Experts hopeful of improved dialogue between China and US


WASHINGTON – US political observers at an annual conference have expressed hope for more communication between the US and China, buoyed by recent efforts.

"Recently, we've had very visible efforts by both the United States and China to put a floor under the downward spiral in US tribulations," said Kenneth Lieberthal, a senior fellow emeritus in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, in a keynote speech at the Big Data China 2022 Annual Conference held online in mid-December.

The observers praised the summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden during the G20 in Bali, Indonesia, and suggested broader and deeper dialogue.

Lieberthal described the Bali summit as a "turnaround", noting that he is "looking forward to regularized communications to prevent miscalculation that might lead to conflict".

On the US side, our measures to deal with China … are increasingly, to my mind, protectionism, often involving relative or too crude industrial policies.

Kenneth Lieberthal, Brookings Institution

He pointed out that the main obstacle in US-China relations is "each side's distrust of both the short-term and the long-term intentions of the other side", and that the distrust is "wide-ranging".

"Against this background, both sides want to improve the atmospherics. They want to engage in some mutually beneficial cooperation. They certainly want to reduce the chances of actual miscalculations leading to conflict," he said.

In wake of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in October and the US' midterm elections in November, both presidents "see opportunities to be a little more flexible, to look abroad more and take new initiatives", Lieberthal said.

He expects US-China relations to "remain very modest" in 2023.

"On the US side, our measures to deal with China … are increasingly, to my mind, protectionism, often involving relative or too crude industrial policies," Lieberthal said.

He said US officials are focused on competition, while competition is "kind of an all-purpose rationale" rather than "a recognizable strategy".

"Everything is to compete with China, but strategy involves specifications, you know, and goals, timelines, benchmarks, some priorities, and so on and so forth," he said.

Provocative talk

"It also has involved, unfortunately, Taiwan. Talking very loudly, even if you are not wielding as big a stick as you need, that is, to my mind, provocative and, in many ways, counterproductive."

Lieberthal also questioned US policy toward China on technology and universities. He said the approach is "increasingly driving Chinese talent away rather than attracting it".

"It is worrisome to see how they kind of move against the things that we have always tried to protect," he said.

He noted that it is the basis of government decision-making in terms of understanding what is going on in China, and the biggest role of scholars is "being able to explain with credibility and in detail and in a nuanced fashion" on what is going on in China.

In a panel discussion, Jan Berris, vice-president of the National Committee on US-China Relations, emphasized the significance of people-to-people exchanges.

"Over the past five decades, we have built up, I believe, a deep web of people-to-people relationships," she said, adding that it is why people-to-people relationships "must get better" as the nations' relationship worsens.

"Unfortunately, the exodus of China scholars from the United States has diminished recently, clearly because of COVID, but also probably equally so because of things that we've done in the United States. The China Initiative, the anti-Chinese racism, I was going to say perceived, but also real threats of violence."

Elizabeth Economy, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, said one definition of the "guardrails" for US-China relations is just about "preventing the relationship from spiraling down into kinetic conflict", which is focused primarily on State Department diplomacy or military-to-military relations between defense departments.