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  September 3rd, 2018 | Written by

Managing US-China competition

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  • The deterioration of the US-China relationship is at its worst in 39 years.
  • The US and China each want the other to take responsibility for reversing the course of the relationship.
  • Barring presidential-level intervention, the US-China relationship likely will continue to deteriorate.

Despite positive public comments from presidents Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, the US-China relationship has deteriorated on a sharper downward slope since official ties between the two countries were established 39 years ago. Each country points fingers at the other and the other to be responsible for reversing the negative course of the relationship.

According to a recent Brookings report, “Barring presidential-level intervention to change course, the relationship likely will continue to deteriorate and, in so doing, increase the risk of future confrontation or conflict.”

Ryan Hass, the report’s author believes that the trick is not to eliminate competition, “but rather to build guardrails around the relationship so that competition could occur within accepted bounds. This, in turn, would create conditions more conducive for both sides candidly to address concerns about the actions of the other.”

Among the steps Hass suggests is to “develop a shared narrative for the relationship,” to accept the practice of using presidential summits “to deliver impactful outcomes and understandings, and not just as pageants of pomp and circumstance.” The two presidents could also revive the practice of not surprising each other with measures that risk the bilateral relationship and which heighten the danger of a misinterpreting each other’s intentions. There are also risk reduction workstreams that could be revised, which, if successful, could lower the probability of the occurrence of unintended incidents and rapid escalation of conflicts. They could also engage on acute problems, such as trade, cyber issues, Taiwan, and North Korea, “so that areas of friction do not overtake the relationship…”

“The record of the past 18 months does not lend itself to optimism that leaders in either capital will take steps necessary to put the relationship on a firmer foundation,” the report concluded. “If both leaders opt instead to score points at the expense of the other, they will fuel mutual suspicions, and perceptions will harden about the inevitability of confrontation, and possibly conflict. But this outcome would be a choice, not an unavoidable result.”