America and China Need to Talk

A Lack of Dialogue, Visits, and Exchanges Is Raising the Risk of Conflict

Relations between the United States and China have fallen to their darkest depths since the early 1970s, when U.S. President Richard Nixon met with Chinese leader Mao Zedong (and Nixon’s national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, met with Mao’s deputy Zhou Enlai) in a bid to end the hostility that had characterized the relationship since the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) triumphed in the Chinese Civil War in 1949. The decades of détente and cooperation that eventually resulted from Nixon and Mao’s dialogue now seem like ancient history. Today, officials and commentators all over the world fear that not only is a cold war between the two powers inevitable but also that they will sooner or later come to blows, if not over Taiwan, then in the South China Sea or elsewhere. In the meantime, the economic juggernaut some called “Chimerica,” produced by the interdependence of the U.S. and Chinese economies, is gradually being dismantled by both countries’ growing technology restrictions, efforts to reroute supply chains, and focus on building up economic resilience.

Whether one believes that the United States and China are destined to be adversaries, might somehow find a pathway back to greater cooperation, or will have a more complicated relationship, it should be clear that it would be better for people from both countries—government officials, business leaders, scholars, and ordinary citizens—to have a greater understanding of each other. And there is no better way to build such mutual understanding than through face-to-face interactions and visits in which people can observe each other’s societies and speak at length in formal and informal settings about their perspectives and experiences.

In the three years since the COVID-19 pandemic began, such people-to-people contact among American and Chinese people has almost entirely vanished. Between 2019 and 2022, flights between the two countries declined by over 95 percent, scholarly exchanges dried up, the number of students from the United States and China studying in the other country plummeted, corporate employees abandoned China in droves, and the ranks of foreign correspondents dwindled in the wake of unprecedented expulsions by both governments. Online meetings have exploded in popularity but are no substitute for the real thing. The lack of face-to-face contact is not the source of tensions between their two countries, but it is an obstacle to stabilizing ties, avoiding a crisis, and cooperating on bilateral issues and global challenges such as climate change and public health.

Concerned about the trajectory of the U.S.-Chinese relationship and frustrated by our inability to do field research, we put our money (and masks) where our mouths are and endured almost 70 days of quarantine in China in order to make extended visits in the spring and fall of 2022—Kennedy to China, and Wang to the United States. We met with government officials, business executives, scholars, journalists, and foreign diplomats. At a time when Americans and Chinese were frequently talking about each other but hardly talking to each other, our visits offered a rare window into the state of the relationship. What we found was both disturbing and reassuring, and we came away believing that the path to a more constructive relationship flows through rebuilding the sinews of deep and comprehensive social interaction: people-to-people ties, face-to-face communication, cultural exchanges, and on-the-ground fieldwork and observation.

We have visited one another’s countries many times in the past three decades, and our most recent visits have left us with the strong impression that the past three years have been a period of substantial social ferment and transformation in both places. Protest and dissent are enduring facets of American life, but in recent years, public expressions of anger over pandemic restrictions, police brutality, and the 2020 presidential election produced an unusual amount of disorder and upheaval. Meanwhile, a rise in crime and ongoing gun violence have put many Americans on edge.

The changes in China have been even more dramatic. On the upside, the importance of the race to get ahead in professional and material terms seemed to recede as people focused more on their health and well-being, taking up exercise as never before and dressing more casually. Levels of smog and air pollution fell, and electric vehicles suddenly seemed ubiquitous. But more prominent were the signs of social strain. China’s “zero COVID” policy left millions of citizens isolated and closed the country off from the rest of the world. The economy reeled as consumers avoided stores and private businesspeople held back from investing. After a lengthy lockdown in Shanghai in the spring of 2022, frustration with the restrictions grew, and in the fall of that year, some Chinese publicly protested. No one could have predicted the restlessness or the sudden end to zero COVID, which came in December, but it was clear that everyone was relieved to see that policy end.

Equally dramatic were the changes in the mood in both countries about the bilateral relationship. The pandemic isolated the two countries from each other and led to the creation of echo chambers on both sides: as tensions rose, the lack of contact made it difficult to empathize and see things from the other’s perspective. In both countries, a hawkish consensus began to harden into an orthodox view: U.S.-Chinese competition had transformed into an existential conflict.

Both Beijing and Washington believe the other is entirely to blame for the deterioration in ties and that their own actions are rational responses to the other’s unreasonable aggression. Chinese officials seem convinced that Washington’s goal is, in the words of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, to “contain, surround, and suppress China.” In this view, to maintain global hegemony, the United States seeks to loosen the CCP’s grip on power and limit China’s growth. The Chinese narrative starts with alleged U.S. “interference” in Xinjiang and Hong Kong in the 2010s, followed by the Trump administration’s tariffs and sanctions on Huawei and other tech firms, which have continued under the Biden administration.

Beijing is highly skeptical that Washington accepts the Communist Party’s rule as legitimate.
For its part, Washington is convinced that Beijing wants to unravel the post–World War II international order built on the rule of law, a market-based global economy, and the U.S. alliance system. The U.S. narrative begins with Washington’s invitation for China to join the World Trade Organization and become a “responsible stakeholder”—which, in the American view, was a benevolent gesture that Beijing essentially rejected by continuing to unfairly subsidize Chinese companies, restrict U.S. companies’ access to China’s markets, steal intellectual property, restrict human rights, and make aggressive military moves in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

These stories are more or less mutually exclusive, and neither side believes the other has much credibility when it comes to making commitments to improve ties. Washington believes China’s top leadership is firmly set on ending the period of harmonious coexistence with the United States and abandoning the pro-market agenda of the “reform and opening up” that began in the late 1970s. Beijing, meanwhile, is highly skeptical of U.S. assertions that Washington accepts the legitimacy of CCP rule and respects China’s right to develop. And Chinese officials have come to believe that one cannot trust the U.S. president to make good on any promises, since anything he does could be undone by Congress—or the next president.

Reverberating in the echo chambers on both sides of the Pacific is a note of profound fatalism, a sense that greater economic tensions and security conflict are inevitable. This view is creating a self-reinforcing vicious cycle, and as long as a sense of resignation pervades both capitals, breaking it may prove impossible.

Consider the way the two policy communities view the war between Russia and Ukraine and tensions in the Taiwan Strait. In February 2022, Wang was visiting Washington when Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin released a joint declaration hailing their countries’ partnership with “no limits.” When Russian troops marched into Ukraine less than three weeks later, he found that it was hard for Americans to believe that Moscow had not informed Beijing of its plans. Some Americans expected China to condemn Russia’s “special military operation,” as China often asks other states to respect sovereignty rights and seek peaceful solutions to territorial disputes. But to Washington’s disappointment, China has pursued a different approach.

As Kennedy found in discussions in Beijing later in 2022, Chinese elites genuinely believed that NATO’s expansion had generated Russian anxieties about its security, prompting Putin’s decision to attack. At the same time, his conversations also revealed a surprising level of disagreement with Xi’s strong political support for Putin and unwillingness to condemn the invasion; several Chinese elites Kennedy spoke with saw this response as essentially turning a Russian strategic blunder into a Chinese one. That lack of consensus among Chinese officials and experts may help explain why Beijing has struggled to find a workable approach and steady message.

Discussions in Washington and Beijing also revealed very different impressions about the likelihood of conflict over Taiwan. In early 2022, a number of Americans expressed to Wang some apprehension that China might take advantage of Washington’s focus on the war in Ukraine to launch a military attack on Taiwan. Months later, after Nancy Pelosi, then the U.S. House speaker, visited Taiwan in August, quite a few Americans with whom Wang spoke, including senior U.S. military officials, speculated that Beijing might have a timetable for taking Taiwan by force. That speculation could have been based on U.S. intelligence reports but could also have been provoked by some Chinese social media posts that called on the Chinese military to “liberate” Taiwan and fulfill the mission of national reunification.

In contrast, based on his conversations with CCP officials and experts, Kennedy concluded that the war in Ukraine was making China more restrained, not less. Some in China’s military seemed to believe that Washington was secretly goading Beijing into attacking Taiwan so that it would get bogged down in a “Taiwan trap” akin to the U.S. experience in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Moreover, experts on Chinese technology policy pointed out that even if the Chinese military faced no opposition in Taiwan and took the island without firing a shot, Taiwan’s semiconductor manufacturing capacity would not suddenly become the mainland’s. Semiconductor fabrication plans are too complex for even skilled outsiders to operate on their own, raw materials from suppliers and orders from customers would dry up quickly, and equipment providers could easily tweak a few lines of code or change the temperature in the facilities to make production impossible.

Our travels helped us understand why efforts to stabilize relations during the Biden presidency have so far failed and why they were derailed earlier this year when a Chinese high-altitude balloon was spotted over the American mainland and eventually shot down by the U.S. military. The paucity of contact and dialogue has made the relationship brittle; there is now hardly any margin for error or miscommunication. Given the chances of an accidental crisis, there is no time to waste in rebuilding connections between the two countries.

One place to start would be the simple matter of travel. Visas for China have become easier to obtain since January, and Washington has removed all COVID-related testing requirements for travelers from China. There are still far too few flights between the two countries, however; vast unmet demand has pushed the price of some round-trip economy-class tickets up to $7,000. Airlines in both countries want to add more flights but have been reluctant to do so because the two governments have yet to reach an agreement on lifting certain restrictions they imposed when the pandemic began. What is more, U.S. airlines are hesitant to add more flights because, as a result of the war in Ukraine, they are unable to fly between the United States and China via the shorter polar route, which gives Chinese airlines a competitive advantage. Washington and Beijing should press airlines to add at least a few more direct flights as soon as possible and keep working toward a more durable solution that would permit the restoration of flights to at least 80 percent of pre-pandemic levels by year’s end.

Beijing and Washington should also provide greater reassurance to American and Chinese students, scholars, businesspeople, medical experts, and journalists who wish to visit the other country that that they are welcome and that their activities will be protected and encouraged. For example, executives need assurances that their employees will be fairly treated and greater certainty about what business is and is not permitted. And scholars need greater clarity about how to comply with rules regarding collaborative research so as not to run afoul of national security concerns.

Members of the U.S. Congress and China’s National People’s Congress should resume trips to the other country.
Chinese officials regularly express frustration with how Americans misunderstand China. Americans might not accept the Chinese point of view on a wide variety of issues, but they are far more likely to reject it or adhere to simplistic pictures of China if they cannot obtain access to the country and deepen their understanding. They need visas to enter China, the ability to travel around the country and meet people, and have access to Chinese databases, publications, and archives. Similarly, the United States needs an “open door” policy to allow Chinese from all walks of life, even CCP members, to come to the United States. Only those Chinese citizens who pose genuine security risks should be restricted from visiting.

As they rebuild people-to-people links, the two governments should also find a path back to official dialogue by setting aside unreasonable preconditions and needless limits to the range of acceptable topics. Such communication is most crucial at the level of the executive branches in both governments. But members of the U.S. Congress and China’s National People’s Congress should also resume trips to the other country. Congressional delegations have long been a critical source of knowledge for both sides.

It is difficult to muster much optimism that Washington and Beijing will take these steps. For the foreseeable future, relations are most likely to continue deteriorating. And it would be naive to believe that renewed communication would necessarily yield increased mutual appreciation or respect; indeed, more knowledge could also reinforce negative views and add to tensions. But at a minimum, talking—and listening—would increase the chances that the two countries will find ways to peacefully manage their differences.

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