The US should seize the opportunity to stabilize relations with China

The writer is a professor at Georgetown University and served on the staff of the US National Security Council from 2009 to 2015.

Perhaps a new stage is opening in the strategic rivalry between the US and China. After months of hostility and stagnation, contacts between the two countries are finally resuming. The challenge for Washington and Beijing is to capitalize on this moment and build a solid foundation for a stable relationship. The future of global stability and prosperity depends on it.

The new US ambassador to China arrived this week after a long vacancy. China’s Commerce Minister also visited Washington, becoming the first senior official to visit Washington since 2020. Most importantly, US national security adviser Jake Sullivan met with top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi this month, kicking off a dialogue frozen since the spring. This can be an important two-way channel for discussions.

More high-level interactions are coming. Several US cabinet officials are likely to visit Beijing, likely culminating in Xi Jinping’s visit to San Francisco for the 31st Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Leaders’ Summit.

All this created an opportunity to put the relationship on a more stable trajectory, or at least one less prone to accidents, miscalculations, or crises. The opening is small and fragile, but if done right, it can lead to a more predictable, sustainable, and productive relationship. Both sides are signaling they want more stability, or at least less volatility and friction. But everyone wants it for different reasons, and it remains unclear whether these views can be reconciled.

Washington wants dialogue and risk reduction against the backdrop of further competition and opposition. On the contrary, China wants to reduce the constant strategic pressure it faces from the US and its allies while continuing to bend global rules and norms in its favor. The next few months will be a process of finding – or not discovering – a new normal, a kind of strategic equilibrium.

He comes at a critical moment. This is Biden’s last chance before the dynamic of the 2024 election swallows up Washington. The US and its allies are in the early stages of a new type of strategic rivalry that has no precedent in modern international affairs. It’s geopolitical terra incognita for all.

So how can politicians best use this opportunity? First, US leaders and their counterparts in Europe and Asia must act with a clear understanding of the moment. China Xi is capable, ambitious and confident, but also frustrated and insecure. Xi now believes that China is engaged in a long-term geopolitical and ideological competition with the “global West”, which he sees as the main threat to internal and external security. His views are hardening, as reflected in his rare public statement in March that “Western countries, led by the United States, have carried out comprehensive containment, encirclement and suppression against us.”

Thus, Washington and Beijing are constantly testing each other’s boundaries as their competition becomes militarizing, globalizing, and nuclear weapons come to the fore. Xi’s tolerance for risk and friction is growing. And relationships have few mechanisms for managing this complexity.

This new phase is far from detente. Rather, it is a reunion. Both sides must restore the main channels of communication. Washington and its partners need to decide how to negotiate with the new cohort of technocrats, securocrats and Xi ideologues. This is fraught with risks. As dialogue resumes, focusing on improving relations may become an end in itself rather than a means to advance US interests. This dynamic Beijing skillfully uses to buy time and gain an advantage.

Second, Washington needs to have an action plan for the entire set of interactions, culminating in Xi’s eventual visit. Washington and Beijing should try to agree on an infrastructure for sustained dialogue, set a modest agenda focused on the most important issues, and try to resolve some of the smaller issues. They could start by increasing the number of direct flights and lifting travel bans; more serious concerns include China’s policy towards North Korea and Iran, and Beijing’s contribution to Ukraine’s humanitarian aid.

Third, Washington needs to act with clear goals. These should include correcting China’s misperception of US intentions, clarifying US policy (especially on Taiwan), stabilizing the most volatile competition, and building cooperation on common issues. The US then needs to measure success or failure and adjust policy accordingly.

Long talks about Ukraine, North Korea, Iran, global macroeconomic and financial stability, especially emerging market debt, are long overdue. The American openness to China’s constructive role on all these issues is worth exploring.

Fourth, both sides must be pragmatic and have modest ambitions. Revisiting Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and the balloon incident will only provoke recriminations.

The US-Soviet Cold War is a tempting but inadequate starting point for understanding the nature of US-China ties today. But even the Cold War had its phases and moments of change, especially the Cuban Missile Crisis. This could be just such a moment for US-China relations. It would be a tragedy to squander it, otherwise we will repeat such a dangerous past.