For thirteen days in October of 1962 the world stood on the precipice of nuclear annihilation. Relations between the Communist Soviet Union and the United States had been declining since the end of the Second World War, and now reached a fever pitch. Ill intent, combined with mutually held negative views of one another and their intentions for the world at large and lack of trust and transparency led to the years of tension now referred to as the “Cold War”. But in October 1962 the war very nearly turned hot. The Soviet Union secretly positioned nuclear warheads on the island of Cuba, just ninety miles from the continental United States. For nearly two weeks the world watched and waited, wondering if the mistrust and tension would finally explode into a full-scale nuclear conflict. Of course, this never came to pass. A combination of steady leadership on the part of President John Kennedy and perhaps a great deal of cosmic luck ensured the Soviets withdrew their warheads. The world had survived its closest brush with a third World War yet.
Now, over fifty years later, suggesting the world could once again come to the precipice sounds like an overused theme in countless dystopian novels, films, and television shows. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States has stood alone as the premier superpower on the planet, both economically and militarily. However, a new superpower has been waiting in the wings and, lately, has exploded onto the scene. The People’s Republic of China is the world’s most populous nation and among the wealthiest. In addition to their sheer wealth, military, and technological prowess, China and the United States are fundamentally nations. China is an authoritative communist regime, not afraid to silence and imprison political dissidents. The United States is still (at least for the time being) a democratic republic where the thought of a dictator, king, or leader(s) willing to jail their opponents is fundamentally repulsive to most people. There is a good case to be made that China is America’s number one geopolitical rival, or even enemy. For this reason, it is imperative that the two nations maintain good relations and trust. If transparent, open, honest, and carefully calculated communication and cooperation is not maintained between these two rival nations, the world could once again be brought to the precipice of destruction.
If that above paragraph sounds hyperbolic, consider that both the United States and China have nuclear weapons. Consider that both nations have rocket technology that would enable them to launch nuclear warheads to one another with ease. Consider that the nation’s ideologies and systems of government are fundamentally opposed to one another. All this, in addition to inconsistent foreign policy and inappropriate rhetoric on the part of public figures has created an air of distrust. Distrust breeds covert activities and espionage to get at the truth. Espionage breeds further distrust. One bad move or comment by one nation or the other could be seen as an act of open aggression by the other and have disastrous results if some trust and good faith is not returned to the relationship.
This issue of restoring trust and good faith to the relationship between the United States and China is particularly important to the general population of the United States, or at least it should be. While politicians and business leaders may want to do whatever it takes to advance their own causes and put money in their own pockets (as they so often are) this does not align with what is best for the American people in the long run. During the course of the Cold War the American people spent fifty years waiting for the mistrust and tension shared between the U.S. and the Soviet Union to explode into war. While the horrors of the Second World War were still fresh in the minds of many people in the world, some feared the onset of a Third World War that would again cost millions of lives and take fathers away from their children, and food off the tables of hardworking American citizens. Nobody in the United States wants to live through another period of distrust and wondering when and where the first nuclear strike would come. Again, such doomsday predictions may seem hyperbolic. But it is imperative that we remember, ultimately, both the U.S. and China have their own agendas and plans that they want to and will follow to advance their own position in the world. Without trust and good faith, what is to stop one nation from viewing every single foreign action of the other as a threat to their own nation.
So how does one achieve this end? First and foremost, the nations must be forthright in their communication with one another. This, more than likely, has to start with the United States because we the people have the power to elect officials whom we believe will best serve our interests and do what is best for us. China does not have that luxury. Therefore, the American people have a large role to play in this. We the people must select candidates who have a clear and consistent policy prescription for dealing with China and that prescription must involve open and cooperative communication with the Chinese government. Trust and good faith with China is good for the American people in the long run, and we must ensure our political leaders understand this. It is our moral duty to do so.
Another important aspect to look for when the American people are considering China policy is areas of practical cooperation between the two nations. For example, the issue of space debris in low-earth orbit is an issue that effects both nations and their citizens. Consider, if you will, what would happen if a piece of space debris became caught in the pull of Earth’s gravity and struck a major metropolitan area at terminal velocity. The impact would be devastating and could potentially come with little or no warning. China and the United States are home to some of the largest, most densely populated metropolitan centers on the planet. This issue of clearing debris from low-earth orbit could be a potential area for cooperation between our nations. Unfortunately, such cooperation has repeatedly been blocked by American politicians.
In 2011 Congress passed a spending bill. Now, I know what you are thinking. “What does a spending bill from 2011 have to do with cooperation between the U.S. and China?” I’m glad you asked. Hidden in that spending bill is a two-sentence clause inserted by Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA). The clause, essentially, prohibits any joint space effort between China’s space agency and NASA. Wolf’s reason for this, while personal and possibly vindictive, is relatively valid. Wolf’s office was the victim of a hack later attributed to Chinese hackers and, as such, he wants NASA to be protective of technological information and intellectual property so the Chinese government cannot steal it away. While his motive may be understandable, I believe this prohibition against joint space ventures to be unwise because it prevents exactly what I suggested in the previous paragraph. Without joint space efforts, China and the U.S. cannot work together to clear space debris, most of which was put there by one nation or the other anyway. Moreover, if China is excluded from the international space community then what is to stop them from operating outside the existing rules of international space-faring as exist right now? Nothing. The only way to ensure that China play by the proverbial rules is to invite them into the fold.
From the perspective of the American citizen, Congressman Wolf’s clause in the spending bill is an example of why American voters need to consider where officials stand China and how they plan to handle the Chinese government when they go to the polls. Congressman Wolf’s clause is, frankly, personal, vindictive, counterproductive, and dangerous. This type of policy is exactly what the U.S. should avoid, for the good of the people. Unfortunately, there is a disease that permeates American political society today. That disease is called partisanship. Too many people would vote for Wolf or his policies simply because there is an R next to his name. On the other hand, democrats may want to vote against a republican politician or their policies simply because they are members of the opposite party. This partisan divide is unproductive especially these days. The gap between the parties is wider than it has been in my lifetime and that makes it virtually impossible for them to agree on anything, let alone something as contentious and consequential as how to handle one of the world’s premier economic and military superpowers. The American people must try to look past their own political preferences when examining China policy, and vote with their heads, not their hearts.
Another area of potential cooperation between the two nations may be more difficult to achieve than what has already been discussed, but it may be even closer to the hearts of the American (and the Chinese) people. For nigh on a year now the world has been trapped by the COVID-19 virus and the pandemic it has caused. Of course, the virus originated in China and has spread to every nation on earth. Even with a possible vaccine on the horizon, there is still work to be done. We still need to learn more about how this virus functions, how likely it is to mutate, among other things. China, as the nation that has been battling the virus the longest and claims to have done a remarkable job tamping it down, could have valuable insight to share with the U.S and the rest of the world in order to bring the pandemic to a swifter end. This would be massively beneficial and appreciated by the citizenry of both nations. Particularly in the United States, we are not a nation built for months of lockdowns and government orders shutdowns. The sooner this pandemic ends, the better it is for the U.S. and the world at large. Unfortunately, the vitriolic rhetoric of some people on the political right (Donald Trump sits at the top of this list) has made any such cooperation unlikely. President Trump has repeatedly made inappropriate nicknames for the virus in public settings. He has openly blamed China for the virus and has been inconsistent in what he seems to believe about the virus and how much blame China deserves. Early in the pandemic he seemed to believe the Chinese government was being very honest and open about the virus, but he later changed his voice and seemed certain they were lying. Regardless of which he really believes (or even which is really true) this is not a time for rivalry between nations to become so personal that it prevents cooperation. Both the Chinese and American people are suffering greatly because of this virus. We the people need to call upon our leaders to end the partisan and international bickering and help those who are really suffering from this pandemic.
All this is to say that we, the American people, have a role to play in all this. In fact, ours is the most consequential role. We must remember that our elected officials work for us and are meant to serve our best interest, not their own. And a healthy trust between China and the U.S. is in the best interest of the American people in the long term to prevent aggression or conflict that could cost us time, lives, and money. We must look past the two parties, and vote based on who truly has the best policies in mind. This does not only apply to China, but at large we must consider carefully the policy of our candidates and vote according to the best interest of the nation, not according to blind allegiance to one party or the other. We the people must vote with our head, not with our hearts.