Thursday, 8 June 2023

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The US must grasp the opportunity to stabilise relations with China

The US must grasp the opportunity to stabilise relations with China

The writer is a professor at Georgetown University and served on the US National Security Council staff from 2009-2015

A new phase in US-China strategic competition may be opening up. After months of acrimony and stasis, contact between the two countries is finally resuming. The challenge for Washington and Beijing is to capitalise on this moment to produce an enduring basis for stable relations. The future of global stability and prosperity depends on it.

This week, China’s new US ambassador arrived after a long vacancy. China’s commerce minister also travelled to Washington, the first senior official to visit since 2020. Most importantly, this month US national security adviser Jake Sullivan met China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, jump-starting dialogue frozen since the spring. This may become the most important bilateral channel for discussions.

More high-level interactions are coming. Several US cabinet officials are likely to travel to Beijing, probably culminating in a visit by Xi Jinping to San Francisco for the 31st Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit.

All this has created a window of opportunity to put the relationship on a more stable trajectory, or at least one less prone to accident, miscalculation or crisis. The opening is small and fragile but, done well, it could produce a relationship that is more predictable, resilient and productive. Both sides are signalling they want more stability — or at least less volatility and friction. But each wants this for different reasons, and it remains uncertain whether these views can be reconciled.

Washington wants dialogue and risk reduction, amid further policies of competition and pushback. By contrast, China wants to reduce the constant strategic pressure it faces from the US and its allies, while continuing to bend global rules and norms in its favour. The next few months will be a process of finding — or not finding — a new normal, a strategic equilibrium of sorts.

It comes at a critical time. This is Biden’s last chance before 2024 election dynamics consume Washington. The US and its allies are in the opening stages of a new type of strategic competition, one with little precedent in modern international affairs. This is geopolitical terra incognita for everyone.

So, how should policymakers best use the opportunity? First, US leaders and their counterparts in Europe and Asia need to proceed with a clear understanding of the moment. Xi’s China is capable,…

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