Preventing a Modern Cold War

Sceeenshot from CPAFFC virtual workhop

On Aug. 6, the Carter Center’s China Program partnered with the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries to host a webinar titled, “What is the Next Chapter in U.S.-China Relations?”

The meeting was organized in response to the deterioration of relations between the two countries and gave prominent American and Chinese speakers a chance to assess the current state of affairs, identify some of the reasons for the continued fraying of the relationship, and offer ideas about how to repair it.

Carter Center CEO Paige Alexander gave a keynote address to the gathering, and former U.S. President Jimmy Carter wrote a letter (PDF) to the group. Alexander’s full remarks are below. 

Paige Alexander’s Remarks

Ambassador Lin, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good morning, and good evening.

President and Mrs. Carter asked me to pass their best regards to all the participants of this critical and timely discussion on where the U.S.-China relationship is now and where it is going in the coming years.

I just joined The Carter Center as its CEO in June, but I know The Carter Center has a very long and productive relationship with Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries (CPAFFC). You have hosted President Carter’s numerous visits to China since 2007. Since 2012, we have jointly organized seven high level forums on U.S.-China’s relations, including the one last year at The Carter Center to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-China relations.

I met President Carter last Friday in Plains, Georgia. He is very concerned about the current state of the bilateral relationship and asked me to speak to you about the relationship and our hope that continued engagement with CPAFFC will improve it.

On the eve of the 40th anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-China relations, President Carter wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post entitled, “How to Repair U.S.-China Relations – and Prevent a Modern Cold War.” We all have heard the drumbeat of a looming Cold War with China in the U.S. We all watched with great disappointment when Washington ordered the closing of China’s Houston consulate, and Beijing retaliated by closing the American consulate in Chengdu. This kind of action and retaliation has the potential of derailing the bilateral relationship that has been an anchor for peace and prosperity in the past 40 years for our countries – and the world.

We need to answer a crucial question that impacts the sustainability of the relationship: Why is there such a growing gap in each sides’ perception of the bilateral engagement in the past 40 years? Chinese President Xi Jinping has repeatedly said that we have “a thousand reasons” to make the China-U.S. relationship a success, and none whatsoever to wreck it. Yet we have seen a rapid deterioration in the bilateral relationship.

The goal of today’s discussion by the illustrious Chinese and American speakers is to identify the main factors that have created this gap. President Carter wrote in his Washington Post op-ed: “Americans must acknowledge that, just as China has no right to interfere in U.S. affairs, we have no inherent right to dictate to China how to govern its people or choose its leaders. Though even countries with the closest of relationships may critique each other at times, such engagements should never become directives or edicts; they should rather serve as a two-way street of open dialogue.”

While we share President Carter’s view, we also think intolerance of criticisms may have contributed to the current deterioration of the American perception of China.

However, I do not want to focus too much on what has caused the problems in the bilateral relationship. Rather, I want to explore how to preserve President Carter’s and Deng Xiaoping’s legacy and make this relationship beneficial to both countries and to the world. On July 9, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told an online audience that both the U.S. and China should “stay on the right track and keep pace with the times to ensure the right direction for China-U.S. relations.”

Minister Wang suggested that American and Chinese bilateral relationship managers begin this recovery initiative by establishing three lists: A list of areas of cooperation, a list of issues requiring constructive dialogue, and a list of issues that need proper management. The Carter Center and the Huazhi Institute for Global Governance at Nanjing University jointly organized an online workshop to decide what should be on these separate lists. The Carter Center’s team is still working to finalize the report, but I would like to share some of the preliminary findings with you.

It is easy to identify the list of issues requiring proper management. The Taiwan Issue and South China issue are most likely to trigger an armed conflict between Beijing and Washington. There must be frank, good-faith discussions between Chinese and Americans on how to manage these two issues so that they do not escalate into violence.

Among the list of areas requiring constructive dialogue, I would like to mention one key item: human rights. Not very long ago, the U.S. and China used to have regular dialogues on human rights issues. These engagements need to be restored. Although Beijing indicates that issues related to Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hong Kong are China’s domestic affairs, there should be discussions with American counterparts so that each side can understand the other’s core concerns and an understanding can be reached. Greater transparency and willingness to share information on this issue will lead to improved understanding and trust, both of which are essential to improved bilateral relations.

Finally, we get to what I believe has the greatest potential for impact — areas of cooperation. Minister Wang said this list should specify all areas, bilateral and global, and that the longer the list, the better. As President Carter indicates in his letter, it is tragic for China, where the outbreak of COVID-19 initially took place, and the U.S., which is now the epicenter of the pandemic, not to collaborate in vaccine research. Ambassador Lin probably could tell all of us how well the U.S. and China worked together to contain the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea and establish the Africa CDC. Any endeavor to reverse climate change is doomed to fail if the U.S. and China choose not to cooperate.

President Carter was very much involved in trying to get Pyongyang to denuclearize in the early 1990s. Without China’s participation, what was started by President Carter will never succeed.  China and the United States are the two most important engines of the global economic growth. If the U.S. and China decouple on financial, technological, manufacturing, and trade fronts, the world could experience severe economic harm, including a reversal of the significant reductions in severe poverty in China. Last but not the least, China can play a crucial role in working with the U.S. and other international partners to restore peace in Sudan, DRC, Mali, and other African countries where China’s influence has been growing.

In December 2012, President Carter visited China and opened the inaugural TCC-CPAFFC forum on U.S.-China relations. The theme of the meeting focused on building a new kind of great power relationship between the two nations. We should remain focused on that theme. Peoples from the U.S. and China have both benefitted so much from this relationship, and it is neither possible to separate them, nor advisable to try to do so.

I want to repeat what President Carter writes in his letter to you all: “This engagement has enabled both countries, as well as the Asia-Pacific region and the world, to enjoy unparalleled peace and prosperity.” For this engagement to continue, I would like to see CPAFFC and The Carter Center to make this online dialogue a regular event, so that we can be in a better position to increase mutual understanding and reduce bilateral bias. I also urge all participants to continue the engagement by visiting our Chinese language website on U.S.-China relations, and sending submissions of articles, op-eds, and papers so that dialogue and idea exchange can be furthered.

The Carter Center and President Carter have been engaged in joint projects and dialogue with China since the 1990s. The Carter Center is committed to restoring the good relations between the U.S. and China.

I look forward to visiting China, meeting Ambassador Lin and all the Chinese speakers in person, and finding ways to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges while simultaneously building relations between our two countries.

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