One way to build China-US trust

The two rivals can find common ground in reversing a military coup in Myanmar, creating goodwill to solve other tense conflicts.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, far right, speaks as Chinese Communist Party foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi, left, and China's State Councilor Wang Yi, second from left, listen at US-China talks in Anchorage, Alaska, March 18.

In a symbolic gesture of meeting each other halfway, the top foreign policy officials of China and the United States met in Alaska on March 18 and 19. Less symbolically, the meeting’s main purpose was to agree on issues where the two countries can cooperate – as a way to ease tensions in so many other points of conflict.

Which issue might turn out to hold the most immediate promise of an American-Chinese partnership? Climate change? North Korea’s nuclear program? COVID-19 vaccinations?

One opportunity could be the newest issue: whether Myanmar returns to its democratic path after a Feb. 1 military coup and a violent crackdown on mass protests.

“Myanmar may present a unique opportunity for the two powers – at odds on so much – to address in unison the growing international crisis radiating out of Myanmar,” states Jason Tower, country director for Burma at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Hints that the authoritarian regime in Beijing might not ultimately back the authoritarian generals in Myanmar have been growing stronger. Soon after the coup, China supported the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy that won parliamentary elections last year. She was arrested and charged of dubious crimes. China’s ambassador in the country said the coup was “absolutely not what China wants to see.” And on March 8, China emphasized the importance of its ties to the NLD and suggested a willingness to play a “constructive role.”

China has major economic and strategic interests in a stable Myanmar. It needs peace along the long shared border and access to the ports in the Southeast Asian nation. The big question is whether it also wants a democracy next door or a regime like its own.

For its part, the U.S. could hope that any Chinese support of democracy in Myanmar is “a chance to evaluate China’s willingness to act as a responsible member of the international community,” stated Mr. Tower. The people of Myanmar have already experienced semi-democratic rule, said an editorial in the Beijing-friendly South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. “Rolling back the clock will be near impossible,” it concluded.

A convergence of trust on Myanmar may be what China and the U.S. could use right now. Their tensions over China’s island claims in East Asia have put their navies on high alert. And the U.S. under President Joe Biden is poised to counter China’s cyberattacks, industrial theft, and human rights abuses.

To cool their passions and prevent conflict, China and the U.S. can find common purpose in Myanmar. They can focus on a shared problem without engaging in a contest of who is right – or whether “might is right.” If they build up goodwill on something of mutual interest, it could begin to establish a virtuous circle of trust and help the two nations reduce their fears of each other.

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