Balancing cooperation and competition in U.S.-China relations

On February 4, the Brookings Institution convened a panel of scholars from the United States and China to discuss touchpoints in the critical relationship between the two countries. Panelists from both sides noted improvements in bilateral communication and emphasized that the United States and China continue to have ample cause to work together. But the discussion also underscored the complexity of certain regional issues and the associated risk that prolonged stalemate could give way to disillusionment.

Leading the Chinese delegation was Ambassador Su Ge, president of the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS), one of China’s oldest and most respected think tanks. Asked by Brookings John L. Thornton China Center Director Cheng Li, who moderated the discussion, to explain how he came up with the title for the event—“Regional Cooperation and Competition: China and the U.S. in the Asia Pacific”—Ambassador Su indicated that he aimed to capture the dual nature of the U.S.-China relationship. Teng Jianqun, director of the Department of American Studies at CIIS, similarly observed that “cooperation and competition in the Asia-Pacific region between China and the United States has been intensifying.”

The panelists agreed that cooperation stands to benefit both sides. “Broadly speaking, the United States and China do agree that we should cooperate where we can,” said Brookings Senior Fellow Kenneth Lieberthal. Ambassador Su posited that, without the countries’ joint efforts, “it’s hard to expect a solution” to the world’s most pressing issues.

Despite that optimistic backdrop, the discussion betrayed a disconnect over details. Lieberthal faulted, in part, ambiguous policy positions in both governments, such as China’s unwillingness to define the nine-dash line in the South China Sea and inconsistent statements from U.S. policymakers about the scope of U.S. interests in the region.

Ambassador Su challenged the notion that U.S.-China diplomacy has lacked concrete results, calling the recent agreement on cybersecurity “a bright spot of cooperation.” Su also cited the stasis over the Diaoyu Islands—which Japan calls the Senkaku Islands and claims as its own—as evidence that China and other major powers could reach stable compromises on complex issues.

But consensus has eluded the United States and China when it comes to dealing with North Korea. Ambassador Su stated that, given China’s proximity to the rogue nation, leaders in Beijing take North Korea’s repeated provocations extremely seriously. He described how tremors shook Chinese schools near the North Korean border during the most-recent nuclear test, with cracks forming on playgrounds. But Su argued that cutting off essential supplies like oil and grain to North Korea would harm the country’s civilians without inducing any change in Pyongyang’s behavior. Instead, he called for “tough sanctions” that leave room for North Korea to negotiate without being backed into a corner.

Brookings Senior Fellow Jonathan Pollack questioned the logic of China’s tough stance on the South China Sea given its risk-averse approach to the “clear and present danger of a nuclear armed state” on its border. “This discussion highlights that both countries continue to talk past each other,” he said. As a way out of the impasse, Pollack called for recognizing the primacy of certain issues—and certain voices—and for candid dialogue that works to bridge differences between the United States and China, rather than sweeping those differences under the rug.

Cheng Li concluded the event by recalling a statement by Ronald Reagan—“So long as books are kept open, then minds can never be closed”—which he adapted and applied to U.S.-China relations: “I think as long as the doors are open, exchanges are open, our relationship could not be that bad.”

For the entire exchange between the panelists, download the transcript.