Both Trump and Biden were wrong on China

Editor’s note: Top officials from China and the US met in Alaska for the first time since Biden took office. The approaches of both Trump and Biden haven’t worked well in dealing with China despite the differences between the two US presidents. To improve Sino-US relations, the US needs to accept the existence of differences in the two countries.

The talks in Alaska did not end well. But what exactly went wrong?

It started with Trump.

Trump played the strongman on China. He weaponized trade with China only to see America rely even more on Chinese imports. He blamed China for the coronavirus pandemic only to distract Americans and sabotaged his own efforts to end the pandemic.

America is still living out the consequences. Hate crimes against Asians are historically high and the American political climate is unanimously hostile against its biggest economic partner. Trump has elevated anti-China and anti-Chinese rhetoric into the stratosphere and there is no easy way to come down.

He characterized China as weak and guilty. The two largest powers became angry strangers.

Biden is different. He sees China as strong and a bully, and he thinks he can play the good man by giving lectures.

This surprised the Chinese who came all the way to Alaska. You would think Americans would recognize that trampling on the national pride of your counterparts at first meeting is not smart at all.

That is not a position of strength, but instead one of weakness. Acting to belittle your partner is not a way to build trust or seek cooperation. It's grandstanding, pure and simple. And it did not work, the Chinese responded in the same measure.

The message is clear: don’t play the good man, America is not one of those.

The key is that the Chinese respect differences and the Americans defy them. Be it the finger pointing on Hong Kong, Taiwan and Xinjiang, the way Americans think and talk is like a priest proselytizing not a diplomat making deals. The Americans’ insistence on converting a major country out of its own, domestic system is a total delusion.

The two major powers need to forget grandstanding and reach for substance. Stopping demoralizing each other is a good start. Compromises must be made. Only realists can do that. Expecting China to change what it can do on climate, trade and technology is realistic but expecting China to change what it is can only be an overreach.

Trump’s strongmanship has failed, Biden’s attempt to be the good man will not go far either.

In Chinese, America literally means "Beautiful Country" but the Americans should understand that this beauty is an aspiration and not a fact.

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