Sino-American Cooperation: Driving Multilateralism with Bilateral Efforts

27 Nov 2023

The world was watching as the leaders of China and the United States met in San Francisco last week. A year after meeting in Bali, Indonesia, the two presidents reached over 20 points of consensus in areas including political diplomacy, cultural exchange, global governance and military security. This demonstrates that there are broad common interests between China and the U.S., and dialogue and cooperation are the only correct choices for both nations. The two sides should seize the opportunity presented by their recent meetings of their presidents to enhance communication and trust, and take advantage of these bilateral efforts to drive multilateral cooperation, with maintaining the stability of the global industrial chain and supply chain as the top priority.

Since the end of the Cold War, more than 30 years of economic globalization have made the Asia-Pacific region the strongest engine of global economic growth and a key hub for the world’s industrial and supply chains. Alongside this process, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) group has continually expanded and now consists of 21 members, including China and the United States. The bloc accounts for one-third of the world’s population, over 60% of its GDP, and nearly half of its trade volume. However, the Asia-Pacific region’s economic prospects are have fallen under a shadow. A recent report by APEC research institutions predicts that in the next three years, the economic growth of the 21 APEC economies may lag behind other regions, with geopolitical issues identified as key risk factors to APEC’s economic growth. Additionally, trade protectionism, inflation and debt, as well as climate change, are expected to have a significant impact, further challenging the momentum of the global economic recovery. President Xi Jinping noted during the Sino-American presidential meeting that “the global economy is recovering, but its momentum remains sluggish. Industrial and supply chains are still under the threat of interruption and protectionism is rising. All these are grave problems.” As the world’s two largest economies, China and the U.S. have an inescapable responsibility to jointly safeguard economic globalization and free trade, and to help build momentum for the next round of globalization.

In recent years, global trade has become more and more fragmented. However, globalization has not ended — nor can it be ended. No country is capable of bringing back its entire industrial chain and supply chain within its borders. It must be said that the temporary headwinds faced by globalization are not entirely due to the dissatisfaction of certain interests, and the unilateralism and trade protectionism of American policymakers cannot be absolved. The U.S. has exerted a lot of effort to “strangle” Chinese technology companies through export controls, investment reviews, unilateral sanctions and other means. This has severely damaged China’s legitimate interests and rights to develop, and will inevitably harm America itself. The U.S. claims that it is managing competition properly and not seeking to “decouple” from China. At the same time, it acts to decouple under the guise of national security. The governor of Arkansas, who forced Syngenta to sell land it owned in the U.S. state, openly declared how proud she was to be in charge of “the first American state to kick China out of our farmland.” The statement borders on hysteria. With this, it is naturally difficult for the Chinese government, Chinese businesses and the public to believe that the U.S isn’t trying to contain China. Asia-Pacific countries also find themselves in a difficult position as they might be forced to choose sides. Recently, some individuals and international organizations have called for “re-globalization” or “re-globalizing,” reflecting an urgent desire for stability and peace. At present, China should seize the opportunity presented by the meeting of the two presidents to fully defend the stability and smooth functioning of the global supply chains at multilateral venues such as APEC and the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Global industrial and supply chains have evolved over the course of globalization and are both dynamic and relatively stable. A forced decoupling would go against economic and social laws and are destined to be futile and harmful. Nations should avoid politicizing economic and trade issues, respect the autonomous choices of companies regarding supply chain security, and avoid falling into the “over-securitization trap.” Chinese companies hope that the U.S. will provide a fair, just, and non-discriminatory environment. Looking at China itself, what should be avoided the most is passively following the U.S.’ lead and its erroneous practices. On issues concerning foreign and private enterprises, all regions and departments should send coordinated and clear policy signals to the outside world, increase law enforcement transparency, reduce potentially confusing and contradictory messages that may lead to misunderstandings, and ensure the predictability and certainty of policies as much as possible.

The U.S. likes to talk about Sino-American competition, but China believes that great power competition is not the underlying theme of this era. If competition is a must, it should be primarily about which can better ensure their people enjoy freedom, democracy, and the rule of law, and who can bring peace, stability, and prosperity to the world. Moreover, which country can better cooperate also constitutes a form of competition, as other countries will use this as a basis to judge which country is the more responsible great power. On global challenges such as climate change, energy security, and even the food crisis, both China and the U.S. are willing to strengthen cooperation. The recent joint statement by China and America on strengthening cooperation to address the climate crisis — the Sunnylands Statement — is undoubtedly a good start.

No one expects a single presidential meeting to resolve every issue between the two countries. Some of the deep-seated structural contradictions between them seem intractable. In this context, China, while adhering to the principles of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and mutually beneficial cooperation should also persist in expanding its openness to the outside world and hold high the banner of globalization and multilateralism. Recently, the Ministry of Commerce disclosed the progress of China’s application to join the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA) and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). Although whether or when it can join these pacts does not depend solely on China’s efforts, sincerity and determination are essential to counteract the decoupling narrative and maintain the stability of global supply chains.

Handling the severe Sino-American relationship is like combating desertification: the desert won’t retreat without tireless work to expand the oasis.

As the most important bilateral relationship in the world, China and America’s ability to coexist will determine the future of the planet and the fate of humanity. As Xi has said, the leaders of both countries bear a heavy responsibility to their people, the world and history. How to maintain the stability of global supply chains and keep them functioning smoothly should be the focus of the next stage of their negotiations.

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