The relationship between the United States and China is the most important bilateral relationship in the world. When it goes smoothly, global tensions are low. When the relationship hits the rocks, tensions rise — not only between the U.S. and China but also throughout the world.
For many years, the relationship seemed to be improving. After President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China in 1972, the longtime antipathy between the two countries began to fade. Diplomatic ties were established in 1979 and trade was normalized in 2000.
Following the death of Chairman Mao Zedong, there was a sense that China’s leaders were people with whom we could work. It was tempting to think our economic interdependence and growing contacts would enable us to get along, regardless of fundamental differences. President Barack Obama undertook a “pivot” toward Asia, betting that cooperation with Asian allies would check China’s regional and global ambitions.
Under President Donald Trump, trade wars and tariffs took center stage. Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, harshly criticized China, suggested the Chinese Communist Party would lose its grip on power and blamed China for the COVID-19 pandemic.
China’s policy toward the United States, meanwhile, has become more confrontational. Since President Xi Jinping gained power in 2012, China has been increasingly assertive. Xi has promoted China’s system of autocratic government and state control of the economy as an alternative to an international order based on freedom and democracy.
China has cracked down on dissent, solidified its control of Hong Kong, threatened Taiwan, and oppressed the Uyghur population in Xinjiang province. It reacts angrily to criticism of its human-rights record and points to America’s failure to manage the coronavirus pandemic, our deep political divisions, and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol as evidence of flaws in the U.S. system.
China has pressed claims in the South China Sea, antagonizing us and our allies. It has used its Belt and Road Initiative to gain influence in Asia and Africa and seems intent on using its economic power to rewrite the rules of the international order to its benefit. All this challenges U.S. global leadership.
President Joe Biden insists the U.S. will face up to China’s threats to our security and values and confront its human-rights abuses and its attacks on intellectual property and global governance. Some observers expected Biden to take a conciliatory approach to China, but that’s not happening. At a recent meeting with their Chinese counterparts, top U.S. diplomats called out China’s behavior in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and Chinese leaders reacted defensively. Soon afterward, the U.S. and several allies imposed sanctions on Chinese officials over treatment of the Uyghurs.
With Xi showing no signs that China will change its behavior, standing up to China is necessary. It’s also crucial that Biden wants to work with allies, not go it alone. At the same time, Biden says the U.S. will work with China when it’s in our interest to do so, and it often is in our best interest.
To improve the relationship, we must look for commonalities — areas of mutual interest like climate change, arms control, cybersecurity, and trade. This is a key challenge for official diplomacy, but it’s broader than that. Interactions between American and Chinese businesses, artists, athletes, scholars, scientists, students, and ordinary citizens can foster understanding and create common ground.
In the end, this is a relationship that will take serious and sustained work. It is essential that we get it right, not just for the United States and China, but for the world.
Lee Hamilton, 89, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south central Indiana.