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In the U.S.'s contradictory posture lies the world's hope

National flags of the U.S. and China. /CFP
National flags of the U.S. and China. /CFP

National flags of the U.S. and China. /CFP

Editor's note: Radhika Desai, a special commentator on current affairs for CGTN, is a professor of political studies at the University of Manitoba in Canada. The article reflects the author's opinions and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Few will doubt that one of the most important things the world needs is better relations between its two biggest economies and greatest powers. This is the sine qua non for addressing the world's proliferating problems – wars, climate change, or poverty, not to mention the threat of nuclear annihilation.

However, whether this hope will be fulfilled by the coming meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden at the 30th Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders' Meeting in San Francisco is another question.

Few summits have aroused lower expectations. Expressing "cautious optimism," Global Times hoped that the summit "will help both sides get a more realistic understanding about each other's strategic intentions and prevent divergences from turning into out-of-control conflicts' and that 'the meeting may serve to stabilize bilateral relations in the short term, as uncertainty will grow when the U.S. enters its election cycle next year." Colleen Cattle of the influential Atlantic Council, a representative U.S. voice, foresaw: "We should probably keep a pretty low bar in terms of tangible outcomes and deliverables… This is a meeting that's probably much more about symbolism and showing the commitment of both leaders to maintain high-level communications and keep communications flowing over the next year."

How have things come to such a pass and can they improve? The answers to both questions involve the U.S. more centrally than China because the nadir to which China-U.S. relations have sunk in recent years has a U.S. history.

China has little to gain from worsening relations and its leadership has shown no signs of being perverse. In the past and today, it has sought to do everything possible to steady the often-rocked boat. So, whether China-U.S. relations can improve depends more or less entirely on whether the U.S. can see the greater wisdom of another path.

That this may be possible, just, is clear from the fact that, despite a seemingly unending series of provocations – through the impositions of sanctions, irresponsible visits of U.S. senior officials to the Taiwan region, and, more recently, increased ''freedom of navigation'' exercises near China's waters – in recent months the U.S. has worked on improving bilateral relations with a slew of its senior officials beating their path to Beijing to meet their counterparts. A world drowning in its problems can only clutch at that straw.

It is clear from these swings in the U.S. mood that its posture towards China is defined by a contradiction and, as someone wise said long ago, in the contradiction lies hope.

Shipping containers are seen stacked at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, California, U.S., August 7, 2023. /CFP
Shipping containers are seen stacked at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, California, U.S., August 7, 2023. /CFP

Shipping containers are seen stacked at the Port of Oakland in Oakland, California, U.S., August 7, 2023. /CFP

On the one hand, the U.S. has engaged with China in recent decades with the fond illusion that such engagement will create out of China a pliant client state happy to produce low-tech, low-wage goods for the U.S. market cheaply.

As this illusion has dissipated – and there are signs that it began doing so as early as the new century – and as it has become clear that China, with its commitment to developing its economy and to bettering the lives of its people was coming to "rival" the U.S. in economic, technological and geopolitical terms, so the U.S. posture towards China has become more hostile, anxious and today often even hysterical.

On the other hand, the decades of engagement are not easily undone. They have produced a deeply and intricately intertwined economy once labeled "Chimerica" – involving productive supply chains, financial relations, and scientific and technological collaboration – that is very hard to "decouple" and disentangle.

This has become clear as the U.S. has found that its economy and firms suffer as much and often more than Chinese ones from the slew of sanctions it has imposed on China. This has already led to a shift from "decoupling" to "de-risking," though the affected firms may be forgiven for not seeing the difference between the two, and for the aforementioned attempts to rebuild relations that have culminated in the upcoming summit.

The last thing President Biden needs as he seeks re-election is some major economic disaster resulting from inept handling of the U.S. all-important relationship with China.

For these reasons, if none other, one hopes that it is not unrealistic to expect that, at a minimum, China and the U.S. can agree to set aside their differences and re-establish the minimum of military-to-military communication necessary to prevent misunderstandings leading to conflict and even nuclear war, and equally importantly, to re-start efforts at mitigating climate change and agree on the one-China principle.

It would also be good if they could agree to lessen trade and technology tension, expanding the people-to-people contacts that increase investment on both sides to improve relations.

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at opinions@cgtn.com. Follow @thouse_opinions on Twitter to discover the latest commentaries in the CGTN Opinion Section.)

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