Robert Lawrence Kuhn: Why Has US-China Relationship Worsened and How to Fix It?

China and the US, working together, should become bulwarks of peace and engines of prosperity, which would benefit all humanity.

Editor’s Note: From the Trump administration to the current Biden administration, US-China relations have been going down in many aspects. So far, there is no sign of mending the most important bilateral ties in the world. In an interview with China Report, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, an international corporate strategist, investment banker, and renowned China expert, shares his insight into the questions why US-China relationship has worsened and how to fix it. Authorized by China Report, the excerpts of the interview are republished by China Focus.


I have focused on China-US relations and I have long stated that the bilateral relations between the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China affect the entire world. To no small extent, the peace and prosperity of the world depend on China and the US cooperating as much as competing, but not confrontation and certainly no conflict. Thus, China-US relations are too important to cover up systemic problems. I advocate being candid, with each side stating to the other side what it really believes.

I know leaders, officials and experts in China as well as in the US, and the large majority are highly educated, highly competent, professionally sophisticated, and morally upright. How then the dramatic opposing views?

Robert Lawrence Kuhn

To address the problem, we must understand the problem. Bluntly.

In China, America-bashers believe that the US seeks to “contain China” and thwart its historic resurgence. This is the real reason, they say, why America supports Taiwan — not as a worthy democracy, but as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” with which the US can threaten China while keeping the motherland divided. They see America encircling China via increasing alliances with the “Quad” (U.S., Japan, India, Australia), also with South Korea, the Philippines, perhaps even Vietnam; restricting Chinese companies not only in the US but globally; hacking into China’s computers and sending spy planes to patrol its shores; fomenting “extremism, separatism and terrorism” in Xinjiang and Tibet; trespassing with naval force into China’s sovereign territory (South China Sea); interfering with China’s internal affairs by stirring up rebellion and violence in Hong Kong; falsely blaming China for the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic; spreading false rumors and smearing China; applying the long arm of American law anywhere in the world; and injecting Western values to overwhelm Chinese culture, eroding China’s independence and undermining its sovereignty.

In the US, China-bashers believe that China, playing by its own rules, is a looming political and military challenger, a mercantilist superpower and modernizing military power building a blue-water navy. China critics claim that China has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad, amplified by territorial disputes and “wolf warrior” diplomats. They claim that there is little reciprocity in the China market and media access; that China “steals” technologies to boost its economy; and that China limits human rights to maintain one-party control. Most worrying is the supposition that as China becomes stronger, it will impose its domestic-control values globally. China critics, of course, add Xinjiang, the National Security Law in Hong Kong, threats to Taiwan, and supporting states like North Korea and Iran.

The US should come to recognize the benefits for China of China’s CPC-led system; for example, in poverty alleviation and in controlling the COVID-19 pandemic as well as in economic development. For its part, China should come to have more confidence in the success of its system and not react emotionally and sharply to every perceived criticism from abroad.

The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) and USS Nimitz (CVN 68) Carrier Strike Groups steam in formation, in the South China Sea July 6, 2020.

The challenge for the US is to avoid threatening China’s core interests, especially Party leadership and Taiwan. The challenge for China is to reduce the anxiety of those who fear China’s rise.

Worst case: the free fall in US-China relations won’t halt until both sides see blood, which I hope will be figurative, not literal.

Hopeful case: Progress is possible, with trade and economics leading the way and only through quiet diplomacy, with each side laying out its red lines and both sides seeking mutual rules of engagement in all sensitive areas, especially Taiwan, industrial espionage, and the South China Sea.

China’s leaders assert that, in an integrated global economy, China’s stability and development is essential for world peace and prosperity.

In today’s world, with numerous nation-state and ethnic confrontations, and with threatening planetary problems like climate change and pandemics, the real conflict should not be between opposing political systems but rather between the forces of modernity, competence and development on the one hand, and those of ignorance, exploitation and oppression on the other. By this calculus, China and the US should be sitting on the same side of the table.

Vehicles are submerged on a waterlogged road in New York, the United States, Sept. 2, 2021. (Photo/Xinhua)

Yet, the cascading free fall in US-China relations is awash with danger, as chances for escalation or miscalculation rise to flood-water levels.

Political wisdom is needed urgently for avoiding further exacerbation and escalation, which would only harm both countries and the world as a whole.

The 50th anniversary of Ping-Pong Diplomacy between China and the US arrives at an apt moment for reflection. Consider the parallels between then and now. Then, as now, there was little trust, even hostility. Public opinion in each country was almost entirely negative toward the other country.

I am afraid that US-China relations today are even worse than they were in 1971. Then, the confrontation was passive, with neither side much involved with the other. Today, the confrontation is active, given the multiple points of contact, friction, flash and potential conflict — from technology to borders to geopolitics to claimed interference in domestic affairs. Competing global narratives, spun by the US and China, tell stories of opposing political systems and divergent characterizations of human rights.

So we have work to do; those of us on both sides who believe that good US-China relations is in the best interest of the American and Chinese people and critical for the peace and prosperity of the entire world.

Players from China and the United States take part in a friendly match to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Ping-Pong Diplomacy between China and the United States at the International Table Tennis Federation Museum in Shanghai, east China, April 10, 2021. (Photo/Xinhua)

What can we learn from the historic success of Ping-Pong Diplomacy? Here are some principles:

  • Think outside the box don’t rely on traditional ways of diplomacy alone.
  • Think small when big breakthroughs are not possible, try small ones, even if they seem insignificant.
  • Find commonalities seek areas that ordinary people can understand.
  • Explore public diplomacy encourage people-to-people exchanges, such as in healthcare.
  • Maintain momentum build on small successes.
  • Lighten up everything need not be taken so seriously.

China and the US, working together, should become bulwarks of peace and engines of prosperity, which would benefit all humanity.

Nothing would be better for the American and Chinese peoples, indeed for all people, than genuine cooperation between the US and China. I’m watching for wisdom.