Can the US and China compete and cooperate at the same time?

Minxin Pei is professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and a nonresident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

At first glance, President Joe Biden’s China policy looks like a carbon copy of that of his predecessor, Donald Trump.

Since taking office in January, Biden has maintained tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars worth of Chinese imports, imposed new sanctions on Chinese companies and called out Beijing over its crackdown on Hong Kong and its persecution of Uighurs in Xinjiang.

But there is one major difference between Biden and Trump. While Trump, who claimed that climate change was a Chinese “hoax,” saw no room for cooperation with China, Biden has sought common ground with President Xi Jinping on climate change and other global issues.

Biden is not the only one who believes that the U.S. and China can both compete and cooperate. At a press conference during the Chinese National People’s Congress in March, Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared that competition between the two powers is nothing strange, and that the more important aspect of Sino-U.S. relations should be cooperation. He listed the pandemic, economic recovery and climate change as areas where the two countries could work together.

Still, neither side has yet shown that it is capable of striking such a delicate balance between competition and cooperation, with the two countries continuing to clash over human rights, technology, Taiwan, the South China Sea and Hong Kong since Biden took office.

The only acts of cooperation were a brief meeting between John Kerry, Biden’s climate envoy, and his Chinese counterpart in mid-April and Xi’s attendance at the virtual climate summit Biden hosted at the end of that month.

A screen at a shopping street in Beijing shows Xi Jinping attending a video summit on climate change on Apr. 16: the only acts of cooperation.   © Reuters

It may be too early to write off U.S.-China cooperation on climate and other vital issues of mutual concern. But the experience of the last six months suggests that the U.S. and China will be unlikely to succeed in finding a way to stabilize their relationship.

To be sure, any form of cooperation between two avowed geopolitical adversaries is going to be difficult. A minimal level of trust is needed for the U.S. and China to work together on anything. Sadly, no such trust exists today. China sees the U.S. as determined to thwart its rise, while Washington believes that Beijing is bent on displacing its global leadership and seeking world domination. When each side views the other through such a Manichaean, zero-sum perspective, there can be no trust.

Cooperation between the dueling adversaries might nevertheless be possible if the areas where they compete are fewer than the areas where they can potentially cooperate. In other words, the overall balance between competition and cooperation favors the latter. But this is not the situation with respect to U.S.-China relations today.

The competition between them encompasses nearly all areas of vital national interest, such as technological supremacy, security, trade and global influence. While the list of issues on which they compete is endless, Washington and Beijing are both hard put to come up with more than three or four issues where they see room for cooperation. In light of such an imbalance, it is little wonder that cooperation is relegated to a sideshow.

U.S.-China cooperation today is made even more difficult by the asymmetry of the issues at stake. Invariably, the issues on which the U.S. and China compete are urgent, tangible and politically sensitive, while issues amenable for cooperation, such as climate change, the pandemic and nuclear nonproliferation, are more distant, less tangible and politically not as salient although extreme weather may soon make climate change a more pressing issue.

When it comes to Taiwan’s security, sanctions on Chinese officials accused of human rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and restrictions on technology transfers to China, all have powerful U.S. advocates and demand quick decisions.

At the same time, Chinese leaders see Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang as nonnegotiable sovereignty issues on which they have staked their political credibility. As a result, competition on these issues unleashes self-reinforcing dynamics that lock both contestants in a downward spiral that renders cooperation in other areas all but impossible.

Hard as it may be to strike a viable balance between competition and cooperation, there seems to be no alternative to “co-competition.” Returning to engagement is obviously impossible, but a full-blown new Cold War would be catastrophic. The challenge facing Biden and Xi is how to salvage co-competition after an ominous start.

A more modest approach might be more productive. Since building trust through small incremental steps is more feasible than attempting to address big and more difficult tasks, the U.S. and China should give priority to less complicated issues. Examples include restoring cultural exchange programs like the Peace Corps and the Fulbright Program, lifting restrictions on journalists and allowing the return of those who have been expelled. Perhaps reopening the two closed consulates in Houston and Chengdu could help break the proverbial ice.

If American and Chinese leaders are willing to risk a moderate amount of political capital on this new approach now, they can tackle more daunting tasks later. Otherwise, they will be sliding down the path to a new Cold War that both must avoid.


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