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Why the bilateral relationship really is ‘the most consequential’

By Zhao Huanxin | China Daily USA | Updated: 2018-11-01 22:54

When John Allen, president of the Brookings Institution, said the US-China relationship is “the most consequential” bilateral relationship of the 21st century in Washington on Tuesday, I realized he had said the same thing a few weeks before.

Allen again didn’t elaborate, and he needn’t to. To my knowledge, at least three public discussions were held on Tuesday in different venues blocks apart, focusing invariably on China-US relations, from trade conflicts to long-term interests to myths the two peoples hold about each other.

It is not surprising that so many events are devoted on a single day to reviewing the status quo and trends in relations between the world’s top two economies, given they are locked in an escalating trade conflict and face seemingly rising tensions on many other fronts.

But it is interesting to observe the takeaways from the discussions, which mostly favor de-escalation of the blistering trade issues, prefer cooperation to competition and seek to bridge the gaps that separate the two countries.

In a seminar held by the Institute for China-America Studies Tuesday morning, senior economists from the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank examined how the protectionist tit-for-tat is already wreaking havoc on the economies of the warring parties as well as the region and the world.

The trade standoff that that US administration initiated is going to cost at least 8.6 million jobs in China and incur 329,000 job losses in the US in the worst-case scenario, Valerie Mercer-Blackman of the ADB said at the discussion.

Shanaka Jayanath Peiris from the IMF argued that the aggregate labor displacement is limited, but some sectors, like textiles in China and agriculture in the US, could be hit hard.

The East Asia and Southeast Asia region, whose supply chains are centered on China, is the most dynamic growth center in the global economy today. A prolonged trade conflict will damage confidence and deter investment much beyond this affected region, the Institute for China-America Studies said in a statement.

One of Tuesday’s most important thinktank events was “China Debate: Are US and Chinese long-term interests fundamentally incompatible?” held in the afternoon at the Brookings.

The affirmative team, led by Evan Medeiros, Penner Family Chair in Asian Studies at Georgetown University, argued that US-Chinese interests are substantially and increasingly incompatible, with more divergence than convergence.

Medeiros warned that “continuing to deny that our interests are diverging more than converging is dangerous” because he said that would “embolden” China to be more assertive in pursuing its multiple interests.

But Susan A. Thornton, former acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, on the opposing team, maintained that the conflicts of the two countries are manageable and that they have many interests in common — either in countering instability and conflict among regional hotspots; fighting terrorism and extremism, or in promoting prosperity for both and other countries in the globe.

“Maybe the most fundamental interest we have in common is the mutual desire to avoid conflict,” said Thornton, now senior fellow at Paul Tsai China Center of Yale Law School. “I would also argue that China is not a revisionist, that China sees itself as wanting to prolong and continue the existing international order, albeit with some changes.”

Before the nearly 90-minute debate, 35 percent of the audience voted that US and Chinese long-term interests are incompatible, while 50 percent disagreed, and 15 percent were undecided.

“After the debate, 53 percent disagreed,” announced Evan Osnos, a nonresident fellow with the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings.

The event on Tuesday evening – a panel discussion followed by the screening of the latest documentary on China-US relations — was a light one but shed light on serious issues, including whether Americans really understand China.

Five years in the making, the 90-minute film Better Angels directed by two-time Academy Award-winner Malcolm Clarke is an ode to ordinary men and women in the two countries who have put the relationship on firm footing.

In the words of co-producer William Mundell, the document tells the wider benefits of US-China cooperation, the dark side of globalization for the Chinese and the common humanity that drives China and the US together.

After seeing the film, I agree with him that through the lens of ordinary Americans and Chinese seeking to bridge the gaps separating them, the film will help to shatter myths that Americans have about China, and Chinese have about the US.

And all the more I understand what Allen means when he said Beijing and Washington comprise “the most consequential bilateral relations of the 21st century”.

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