By Yawei Liu, Susan Thornton, and Robert A. Kapp
Little more than four decades ago, President Jimmy Carter and Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping resolved to establish full diplomatic relations between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China. Until that fateful moment in December 1978, ideological conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union had spilled into Asia, bringing the United States into armed conflict and confrontation with China on the Korean peninsula and in Vietnam. Building on the initial steps undertaken by their predecessors, Richard Nixon and Mao Zedong, at the beginning of the 1970s, Carter and Deng normalized relations not only to pursue shared concerns over the Soviet threat, but to advance the goal of peace in Asia and reap the benefits of commercial and cultural relations.
As policymakers and scholars now assess the merits and legacy of U.S.-China engagement, the positive results remain clear. In the four decades since normalization, the Asia-Pacific region has remained free from international war. Engagement contributed to the steady decline and collapse of the Soviet Union, which brought about an end to the Cold War. It facilitated the growth of a prosperous relationship spanning trade, tourism, and investment, along with cultural exchanges that brought the American and Chinese people closer together. Over time, engagement between the U.S. and China has also fostered cooperation across multiple international fronts, including nonproliferation, anti-piracy, peacekeeping, and development assistance.
Engagement also enabled China to become an indispensable part of globalization, laying the groundwork for Chinese entry into the World Trade Organization in 2001. It contributed to the rise of hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty and transformed the collapsing economy of the late 1970s into the world’s second largest one by 2010. Chinese students and scholars were able to study and conduct research in the U.S.; many of them stayed in America and became naturalized citizens. America also benefited immensely from this engagement. Its economy pivoted increasingly to the high-technology sector. Universities in the U.S. boomed from the massive infusion of Chinese students. American research institutions flourished from the talent and contributions of Chinese researchers working alongside their multinational and American peers. A growing stream of Chinese investments into the United States created new jobs across sectors of the U.S. economy, and affordable manufactured goods from China continue to benefit the lives and pocketbooks of many ordinary Americans.
However, as the early decades of U.S.-China engagement transformed the landscape of bilateral relations, it has become clear that the U.S. and China saw the end goal of engagement in deeply distinct terms.
Contrary to many Americans’ expectations, China’s growth and global integration has not brought political liberalization. Instead, China has become increasingly ambitious, assertive, and authoritarian. China’s abusive treatment of ethnic minorities, its violation of the principle of “one country, two systems” in Hong Kong, its heavy-handed approach toward Taiwan, its coercive behavior toward foreign nations perceived as unfriendly, its continuing neglect of rules in international trade and investment, its failure to address privacy and security concerns related to data collection and internet technology, and its lack of transparency regarding the COVID-19 outbreak have all been cited in the U.S. as causes of sharp decline in the bilateral relationship. Consequently, public opinion among U.S. citizens and members of Congress has lurched downward in recent years.
The U.S. under President Donald Trump has also contributed to the rapid deterioration of bilateral relations. By late 2017, what was initiated by the Obama administration as a “pivot” to Asia has increasingly become an effort to contain and decouple from China. Abandoning bilateral dialogue in favor of unilateral action, the Trump administration launched a protracted trade war, stoked popular fear about an ascendant China, closed cultural and educational exchange programs, ejected journalists, shuttered the Chinese consulate in Houston, and magnified concerns amongst Chinese political elites that the U.S. is seeking to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party itself. Now, discussions abound in the U.S. that it is entering a new Cold War with China.
However, the relationship between the U.S. and China should not be compared to that between the U.S. and the Soviet Union before the USSR’s collapse in 1991. The Washington-Moscow confrontation was a battle between truly different systems of political and economic governance. That Cold War, though, was characterized by the near-complete absence of people-to-people exchange and the complete absence of economic interdependence. Isolated as America and the Soviet Union were from one another, there were few opportunities for mutual interests, personal contacts, and economic exchange.
By contrast, the U.S. and Chinese economies remain deeply interconnected. Ideological competition does not play an outsized role in the relationship, and while military apprehensiveness and political disagreements are emerging more frequently, visions of a future of peaceful coexistence and cooperation have not yet disappeared.
As President Carter described in the foreword of this report, intolerance of criticism and a mutual lack of self-reflection lie at the heart of the deteriorating U.S.-China relationship. Both nations struggle with severe domestic problems related to racism, injustice, repression, and economic inequality. At the same time, both nations react harshly to criticism from one another. China regularly castigates the U.S. government for allegedly interfering in China’s internal affairs. For its part, the U.S. dismisses Chinese criticisms of its behavior on the basis that China is a “Marxist-Leninist” dictatorship and therefore unworthy of respect.
As President Carter wrote in his 2018 Washington Post op-ed titled “How to repair the U.S.-China relationship — and prevent a modern Cold War”:
“Americans must acknowledge that, just as China has no right to interfere in U.S. affairs, we have no inherent right to dictate to China how to govern its people or choose its leaders. Though even countries with the closest of relationships may critique each other at times, such engagements should never become directives or edicts; they should rather serve as a two-way street of open dialogue. China’s achievements in sustaining economic growth, alleviating abject poverty, and providing developmental assistance to other countries need to be celebrated. At the same time, we cannot ignore its deficiencies in Internet censorship, policies toward minorities and religious restrictions — which should be recorded and criticized.” 
It is no secret that countless issues of domestic and international concern require American and Chinese attention. How can both nations preserve the benefits of stable interaction, cooperate on pressing matters of international concern, and engage in open dialogue and self-reflective criticism? In light of each nation’s intransigence, how can the U.S. and China reverse the current trend toward decoupling?
The Carter Center, with generous support from the Ford Foundation and the National Association of Chinese Americans, assembled a small group of scholars, researchers, and professionals from the U.S. and China to ponder this challenge and develop ideas aimed at meeting the crisis. With official engagement at a near standstill, this report specifically examines how Chinese and American civil society, including nongovernmental organizations, might improve cooperation, dialogue, and management of security risks between the U.S. and China.
We believe this report distinguishes itself from many other reports produced by U.S.-based think tanks and research institutions for the Biden administration. First, the primary goal of this report is to provide pragmatic, future-oriented, and actionable proposals for nongovernmental organizations, including educational institutions, think tanks, and broader civil society. Second, this report is binational in nature. It employed independent teams in the U.S. and China to effectively capture the unique perspectives of each side. Third, this exercise will be repeated each year with an evaluation and assessment of the evolving changes in the bilateral relationship with new recommendations for civil society in both countries.
The “engagement” of the coming decade will, by definition, not be the “engagement” ignited by President Carter and Vice Premier Deng more than 40 years ago. It will be a new paradigm of engagement rooted in altered circumstances, novel aspirations, transformed insecurities, and promising opportunities. Americans and Chinese must continue to “engage” culturally, educationally, economically, and financially.
This report looks back with respect and admiration on the decision of America’s and China’s leaders to restore normal diplomatic relations after a 30-year hiatus that witnessed war, economic isolation, and the bitter evaporation of long-standing contacts between the American and Chinese people. Its recommendations seek to contribute to an updated vision of U.S. engagement across the next century.