At the end of July, Wendy Sherman, the US deputy secretary of state, paid an official visit to Tianjin, in northwest China. There she met with her counterpart, Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng. The purpose of the visit was to reduce tensions between the two countries.
It didn’t work.
Xie Feng had two letters for her. One was titled “List of US Wrongdoings that Must Stop,” the other, “List of Key Individual Cases that China Has Concerns With.” The first states that Washington must unconditionally remove visa restrictions on senior government officials and members of the Chinese Communist Party and their families who wish to enter the US. It also calls for eliminating US sanctions on party and government leaders. The second letter expresses “serious concerns” about the way certain Chinese citizens who have been banned from the US have been treated, as well as the bullying and harassment of diplomats and the growing anti-Chinese sentiment in the US.
A day later Deputy Secretary Sherman responded via Twitter: “We will continue to press the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to respect international norms and its international obligations.”
Since that meeting, things have only gotten worse. China has carried out tests of a new hypersonic missile that flies at more than five times the speed of sound. Swarms of up to 150 fighters and bombers have penetrated Taiwan’s air defense identification zone. China is building 119 underground silos to house ballistic missiles with global reach. A Pentagon report warns that the Asian giant is increasing its nuclear arsenal faster than was previously believed. China could have 700 nuclear warheads in 2027 and more than 1,000 by 2030 (the United States has 3,750).
Worldwide threats and problems threaten the national interest of both superpowers and cannot be mitigated or eliminated by either of them acting alone
In Washington, it is now a given that a second cold war has already begun. American planners realize that a prolonged conflict with China is imminent, even in the absence of direct military confrontation. Instead, conflicts will be settled in the economic, political, communications and cyber arenas, as well as in the world of espionage and sabotage. It will also likely play out in limited armed confrontations between countries allied with one or the other of the superpowers.
There are dozens of bills under consideration in the US Congress intended to limit, counter or sanction China. A survey conducted in early 2021 by the Pew Center found that 89% of Americans viewed China as a competitor or enemy. Sophisticated observers wring their hands over the Thucydides Trap, which posits that when a rising power threatens the dominant role of an established power, conflict is almost inevitable.
Surely, the United States and China are destined to compete. But what should be equally obvious is that they must also collaborate. Worldwide threats and problems threaten the national interest of both superpowers and cannot be mitigated or eliminated by either of them acting alone. The most obvious example is the fight against global warming. The very nature of the problem, as well as the policies to deal with it, require close collaboration between Beijing and Washington. And this coordination is not going to happen out of altruism, international solidarity or because it is simply the most reasonable solution. No, it will happen because it suits the powerful. It is in the national interest of these two giants to slow temperature rises, because the disasters that will follow will have no regard for oceans or borders.
Another example of an area in which collaboration between China and the United States is essential is global health. We know that Covid-19 is not the first nor will it be the last pandemic to affect the world. We also know that, in this pandemic, collaboration between governments—including the US and China— has been lousy. But the speed and efficiency with which scientists developed vaccines, and with which laboratories and companies in multiple countries produced billions of doses in record time, show that cooperation can still trump competition.
The list of areas in which the US and China will be forced to cooperate is long and urgent. The fight against nuclear proliferation – especially that of Iran and North Korea – and against the proliferation of chemical and biological weapons, Islamist terrorism, cyberattacks, the instability of the world financial system, piracy, and the chaos of mass migration are just some of the items. But the list goes on: drug trafficking and the trafficking of weapons and people as well as how to properly regulate the internet.
Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, posed what he described as a fundamental question: “Whether China and the United States can properly handle mutual relations is a question for the century that concerns the fate of the world, and both countries must answer it.”