The Urgency of Resetting Relations With China

Bottom Line Up Front:  The Trump Administration is confronting China on issues that have been developing for years and have percolated to the top of a list of concerns that are affecting bilateral relations.  The current 10% tariff on $250 billion of goods could escalate to 25% or higher if trade issues aren’t resolved in the next few months.  A failure to resolve them, ideally through diplomacy, could lead to a new cold war with China.  Russia would be the only country to benefit from such a development.


  • Forced technology transfers and intellectual property theft have enraged the U.S. public, while China continues to subsidize their industries, making it harder for U.S. companies to compete globally.
  • Currency manipulation, restricting market access, the trade imbalance and cybercrime are some of the irritants in current relations with China.
  • China’s claim to sovereignty and its militarization of islands in the South China Sea, a vital international corridor, have compelled the international community and the U.S. to react decisively.
  • China has been accused of using its Belt and Road initiative to provide economic loans and subsidies to countries in order to gain political and military leverage.
  • Domestically, China has been accused of establishing vast internment camps in Xinjiang province to target its Muslim population.

The Chinese Perspective:

  • China claims that the U.S. is trying to contain it, out of concern that China will overtake the U.S. as the world’s preeminent super power;  the U.S.’ failure to impose its political system on China has engendered ill will toward the country and its leadership.
  • China’s 100 years of humiliation, starting with the Opium War of 1839 and the subjugation of China to abuses from the West, Japan and Russia, until liberation in 1949, has taught China that a strong economy and military, under the leadership of the Communist Party, headed by Xi Jinping, will ensure that China returns to its rightful place, as the Middle Kingdom.  Nationalism is the principal “ism” in China; it resonates with the people.
  • The impressive economic growth in China, as the second largest economy with hundreds of millions of people lifted out of poverty, with a growing middle class with more internet users than in any other country are impressive accomplishments.
  • China’s Belt and Road initiative, its Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank and its Made in China 2025 campaign, dominate key industries, like robotics, Artificial Intelligence, semiconductors, electric cars and represent a China determined to be a global leader.

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, Former Special Envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea

“Since the 1972 Nixon visit to China and formal U.S.- Chinese diplomatic relations in January 1979, the bilateral relationship with China has gone from one of friendship and cooperation to where we are today, considering the consequences of a possible new cold war.”

It was Chairman Deng Xiaoping in 1978, who lamented China’s failed economic system and implemented a bold and ambitious economic reform program that focused on science and technology and establishing a close, productive and friendly relationship with the U.S.

The U.S. embraced this new relationship with China, cooperating on a myriad of economic and national security issues.  Tariffs on Chinese products were low, with technology flowing to China and thousands of Chinese students attending U.S. universities.

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, Former Special Envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea

“Many would say the U.S. turned a blind eye to Intellectual Property Theft (IPR) that reportedly started in the 1990s, and instead focused support for economic reforms in China that ideally would facilitate political reforms that would be beneficial for both China and the U.S.”

The economic reforms moved forward culminating, with considerable U.S. support, with China’s membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001.  This coincided with the demise of the Soviet Union, which provided greater geopolitical opportunities for China in Central Asia, which China continues to pursue.

Presidents Nixon and Carter and Chairmen Mao and Deng were prescient when the U.S. and China, for their own reasons, normalized relations between the two countries.  Over the years, on a myriad of national security issues of mutual concern, like international terrorism and nuclear proliferation, the countries have cooperated, with good results.  The diplomatic and military exchanges between the U.S. and China in the 1980s and 1990s were productive, indicative of the mutual trust we shared.  This was the type of relationship envisioned by Deng Xiaoping and Jimmy Carter when relations were established in 1979.

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani, Former Special Envoy for Six party Negotiations with North Korea

“But the geopolitical environment in 2019 is complex.  It argues for the U.S. and China, two world leaders, to work cooperatively on issues that demand resolution, like the nuclear issue with North Korea.  It also argues for greater cooperation on trade and economic issues, ideally with assurances from China that the theft of IPR and the theft or forced transfer of U.S. technology will cease, with guarantees that U.S. access to China will be similar to the access that Chinese companies have to the U.S. market.”

That’s not too much to demand.  Also, that “Made in China 2025” doesn’t mean China will continue to subsidize their companies to ensure that China dominates the global market in key industries.

Looking Ahead: We’re at an important inflection point in relations with China.  The candor of the dialogue we have with China in 2019 will, hopefully, engender greater cooperation on trade and security issues, with assurances that the interests of both countries will be respected.

Joseph R. DeTrani was the former Special Envoy for Six Party Negotiations with North Korea.  The views are the authors and not any government agency or department.

To read more from Ambassador DeTrani, check out his expert page



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2 Replies to “The Urgency of Resetting Relations With China”
  1. This is an apt and optimistic argument but leaves out a few key points.

    First, China joining the WTO in 2001 did not coincide with the demise of the Soviet Union. It followed that demise by a decade. Moreover, the WTO issue was a contentious one throughout the 1990s, as were other issues like US export controls and human rights in China.

    Second, there were other important developments not mentioned above: the June Fourth, 1989 Tian’anmen Incident that sharply affected US-China political and military relations, and Beijing’s observation of how swiftly the US overcame Iraq in the first Gulf war. Chinese military writings in the 1990s partly focused on the “revolution in military affairs” and how China needed to catch up or forever cede control of the western Pacific to Washington. US protection of Taiwan was a related and constant irritant during the 1990s, without the previous salve of alliance against the USSR.

    Before long, Beijing saw utility in reviving relations with Moscow, which after some amount of work are now closer than at any time since before the Sino-Soviet Split.

    Therefore, it is debatable whether Beijing and Washington had much trust in each other during the 1990s. The 2000s may have appeared better from a trade standpoint, but were infected by the May 1999 US bombing of the PRC embassy, Belgrade – which many Chinese people to this day believe was deliberate – accompanied by mass assaults on the American Embassy, Beijing and Consulate, Chengdu.

    Finally, a small nit to pick: Deng Xiaoping was never Chairman of anything. His highest appointed office was vice premier under the State Council. Deng was more commonly described as “paramount leader” because he held power through his influence.

  2. “Russia would be the only country to benefit from such a development.”

    So what ? Russia got 140 Million people, yes it is a great power but its nowhere near the power China will be once they got an equal footing. The biggest danger today for the whole western world is China, they are now on the rise and we can still act but if we don’t there is no saying what dangers we will see in the future. Russia on the other hand might be at odds with the US at the moment but it is not on the same level as China will be.

    On the economic problems: Pat Buchanan is right when he states that powers never became powers through free trade. The West needs to realize that and start using its economy as a weapon like all the asian tigers did, like the German Reich did before the first World War etc.