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The China Divide

by Elizabeth C. Economy
December 14, 2009

Last week at a dinner in Washington, D.C. with a number of China experts, retired U.S. government officials and businesspeople, the table largely concluded that we should be “cautiously optimistic” about the state of affairs in the U.S.-China relationship. The reasoning was clear: we are talking to each other on the full range of geo-strategic issues, opportunities to do business in China are expanding, and our two economies are ever more fully and deeply integrated.

I left the dinner in a rather disoriented state. As far as I could tell, the bilateral trade gap was expanding (and not in our favor); the Chinese were arresting not only human rights advocates but also the lawyers who dared to defend them; while we were threatening potential sanctions against Iran, China was announcing new investments in Iranian oil and gas reserves at $100 billion or more a pop; and we even engaged in a name-calling competition in the early days of the Copenhagen climate negotiations.

Why the dissonance in perspective? There are a number of reasons for it. Our priorities and time horizons looking forward might simply be different. Historical perspective likely plays some part. Some have been thinking about or engaging with China for almost a half-century since the onset of the Cultural Revolution, so comparatively things today look pretty good. Others, like me, began working on China when Zhao Ziyang was helping to steer the ship and Tiananmen was in full bloom; things don’t look as good from that perspective. My colleague Adam Segal and I have even thought that the polarization of the China debate has become a self-fulfilling prophecy: people often adopt more extreme positions in order to keep the others at bay.

Do the differences in view matter? Yes. There are real policy consequences for the prism through which we choose to understand China. If we believe that U.S.-China interests are generally aligned and that China domestically is moving in the right direction, then continued negotiations and engagement should do the trick. If, however, we see Chinese and American interests as more misaligned than aligned, then we need to think differently about how to make progress — working without China or bringing pressure to bear with other allies.

As a first step toward bridging the China divide, I suggest we all take a step back, try to look at the country with fresh eyes and assess three things: Who are the relevant Chinese; what are they saying; and what are they doing? Then we can begin to think about how we work with or without them.

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