America Needs To Talk About a China Reset

Biden and Trump are debating who is the bigger China hawk. Instead, the next administration should learn from the Cold War to defuse the rivalry.

By , the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Chinese then-Vice President Xi Jinping and U.S. then-Vice President Joe Biden view an honor guard inside the Great Hall of the People on Aug. 18, 2011 in Beijing.
Chinese then-Vice President Xi Jinping and U.S. then-Vice President Joe Biden view an honor guard inside the Great Hall of the People on Aug. 18, 2011 in Beijing.
Chinese then-Vice President Xi Jinping and U.S. then-Vice President Joe Biden view an honor guard inside the Great Hall of the People on Aug. 18, 2011 in Beijing. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

During this presidential campaign, there is at least one issue on which there is little daylight between U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden: China. If anything, Biden has called Trump out for his ineffective China policies and promised to be even tougher on Beijing.

The United States urgently needs a reset of its China debate. The present level of tension between Washington and Beijing cannot simply go on without a disruption that both sides may regret.

The next administration has to tackle the U.S.-Chinese rivalry fast—and head-on. It doesn’t have to deliver peace and goodwill, or end the “cold war” with China. Washington and Beijing have fundamental differences on an array of issues, such as the South China Sea, trade, and ideology. None of these issues can be easily solved—they can only be worked on. Rather, rules must urgently be set for the ongoing competition in order to prevent an accidental outbreak of military hostilities or cyberconflict at a level that threatens global peace and stability.
Rules of the road were established to make the Cold War less dangerous; that is where we need to get in the struggle between the United States and China.

During this presidential campaign, there is at least one issue on which there is little daylight between U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden: China. If anything, Biden has called Trump out for his ineffective China policies and promised to be even tougher on Beijing.

The United States urgently needs a reset of its China debate. The present level of tension between Washington and Beijing cannot simply go on without a disruption that both sides may regret.

The next administration has to tackle the U.S.-Chinese rivalry fast—and head-on. It doesn’t have to deliver peace and goodwill, or end the “cold war” with China. Washington and Beijing have fundamental differences on an array of issues, such as the South China Sea, trade, and ideology. None of these issues can be easily solved—they can only be worked on. Rather, rules must urgently be set for the ongoing competition in order to prevent an accidental outbreak of military hostilities or cyberconflict at a level that threatens global peace and stability.
Rules of the road were established to make the Cold War less dangerous; that is where we need to get in the struggle between the United States and China.

Over the past four years, relations between Washington and Beijing have not only become dramatically worse—they have become dramatically dysfunctional and emotional. This is too dangerous to be allowed to continue. To use a Cold War analogy, the next administration will have to move the U.S.-Chinese rivalry from a pre-Cuban missile crisis environment to a post-Cuban missile crisis environment, without having to go through the harrowing danger of the Cuban missile crisis itself.

Until 1962, both the United States and the Soviet Union were testing atomic bombs in the atmosphere and relations between the two superpowers were extremely tense. The Cuban missile crisis showed both sides that nuclear confrontation was very real—a confrontation that neither side wanted to repeat. They had stared into the abyss and didn’t like what they saw. In the wake of the crisis, therefore, came a treaty banning nuclear tests and other arms control treaties, a direct hotline between the U.S. and Soviet leaders, and beefed-up summitry between the two superpowers.

The Cold War did not end after 1962, nor were any fundamental issues solved. But more parameters and rules of the road were established between the two sides, making the Cold War less dangerous. That is where we need to get in the struggle between the United States and China. The next administration therefore has to sit down with the Chinese leadership and arrange a calendar of regular summits, a process that forces their respective bureaucracies to come up with markers for progress on a range of issues. It has to try to negotiate a ceiling on the level of cyberconflict. It has to work on enhanced rules of naval engagement in contested seas. There needs to be a mutual commitment that each side will seek to restrain itself from making rash moves without notifying the other side in advance.

This is all absolutely necessary, no matter what the candidates and their campaigns are saying right now.

Robert D. Kaplan is the author of 20 books, most recently Adriatic: A Concert of Civilizations at the End of the Modern Age. He holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé chair in geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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