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US, China urged to manage competition

By ZHAO HUANXIN in Washington | China Daily | Updated: 2021-05-07 07:10
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Washington and Beijing need to learn how to coexist and collectively address issues of common interest, even though the Biden administration has increasingly characterized relations between the United States and China as "strategic competition", a panel of experts said on Wednesday.

"We need to avoid the 'Thucydides Trap' — we need to avoid this premise that an ascending power and a status quo power must inevitably come to conflict; we need to learn how to coexist," retired Lieutenant General Charles W. Hooper, a former US defense attache to China, said during a webinar sponsored by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Experts agreed at the event that the US administration has assessed that strategic competition is the "dominant" feature of US-China relations, but that it needs to be managed, and there are areas for cooperation.

"We will have a strategic competition, but we need to understand the boundaries of that competition, so that it does not inevitably transform itself into conflict, because the ramifications of that conflict would be devastating not only for the Asia-Pacific region, but for the world," Hooper said.

Hooper, who now works for the business advisory company The Cohen Group founded by former US defense secretary William Cohen, cautioned that this situation contributes to the possibility for miscalculation when one side overestimates its military capabilities against the other.

In terms of engagement in the military realm, Hooper proposed that China and the US first engage in humanitarian assistance and disaster response, for example in working together to address typhoon or hurricane relief in the Indo-Pacific region.

Meetings of senior military leaders of the two sides should continue to serve as a "convenient" and "necessary" forum for understanding each side's position.

"The third area where I think that there's potential for cooperation in the security realm is in the area of crisis management or crisis-mitigation mechanisms," he said.

Cheng Li, director of the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, noted that this year marks the 50th anniversary of former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger's first visit to China, which paved the way for the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Li recalled some of Kissinger's recent talks on US-China relations in which the veteran diplomat said that endless competition between the two countries may lead to destructive confrontation, and that neither side could win a total war or destroy the other, so it should never be fought.

"So both countries need to find an entirely new way to coexist by reshaping US-China engagement," Li said.

Despite the tensions, there are still areas for possible cooperation that the Biden administration may consider priorities, according to Li.

The first is for the two sides to work together to provide international public goods, especially on climate change, nuclear nonproliferation and joint peacekeeping in third countries.

Other areas are educational and cultural exchanges, and people-to-people diplomacy, Li said.

"US-China relations should also be American-Chinese relations, not just state-to-state relations," he said.

Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program with the German Marshall Fund, said in the webinar that Washington and Beijing should find ways to de-escalate the "dangerous" tension in the Taiwan Straits, which remains the most sensitive issue in the US-China relationship.

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