What China and the US got right

Here we are, at a moment when mutual miscalculations have in some ways put both the U.S. and China on the back foot. But reason  can still prevail.

Aly Song/Reuters
Commuters walk through the Lujiazui financial district in Shanghai Sept. 17, 2020.

If you were to try to distill the relationship between China and the United States down to a single question, the simplest might be: Well, now what? 

In this week’s cover story, our Ann Scott Tyson sifts through the past half-century to look at how we got to this point, with the U.S. and China looking as if they’re on the cusp of a second cold war. The answer is: some major misunderstandings.

Yes, it was perhaps a bit naive for Americans to think China might embrace an open society and individual liberties. After 100 years of rebellions, occupations, crushing poverty, and – for such an ancient civilization – repeated humiliations, stability and a return to prominence were understandably a priority. So China’s Communist leaders parlayed decades of Western favor into raw political and economic power.

Yet it was perhaps equally as misguided for China’s leader Xi Jinping to think all that Western talk of “values” and “freedoms” was just colonial window dressing. Actually, it turns out that the West does care about Hong Kong and Muslim Uyghurs and economic fair play.

So here we are, at a moment when mutual miscalculations have in some ways put both nations on the back foot. It’s a potentially dangerous place to be, especially with both nations doubling down on a sense of nationalism. You don’t have to be a historian to recognize that wounded pride rarely leads to enlightened policy.

Yet amid the prospect of any number of flashpoints, from Taiwan to militarized islands in the South China Sea to new fighting on the Indo-Chinese border, Ann offers reminders of vital facts.

Yes, China has achieved the extraordinary. It has raised hundreds of millions of its citizens out of extreme poverty, even with a poor human rights record. It has become an essential driver of the global economy. And it has reasserted itself as one of the world’s great powers. Yet all of this has come with the world’s help. China has not succeeded by subjugating the world, but by benefiting from its cooperation.

Now the concern is that Mr. Xi has weaponized that goodwill against the rest of the world, seeking to gain even greater advantages in influence. Can it work? Behind that question is another: Should the world roll back the clock to colonialism and client states?

To be sure, Western motives in the developing world have been far from pure. In some cases, they have been rapacious. Yet the post-World War II era saw something unique – demonstrations, on global scales, that I am actually better off when you are better off. In other words, these values are not just window dressing.

This was so apparent to me as the Monitor’s South Asia correspondent for three years. The hatreds between India and Pakistan remain bitter, yet war has become unthinkable. India is healthier when Pakistan is healthier, and vice versa. And they both know it.

Politicians from China or the West can draw sabers. But they cannot reverse that principle, nor the fact that the world has seen its remarkable results – beginning with China itself.

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