Can China and the US Get Along? 

Nov 15, 2021 by

US and China, can we jointly envision a better future? More importantly, will we work together to make it so? 

My interest in China was sparked by a primary school teacher in the mid-sixties. Since then, I have been fortunate to travel throughout China attempting to understand and build bridges between our two nations with starkly different governing philosophies.

The changes and improvement in the daily lives of the Chinese people over the last half century have been remarkable. It has been like watching a movie that begins in black and white and gradually and then rapidly morphs into Technicolor. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), having recently celebrated its centennial deserves praise for its accomplishments. Clearly there is a new era of national strength.

The world is quick to magnify China’s real and perceived failures and shortcomings and hesitant – sometimes unwilling – to celebrate its successes.

As I have conveyed in the past, virtually eradicating extreme poverty in a nation of 1.4 billion people while the rest of the world is set to see an increase is worthy of a Nobel Prize.Take a bow China. 

Conversely, China’s claim of “interfering in our internal affairs” does not blunt the West’s concerns around the ideological gap facing: Hong Kong, Taiwan and with Uighur and Tibetan minorities treatment. These issues and others such as unfair trade, 5G and tensions in the South China are contentious issues and from an Western  perspective cannot be ignored. 

The first part of problem solving is problem identification or if you have a hole in your roof, pretending to fix it will not keep the rain out. Both China and the USA must place issues on the table and work overtime to resolve them. 

China and the US  – independently and collectively have much work to do at home and as part of the global community. 

President Xi Jinping

Today the world sees President Xi Jinping as having learned more from Mao than his father and his government is more authoritarian at home and more aggressive abroad. The US/China relationship is at a worrisome point tilting towards frightening. Escalating tension between our nations creates a massive obstacle to effectively addressing existential global threats.  

Can we find ways to jointly address threats to humankind? Climate change, COVID and future pandemics along with the economic disruption they unleash require great nations to lead, not squabble.

Sober Up

Joining forces as we did in WWII is the only way to tackle our menacing global troubles. Due to distrust our respective leaders are busy splashing mud on each other as opposed to laying stones to cross the river together. Behaving like children on a playground see-saw, with one nation up and one down, is futile.

There are always tensions. Nations, like tectonics plates, shift. Talk of decoupling, great power competition, authoritative threats, and a Cold War boiling over into an armed conflict around 5-G, Taiwan, or the South China Sea ought to give any thinking person pause.

China’s goal is to restore its historical greatness – a return to ‘fuqiang’ (wealth/ power) – world prestige and becoming a “great modern socialist country.” China has stood up and is on a long march to claim victory on or before their centennial of the People’s Republic of China in 2049. I get it: as a former Junior Golden Gloves champion, when I got in the boxing ring, even with my best friend, I was there to win.

We need our governments however, to not view every issue as a boxing match.

Maintaining the counterpoint drama on areas of disagreement has become annoying, counterproductive, and downright destructive. The world stage is finite. In this new era of competition, we must cooperate, creating a path that allows for mutual strategic interests, sovereignty over our respective internal affairs, and a genuine action plan to improve the lives of the people of the US, China, and all of humanity.

Xi Jinping must realize that “common prosperity” in a global connected world needs to extend beyond the PRC’s borders.

We must find ways of maintaining an open dialog, focusing on the “6 C’s” – communication, collaboration, cooperation, coordination, and competition – avoiding unnecessary confrontations while seeking ways in which both nations maintain success versus a one-sided victory.

At the subnational level we need to adopt the sentiment of the US/China Heartland Association: “understanding that not all bridges are built of concrete and steel.” Equally important bridges are built on friendship, cultural exchanges, economic, health, educational and scientific cooperation.

Newton’s Third Law

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. With suspicion and a lack of trust a confrontation between our nations is regrettably and frighteningly plausible today.

Our respective leaders need to strive to rise above the nationalistic fervor now building in our countries. Several things are clear: 1) Neither country will genuflect to the other, 2) Neither will disappear, 3) Both will continue to jockey for their sphere of influence. 4) Neither will voluntarily change their form of government. 5) There is an insecurity over security competition between us.

The US may slow China’s rise, but it cannot stop it. Attempting to do so is about as effective as building a chain link fence to hold back a tsunami. America needs to invest in itself and stop bashing China as a winning strategy.

Imagine – Shock the World!

We will continue to agree, agree to disagree, and argue over a plethora of issues. But as the late Beatle, John Lennon once sang, imagine — “Imagine all the people, livin’ life in peace.”

Presidents Xi and Biden have the power to change the course of history by boldly leading the world forward in peace and harmony.

President Joe Biden

Shock the world Presidents Xi and Biden, stop the great power competition, and call for a ‘Summit on Global Health’. Call for a shared vision and common agenda with specific, measurable targets to improve the planet we all occupy around:

• Climate change

• Global health and future pandemics

• Poverty, hunger, and inequality eradication

Understand that no agreement can stand the test of time unless both sides are invested in its success. We need to adopt the classic precondition for successful negotiations- victory for both sides and all of humanity.  

China and the US are at an inflection point. Neither nation is perfect. Together, we can help assure a better world for us all. 


Tom Watkins

Tom Watkins is a U.S./China business and educational consultant who has worked to build cultural, educational, and economic ties between our two countries for 4 decades. He served Michigan citizens as State Superintendent of Schools and State Mental Health Director and served as President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Fl. Read his thoughts on China/US relations at: 

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