Washington – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week delivered a scorched-earth assessment of just how bad things have gotten between the United States and China. He cited huge disagreements over theft of intellectual property, Chinese claims to the entire South China Sea, competition in 5G networking, antagonistic forays in cyberspace, trade and tariff violations, the crackdown in Hong Kong, pressure on Taiwan — the list of disputes seems endless.
Now each side has closed an important consulate in the other’s territory, ships and aircraft from both nations are maneuvering dangerously in the western Pacific, and even the phase-one trade deal — touted as a significant achievement just a few months ago — appears to be at risk. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has clearly decided China will be a pinata from now until the November election.
My own views on China have been shaped over decades of at-sea service in the Pacific that included many official visits, business trips and conferences since leaving the Navy, and close study of the nation as dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts. Several years ago, we awarded Fletcher’s Alumni of the Year Award to Liu Xiaoming, now the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom. He and I were classmates at Fletcher, earning our degrees in 1983. Over the past decade, he has at times been laudatory about the U.S. and pushed for closer ties, although recent events have moved him, too, toward more hard-line positions.
Washington needs to bend the arc of the relationship between the two most important geopolitical actors of the 21st century, but had better be careful not to break it altogether. That is a significant risk, especially in an election year in the highly polarized U.S. Bottom line: America should confront China where it must over crucial policy issues — but at the same time seek zones of cooperation wherever it can.
One possible area of cooperation may seem odd, but offers a real chance to work together: the Arctic. China, despite lacking actual shoreline there, has been interested in what sailors call the High North. Beijing has been granted observer status in the eight-member Arctic Council and has been active in maritime operations, largely in concert with Russia. It is engaged with Greenland, establishing a satellite ground station and a broader research facility. China is also building a 30,000-ton nuclear-powered icebreaker, comparable to the largest Russian vessels.
The Chinese are mostly interested in exploiting minerals, oil, gas and commercial shipping routes. But there may be room to cooperate, and some initial Arctic confidence-building measures the U.S. could explore include joint search-and-rescue exercises, scientific research and protocols for ship and aircraft proximity (which could later be applied in the South China Sea if they were successful in the Arctic).
A second obvious place to work together is in controlling Kim Jong Un of North Korea. Neither the U.S. nor China has any interest in permitting Kim to further expand his nuclear arsenal (especially the U.S., given its allies in East Asia). For China, a war between the U.S. and North Korea would be a disaster — Kim would lose, and waves of refugees would flow across the China-North Korea border. Working together, the U.S. and China could put irresistible economic, diplomatic and military pressure on North Korea to cease provocative actions and control its small but significant nuclear capability.
True, no approach has worked with North Korea thus far. Trump’s “personal diplomacy,” U.S. President Barack Obama’s “strategic patience” and President George W. Bush’s stick-over-carrot approach did not slow the growth of the nuclear arsenal and the ballistic missiles. In the end, it seems, all roads to Pyongyang run through Beijing.
Another potential zone of cooperation is the environment. The U.S. and China, as the two largest economies in the world, both have a vested interest and fundamental responsibility in ameliorating the degrading global climate. And they found ways of working together when Obama was president.
Step one in building a zone of cooperation here is for the U.S. to re-enter the Paris climate accords, something the Trump administration has adamantly opposed. Fortunately, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has pledged that should he win election, the U.S. would rejoin the pact.
A fourth possibility for collaboration involves the coronavirus pandemic. While there is immense resentment in the U.S. toward China as the source of the virus, it is in both nations’ interests to lessen the impact globally — especially on emerging mega-economies such as India, Pakistan, Nigeria, South Africa and Brazil. Cooperating in deploying personal protective gear, sending medical expertise, helping distribute vaccines when they become available, and assisting with economic impact is something that could be undertaken jointly.
There are certainly other places China and the U.S. could work together — arms control; a global cybersecurity regime (perhaps similar to the Law of the Sea convention); and disaster relief operations (both nations have highly capable hospital ships, for example). None of this is likely between now and the U.S. election. But once we are past that flashpoint, it would be greatly in the interests of both nations to at least explore ideas like these.
Pompeo may be right about China’s bad behavior, but he seems unaware that more cooperation is a key to changing things. The alternative is stumbling into a new Cold War.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.