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Could Russia’s moves help to repair US-China relations?

Four days after Russia invaded Ukraine, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced that his country was willing to work with the U.S. on President Biden’s Build Back Better World Partnership. At the same time, he said that China would welcome American participation in its Belt & Road program.   

Both these initiatives seek to strengthen the world’s infrastructure, and both have been designed to win international favor at the expense of the other country. Thus, if the U.S. and China were now to combine forces, it would represent a fundamental shift — one that could benefit millions who suffer due to deficient infrastructure.   

Perhaps Russia’s aggression against Ukraine prompted China to make this conciliatory move. Or perhaps it was simply a deceptive ploy. Whatever the underlying reason, the U.S. should tentatively say “yes” to the Chinese proposal and begin negotiations. Working together to improve global infrastructure would represent a small but substantial step away from a growing adversarial relationship. And that would clearly be in the U.S. national interest.  

Particularly now, as Russia replaces China as America’s main international foe, the U.S. would be wise to act to counter the recently proclaimed China-Russia “no limits” partnership. Both strategically and in practical terms, the U.S. would be hard-pressed to simultaneously confront both Russia and China. As Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon demonstrated 50 years ago, driving a wedge between these two countries can make for good policy.   

At the same time, America should not ignore China’s persecution of its Uyghur minority or its other regrettable practices and policies.  Still, these negative aspects do not have to be the sole definer of the relationship.     

The U.S. and China share interests on other issues besides infrastructure, and when they do, there is little reason for them to oppose each other. For example, to reduce the dangers of climate change, Sino-American cooperation is desperately needed regardless of profound disagreements on other matters. Indeed, John Kerry, President Biden’s Special Envoy for Climate, is actively calling for joint action with China. As Kerry put it, “Climate is not ideological.” Nor is improving infrastructure.     

For those who believe that the Chinese record on human rights would preclude any such cooperation, it should be noted that even during the peak years of the Cold War, the U.S. and the former Soviet Union worked together in areas that were comparatively uncontroversial. For example, American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts met in space; the two countries set up crisis control mechanisms to reduce the risk of nuclear war; and in 1972, they signed an Incidents at Sea Agreement to prevent collisions between warships. The fact that the Soviet government at the time had an awful record on human rights did not prevent active cooperation in areas of common interest.  

Such an approach would call for the U.S. and China to focus, where possible, on what unites them, not on what separates them. It would not require giving up strongly held positions or compromising basic principles. It will mean trying to reach agreements that are of mutual benefit. Not only would joint action of this kind have an important impact in its own right, but it would also serve to drain the poison from the major disputes. The core idea is that instead of facing each other as the enemy, the two countries would stand together, take on shared problems and cooperate to resolve issues.    

An advocate of this kind of strategy between the U.S. and the Soviet Union was none other than Ronald Reagan, who in 1983 called the Soviet Union the “Evil Empire.” Two years later, Reagan searched for common ground with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at Geneva.  

As Gorbachev later told an American TV audience, “President Reagan suddenly said to me, ‘What would you do if the United States were attacked by someone from outer space? Would you help us?’ I said, ‘No doubt about it.’”    

Today the world is faced with grave danger — if not men from Mars. Shifting adversarial relations in cooperative directions offers a possible way out.    

John Marks was the founder and longtime president of Search for Common Ground, an international organization involved in peacebuilding. He currently is the managing director of Confluence International, a peacebuilding group located in Amsterdam.

Tags China–United States relations Cold War International relations Joe Biden John Kerry Mikhail Gorbachev Peacebuilding Ronald Reagan Soviet Union

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