the clouds of uncertainty clear. It is imperative that both Washington and Beijing manage the three Cs in a responsible manner not only for themselves but also for the whole world.

Existential threats from weapons of mass destruction and climate change are worsening day by day. The ongoing pandemic adds to the uncertainties and risks. It requires collective efforts from the international community to surmount these challenges, which are impossible tasks without the collaborative leadership of China and the United States. Unfortunately, the two countries currently cannot manage to work with each other and show leadership in resolving the issues. The resulting global governance gap engenders deficits in the provision of global public goods, further exacerbating existing tensions around the world.

Humanity stands at a crossroad. We have no time to lose. We are getting dangerously close to the point of no return. The US and China must find common ground for a change of course. At the minimum, they should work together to prevent unintended conflict from breaking out, whether from misunderstandings or miscalculations. Better, they should step up to the plate and provide the much-needed leadership for addressing the pressing global issues.

The next few years will be crucial in setting the tone for the US-China relationship. However, few diplomatic overtures are expected until the second half of this year when two important political events--the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China and the US midterm elections--are due to take place.

Yet in the meantime, Washington and Beijing could quietly lay the groundwork to reset their relations. Efforts must be prioritized toward the issues where global risks are high and political differences are low.

Certainly, this is a tough task. Yet it is not entirely impossible if they think outside the box and act boldly. Business as usual is not an option. They need to be practical and patient. Here are four building blocks to start with.

First, both sides must try to reduce the mutual perception gap. They need to refrain from overestimating the potential threats posed by the other side as well as the power transition narrative. There is no other solution but to talk to each other. Through track 1.5 dialogues, academia and business sectors can help government actors build confidence and resume direct talks.

Second, credible crisis management channels must be set up between the two governments as a matter of the highest priority. This is critical for reducing the likelihood of inadvertent conflict arising from a misunderstanding or miscommunication.

Third, both sides must consider various frameworks for bilateral dialogue. They must move away from talking for the sake of talking toward result-oriented talks and target issue areas requiring urgent actions.

Finally, top-down approaches must be combined with bottom-up processes to ensure optimal results. Particularly, political leaders need to empower working-level experts to bring creativity and flexibility to their decision-making.

There is no getting around these building blocks. Leaders of the US and China must get back to the basics. They must reaffirm the principle of peaceful competition. They must re-summon the bold creativity from 50 years ago. They must reset their bilateral relationship for a safer and better world. They owe it to the whole of humanity.

The author is the former under secretary-general of the United Nations. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Contact the editor at editor@chinawatch.cn