With all the division in Washington, DC, former President Jimmy Carter offered some useful historical perspective on how to find common ground with China, as opposed to putting a “critical relationship in jeopardy.”
Drawing on his own experience of normalizing diplomatic relations with Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping 40 years ago in an op-ed published by the Washington Post, Carter says the key is to identify common goals to address intractable global problems that require leadership by the world’s two largest economic powerhouses.
“While today’s leaders face a different world [than 1979], the cause of peace remains just as important,” Carter says. “Leaders must bring new vision, courage and ingenuity to new challenges and opportunities…. They also must accept our conviction that the United States and China need to build their futures together, for themselves and for humanity at large.”
Carter’s retrospective of his own dealings with China comes with a backdrop of President Trump engaging in a trade war with China. The negotiated 90-day pause in further escalation of the trade war affords an opportunity, Carter says, to recalibrate the relationship and the means to resolve disputes.
“The U.S. imposition of tariffs on $200 billion worth of Chinese good and China’s retaliatory tariffs contribute to the deteriorating relationship, hurting both countries,” he says, which could descend into a Cold War over the Pacific.
Carter recalls that establishing a normalized relationship with China put an end to three decades of hostility and “led to an era distinguished by peace in East Asia and in the pacific Region.” “China’s spectacular economic growth, in conjunction with its continuing integration with the much larger US economy, has enabled the two countries to become engines of global prosperity.”
Political and economic concerns over Chinese economic ascendancy, growing military power and resistance to full democratization can overshadow the opportunities the two nations could pursue together, Carter insists. “The 40thanniversary of this relationship is a testament to the ability of countries with different histories, cultures and political systems to work together for the greater good.”
He urges quick resolution of trade issues, including “trade imbalances, intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers and unfair barriers to US investments.” Carter dismisses use of “national security” as a reason to obstruct to commercial relationships and claims, “China needs competition for its economy to innovate and grow. Pursuing a fair and reciprocal relationship is the only way for both countries to remain economically strong.”
While he doesn’t say as much in his op-ed, Carter implies that US negotiators must approach their Chinese counterparts differently than, say, European officials. The Chinese view themselves as the oldest nation on earth and the cradle of many of the world’s most important inventions. As such, they bridle at direct criticism and resist confrontational tactics. Cultural sensitivity is a must to get anywhere. Much of the debate over access to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea can be traced to historical dominance by China of major trading lanes in Southeast Asia and Eastern Africa.
The current government in China is a post-WWII product and the winner of a civil war. While communist in name, China’s ruling party has moved from communal to a form of market-oriented economics, with a strong role for state-sponsored policies. Those policies can be very effective because of Chinese acquiescence to collective goals. However, Chinese officials are mindful that their way of doing business can rub the rest of the world the wrong way. The secret is to find approaches and compromises that don’t offend the Chinese, offer concrete resolutions to legitimate disputes and restore a level of comity between the two nations that will be major competitors and collaborators for the foreseeable future.
For its part, Carter says, the United States should return to the Paris climate accord to strike a collaboration with China on how to decrease greenhouse gas emissions in both the developed and undeveloped world. The US should continue to invite China to play an intermediary role in reducing, if not eliminating, the nuclear threat on the Korean Peninsula. And, the two countries should work hand in hand to develop Africa economically in ways that enrich its citizens, not dictators.
Other forms of collaboration might include joint space research. The Chinese currently have a robotic space probe on the dark side of the moon, the first such probe by any nation. Current US policy forbids exchange of space technology with China. A new space race would be costly and counter-productive, while collaborative efforts may advance knowledge and eventually colonization of the moon and Mars much faster. They might even have a benefit on earth, as the Chinese have announced plans to launch a man-made moon, which is actually a gigantic mirror designed to provide lunar lighting that cuts heating bills.
The two nations also could team up to deal with cyber-terrorism. Intelligence suggests there are state-sponsored cyber-hackers in China. An improved relationship with China may turn hacking into common defense against hackers and disinformation agents. While China still has censorship, its citizens are increasingly exposed to foreign ideas and ideals. Its economic aspirations lie closer to the United States than Russia, which could be persuasive for Chinese officials to join US efforts to combat Russian interference designed to create division and dysfunction.
As has often been the case in his post-presidency, Carter offers plenty to chew on in the new year. One of his signal achievements as President serves as a useful, timely reminder that the harder road to take can be the most productive – and peaceful.