President Barack Obama offers a toast to President Xi Jinping of China during a State Banquet at the Great Hall of People in Beijing, China, Nov. 12, 2014. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Why Did the US-China Relationship Collapse, and Can It Be Repaired?

After five years of plummeting relations between the US and China, Presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden met at the G20 summit in Bali last week. It was their first in-person meeting since Biden took office nearly two years ago. The aim, according to US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, was to “build a floor for the relationship and ensure that there are rules of the road that bound our competition.” Early indications are hopeful: the Xi-Biden meeting reportedly went well, and both sides seem genuinely interested in reducing the acrimony that now dominates. But the “guardrails” that the Biden administration has promoted to prevent open conflict are no match for the forces pushing the two countries into confrontation. A more ambitious agenda—in which the two countries work together to reform the global system—is needed to resolve the structural drivers of conflict.

The obstacles to such cooperation are daunting. Nationalism and militarism are growing in both countries, and a perception of zero-sum conflict prevails among political elites in both. But a global reform agenda fits the stated aspirations of both sides. If undertaken, it would simultaneously build trust and reduce pressures toward confrontation. Most importantly, it is desperately needed to overcome the truly existential dangers—climate change, pandemic disease, global inequality—now facing all people regardless of their nationality.

Less than 10 years ago, when President Barack Obama held his first meeting with newly inaugurated President Xi, the possibilities for great power cooperation looked bright. Despite long-running points of friction over Taiwan, trade, and human rights, the two presidents were keenly aware of the terrible dangers that historically have accompanied a rising power’s challenge of a jealous global hegemon. They took steps to reduce tensions and build a foundation for cooperation—measures that bore fruit over the next couple years. In 2014, for example, the United States and China worked together closely to resolve the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and concluded a major bilateral agreement on limiting greenhouse gas emissions, the single most important step on the path to the Paris Agreement.

Today, these examples of great-power cooperation feel like something out of a dream. Instead, each side launches tendentious broadsides against the other, scapegoating them for domestic problems. US leaders say that China is undermining the international order’s support for democracy and human rights; Chinese leaders say the US wants to keep developing countries subordinated forever. The United States has launched a limited but extremely provocative form of economic warfare against China, seeking to destroy its most prominent multinational company, Huawei, and cut off all Chinese tech companies from essential inputs of advanced semiconductors. The two countries are engaged in an escalating tit-for-tat exchange of provocative military and diplomatic moves around Taiwan, and there is a growing sense in both capitals that a war over Taiwan may be inevitable.

Read the full piece in The Nation.

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