Despite Growing Tensions, US Must Move Forward on Cooperation With China

06/30/2015 04:56 pm ET | Updated Jun 30, 2016

We routinely slam each other's records on human rights. We accuse them of stealing commercial secrets, as we unabashedly acknowledge our own attempts to uncover security secrets. We debate which of our systems of government -- capitalism or communism -- truly works best, and we squabble over our respective responsibilities in addressing the potential catastrophic impact of climate change.

So goes the relationship between the U.S. and China. Ours is the most important bilateral relationship in the world and one that continues to change rapidly as China rises to the status of a major regional power. The rest of the international community watches this relationship carefully and understands the importance of it. Indeed, it has become clear that almost every one of the world's problems become easier to solve if our relationship is on solid footing.

Currently, our two nations are wading through a period of considerable tensions over a host of major issues, including, among others, global warming, nuclear stockpiling in North Korea, Taiwanese independence, human rights violations, cyber espionage, business regulation and maritime behavior.

On most, if not all, of these issues, sizable gaps exist between the U.S. and China. But the good news is that both countries want to avoid war and reject using lethal means to change the status quo. We seek to avoid major confrontation, and, what's more, we actually have a number of complementary interests. Together, we want to counter terrorism, though we have questions about whom we should be targeting. (We talk about ISIS and other Islamic militants; they talk about ethnic minorities.) We want to reign in Iran's disputed nuclear program and contain nuclear proliferation. We share a desire for addressing climate change, and, though we differ sharply in our opinions over the effectiveness of a capitalist or socialist market economy, generally speaking we both aim for overall economic and financial stability.

Still, focusing on our mutual interests is challenging when taking into account the tension, contradictions, complexities and differences that mark our relationship. We see a country that refuses to respect human rights and dignity for its people; a country moving aggressively on its periphery, a country not likely to transition soon into a more democratic society. From its perspective, China views an international order titled against it. Indeed, China regularly seeks to cast doubt on our own human rights record, citing our torturing of terrorist suspects, mass electronic surveillance of foreign governments, episodes of police brutality, economic inequality and racial discrimination. China also supports non-interference in the internal matters of other countries and bristles with our actions toward Taiwan, while many in the U.S. have a difficult time restraining themselves from calling for the independence of Taiwan, meanwhile, many Chinese continue to advocate for a forceful takeover of this sovereign state.

By many measures China is leaping forward. Economically, China has invested unprecedented amounts of money in research and development and has established an enormous and ever-growing pool of scientists and engineers. Its emphasis has been on the quality, not just quantity, of growth and in making the state sector more efficient, and makes more room for market products. Militarily, even though troop recruitment remains an issue, the Chinese possess a large army, powerful missiles, impressive cyber-weaponry, improved nuclear capabilities and a growing fleet of nuclear submarines that reflects the country's deep concern over sea-lane security near its shores. Its military would, nonetheless, have problems fighting a modern war, and has severe challenges of recruitment and modernization.

China's president Xi Jinping has embraced a strong leadership position both on the domestic and foreign policy front. He distributes economic aid, travels abroad frequently, and he speaks openly about establishing a new model that would place China front and center on the international scene. His message is clear; China is now a great power. As a subtle -- or not so subtle -- reminder of his state's influence in the region, he routinely presses the point that the people of Asia will solve the problems of Asia. To this end, under Xi's leadership, China has become more assertive with its neighbors.

China has an underlying confidence that it will eventually replace the U.S., which it sees as a failing system, as the world's leading power. At the same time, many Western scholars believe that ethnic unrest, political repression, and disaffected Chinese elites will ultimately bring about the end of communist rule. Nevertheless, the words and actions coming from China suggest a nation that is determined to continue its growth and embrace an even greater role in global affairs, whether we like it or not.

For now, the economies of our two nations remain deeply intertwined. U.S.-China trade represents more than $600 billion. Around 275,000 Chinese students now study in the U.S., while 25,000 Americans study in China. China continues to serve as a major agricultural importer of U.S. food and grain and also as a massive financial lender. Of course, China's economic problems, including deep-rooted corruption and environmental devastation, are huge negatives.

Up to now, our policy of constructive engagement, which spans several U.S. presidents, has centered on welcoming a peaceful and prosperous China, one that contributes to the stability of Asia and chooses to play a responsible role in this region of the world. But that type of engagement has been thrown into doubt as insufficient.

Moving forward, we must build on our commonalities. We must keep talks going even when tensions arise, and we have to accept that change in China won't happen as quickly as we would like. Most importantly, we need to persuade China that its interests lie in assuming shared responsibility for global leadership, and to take responsibility commensurate with its wealth and power.

Make no mistake: This is a challenging time in our relationship as the U.S. seeks to maintain its dominance in the world while China seeks to flex its growing economic and political power. As the military forces are being ramped up on both sides, some in the U.S. argue for continued U.S. dominance in Asia while others contend for, not a retreat from Asia, but for more of a balance of forces. Despite our disagreements, though, we must look for avenues of greater cooperation and collaboration, avoid surprises, respect the realities of the region, maintain our leadership in all its phases, find a seat for China at the international table, and deal from a position of strength.

Again, the world is watching, and where we go from here in our relationship is the most important factor in the peace, security and stability in the new world coming.

Lee H. Hamilton is a Distinguished Scholar, Indiana University School of Global and International Studies; Professor of Practice, IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs; Chairman, Center on Congress at Indiana University. He served as U.S. Representative from Indiana's 9th Congressional District from 1965-1999.