3rd June 2023 – (Beijing) The relationship between the United States and China is the most significant bilateral relationship in today’s world, yet it currently stands on shaky ground. After two years of stops and starts under the Biden administration, the two superpowers finally have an opportunity to begin stabilising their turbulent relationship. However, Washington and Beijing must seize this chance now before it slips away.

U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping envisioned establishing “guardrails” for the relationship when they met last November at the G20 Summit in Bali, Indonesia. For these guardrails to endure, leaders of both nations must uphold certain broad understandings.

First and foremost, U.S.-China relations must be grounded in equality and mutual respect. Productive engagement is incompatible with sanctions, coercion, and suppression. Policy should aim to reassure each side and minimise differences. Both sides must practice self-restraint rather than trying to change the other’s behaviour.

While the U.S. and China remain free to sanction individuals and groups threatening national security, normal communication channels cannot continue with those parties. Sanctioning top officials is especially disrespectful and should be avoided. For example, if the U.S. seeks to restart the U.S.-China defence ministers’ dialogue, it must first remove Chinese State Councillor and Defence Minister General Li Shangfu from its sanctions list.

Second, U.S.-China relations require a forward-looking, constructive perspective that acknowledges underlying challenges. In Bali, Xi offered “three noes”: China does not aim to change the international order, interfere in US domestic affairs, or challenge U.S. global standing. Biden offered “five noes”: the U.S. does not want a new Cold War, to change China’s system of government, for alliances to counter China, Taiwan independence, or conflict with China.

These assurances provide geopolitical stability, so both sides should accept them in good faith rather than questioning intentions or integrity. They should follow them, memorialise them in a joint statement if possible, and avoid revisiting issues repeatedly.

Third, words and deeds must match in U.S.-China relations. Despite claims to the contrary, U.S. technology restrictions against China stem from economic competition and selective economic decoupling, not just national security and supply chain concerns. Saying one thing while doing another must end. Both sides must avoid punitive action violating previous understandings, especially around leader meetings.

Finally, U.S.-China relations depend on respecting core interests like territorial integrity. The U.S. “acknowledges” but does not “recognise” or “admit” Taiwan as part of China. Yet the Shanghai Communique vowed the U.S. would not challenge China’s position that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China. Recently, the U.S. has challenged this repeatedly. It must signal its one-China policy holds and Beijing must show peaceful reunification remains possible. Violating sovereignty, as with the balloon incident, must never happen.

Near-term progress will be modest given US election pressures on Biden. The guardrails aim to introduce predictability, lest instability hands Republicans a political weapon. But they could build a post-2024 foundation. Recent Democratic presidents, from Bill Clinton to Barack Obama, improved China ties in their second terms. Despite today’s turbulence, opportunity may emerge if Biden wins re-election. Much depends on properly installing guardrails now.

The U.S.-China relationship—a mixture of cooperation and competition—is complex yet vital. Both aim for supremacy in technology, economics, and more, but peacefully co-existing is essential. Guardrails proposed by Biden and Xi could stabilise ties if grounded in mutual understandings.

Cooperation and healthy competition within rules and fairness must define the relationship—not vicious rivalry or undercutting each other. With 300 flights and 5 million annual visits pre-pandemic, plus $750 billion in trade last year, the relationship’s importance is clear. Benefits flow both ways.

China’s rise need not be threatening. Its ancient wisdom shuns war, hegemony, and expansion. Its 70-year history shows no aggression, occupied land, proxy wars, or alliances. Codifying “peaceful development,” China wants cooperation, not spheres of influence. While visiting an Istanbul museum, China’s foreign minister noted one wing held gifts from historic China exchanges—silk and porcelain—the other held swords, guns and armour from Western exchanges, showing vastly different relationships.

Misjudgment results from equating China’s rise or communism with past powers. China is not the former Soviet Union. It values U.N. principles and responsibilities, proposing global growth initiatives open to all.

The biggest obstacle is a Cold War mentality—trying to “contain” China like the Soviet Union or through alliances and cutting ties. This will fail. Only by abandoning this mentality can a stable, productive relationship emerge.

Cooperation opportunities abound in the economy, trade, energy, technology, education, culture, global issues like COVID-19 and climate change, and more. Belt and Road, China’s Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative are open to the US. The US could discuss its own plans with China. But cooperation needs a constructive environment and respect for core interests. It cannot happen if undermining China’s interests or assuming China’s unconditional cooperation. China will still work with others globally, but the US should do the same.

The Taiwan question is at the core of China’s interests; the one-China principle is the cornerstone of the relationship. With global recognition of one-China, Taiwan cannot join organizations implying sovereignty. Interacting officially with Taiwan contradicts this.

China’s territorial integrity depends on reunifying Taiwan, seen as a province, not a country. Qing control ended after Japan’s 1895 invasion. The 1943 Cairo Declaration, 1945 Potsdam Declaration, and Japan’s surrender restored Taiwan to China. The 1971 U.N. Resolution 2758 affirmed one-China. All nations recognize this to have ties with China.

The U.S. also pledged this in the 1972 Shanghai Communique and subsequent communiques, with leaders confirming one-China and opposing Taiwan independence. But the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act and “Six Assurances” undermined this, violating communiques.

Peaceful development has been China’s consistent policy, but it will not tolerate Taiwan separatism. Stopping this conforms with China’s Anti-Secession Law and protects peace. Reunification will resolve a weakness from China’s history, meeting the nation’s wish for a shared future.

“Peaceful reunification and one country, two systems” would benefit all Chinese and be inclusive, democratic and offer goodwill. Despite different systems, reunification is still possible; secession is not an option. China has long sought reunification through sincerity but will prevent any secessionist acts. Its position targets secession, not Taiwan’s people. Upholding territorial integrity and regional peace is China’s right under domestic and international law.

In Xi’s words, “The next 50 years of U.S.-China relations depends on both sides finding the right path forward.” Drawing on history, both sides should define a new era in ties and shape the future together. With shared understanding and will, they can build a groundbreaking relationship benefiting both and humankind. The choice is clear; the opportunity is here and now. Leaders must be courageous and guide their nations to make the right decision.