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Published: 01:16, May 10, 2023 | Updated: 10:08, May 10, 2023
America should rebuild mutual trust with China as partners in world peace
By Andrew KP Leung
Published:01:16, May 10, 2023 Updated:10:08, May 10, 2023 By Andrew KP Leung

According to the latest Pew Research Center findings, 83 percent of American adults have negative views of China. Four in 10 Americans describe China as an enemy, up 13 points from last year.

Americans are critical of China’s global role and its relationship with Russia. Republicans (84 percent) and Democrats (80 percent) say China doesn’t contribute much or at all to global peace and stability. Most see little chance for cooperation.

Tomes are appearing thick and fast that in this decade, America must fight a decisive contest with China over the future shape of the world.

US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen confirms that America prioritizes security concerns over economic costs. US President Joe Biden is reportedly about to ban American foreign direct investment in China’s “sensitive technologies”. Even China’s globally popular social media platform TikTok is at risk of being banned nationwide on grounds of national security.

American hotheaded politicking and public hysteria continue to push US no-holds-barred confrontation with China to the breaking point, oblivious to Beijing’s red lines, including Taiwan and risks of Armageddon.

Apart from the so-called “Thucydides Trap”, much of the current poisoned relationship stems from deep-seated misconceptions or myths about China.

First, the China Dream of becoming a “strong, democratic, civilized, harmonious, and modern socialist country” by 2049, the People’s Republic of China’s centenary, is not a “secret strategy to replace America as the global superpower” as portrayed in Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-Year Marathon.

As expounded by Michael Beckley in Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the World’s Sole Superpower, America is surrounded by two oceans and friendly nations, with many allies across the globe and a cornucopia of natural resources. Its military remains unmatched in sophistication, global outreach and readiness.

America’s economy rests on solid foundations of cutting-edge homegrown technologies and innovation. ChatGPT is the latest example that comes to mind; also the vast list of American Nobel laureates.

China’s rise is to bring about better lives for its people; 800 million people have already been lifted out of abject poverty in recent years. However, more than 40 percent of her 1.4 billion people still live on less than $5 a day, many without a pension or medical insurance. There is also the issue of aging demographics.

Contrary to misplaced rhetoric of “democracy against autocracy”, the Communist Party of China-led government remains the most supported by its people, multiple ranks above many Western nations, including the United States, according to the latest studies of the Harvard Kennedy School Ash Center and the New York-based Edelman Trust Barometer.

In a global survey of March 14, the Paris-based Ipsos research center found that China’s people were among the happiest in the world, thanks to high degrees of stability, security and positive outlook. Over the past four decades, the CPC has succeeded in miraculously transforming the lives of China’s population. This raises the question why America’s example of dysfunctional democracy with broken infrastructure and poisoned politics should work for China, or indeed some other developing countries.

China is not monolithic, contrary to hawkish rhetoric fixated on the past. Nor is it perfect by any means. China’s remarkable development has involved active engagement with the rest of the world. Similarly, the US should positively engage China if certain reforms are desired

Those who accuse China of being “aggressive” in the South China Sea fail to recognize the imperative of defending critical sea lanes of communication through which transits China’s economic lifeblood of international trade and essential commodities. China’s seaboard is encircled by US military “island chains” centered on Okinawa and Guam, not forgetting the Malacca Strait chokepoint. China’s very economic survival depends on keeping these sea lanes free and open for international trade.

Most Taiwan residents prefer the status quo, fearful of the existential risks of independence. Over 157,000 Taiwan residents live and work on the mainland, and many others regularly visit the mainland as tourists; and many mainland residents also regularly visit the island. While fully prepared militarily for the worst, Beijing’s clear preference remains peaceful unification (as in the case of Hong Kong), as stated in three serial white papers on the Taiwan question.

The Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region used to be a hotbed for the East Turkestan independence movement. Countermeasures are keeping the situation under control. The huge region is strategically important for China, not only for its rich cotton, energy and mineral resources, but also as a key passage for the Belt and Road Initiative connecting Eurasia. Virtually all cotton harvesting has become fully mechanized, requiring little manual labor.

Following the enactment of the National Security Law for Hong Kong, the city is re-emerging from chaos to vitality as a liberal and inclusive common-law jurisdiction with excellent infrastructure. As a world-class financial center, it is a global pivot closely linked to the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area of 86 million people, a significant proportion of China’s massive middle-class and a vast market open to foreign businesses.

Following the emergence of peace in the Middle East brokered by President Xi Jinping, a host of European and other top leaders have made a beeline for Beijing. Twenty more countries want to join the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. By 2035, emerging economies’ share of global GDP will have risen to 61 percent, using purchasing-power-parity measurements (Global Economic Outlook, The Conference Board, April 2023).

With too many pointless and disastrous wars, the tide is turning toward peace and development as more and more developing countries want to follow their own growth trajectory not dictated by the West’s one-size-fits-all recipe.

China has become the largest trading partner for some 128 countries, compared with 58 for the US. It is deeply embedded in the world’s intricate supply and value chains. No other country can replace the efficiency, scale and comprehensiveness of China’s productive infrastructure.

Meaningful decoupling doesn’t seem like a feasible solution. Tariffs, sanctions and trade diversion notwithstanding, exports from China unexpectedly surged 14.8 percent from a year earlier to an eight-month high of $315.59 billion in March 2023.

During a Financial Times interview on March 2, Bill Gates said he didn’t think that the US will ever be successful at preventing China from having great (semiconductor) chips, given China’s ability at scale to catch up fairly quickly.

In the mid-1990, as a US-sponsored “international visitor”, I was privileged to share my thoughts on post-1989 China with top American corporate leaders in person, including Steve Forbes. In 2002, I was invited to Buckingham Palace to brief the newly-appointed UK special representative for trade and investment in anticipation of his first China visit. On both occasions, I counseled positive and targeted engagement.

What is different this time is that China has grown much bigger, and is becoming more globally influential, including playing a constructive role in brokering or maintaining peace. Witness the Middle East and now possibly over the Russia-Ukraine conflict. China remains the largest contributor to UN peace-keeping contingents among the permanent members of the UN Security Council.

China is not monolithic, contrary to hawkish rhetoric fixated on the past. Nor is it perfect by any means. China’s remarkable development has involved active engagement with the rest of the world. Similarly, the US should positively engage China if certain reforms are desired.

There is no lack of targeted areas for positive engagement. Clean energy, new materials, smart grids, smart cities, water conservation, healthcare, pharmaceuticals, agronomy, branded consumer products, lifestyle businesses, selected space exploration and research, marine conservation, joint naval patrols outside claimed territorial waters, reform of the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, etc. The list is only limited by imagination.

Done right one project at a time, the process could work wonders in breaking down barriers and mutual mistrust, leading to positive outcomes for a more peaceful and prosperous world.

The author is an international and independent China strategist, and was previously the director-general of social welfare and Hong Kong’s official chief representative for the United Kingdom, Eastern Europe, Russia, Norway and Switzerland.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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