For longtime observers of China, the last two years have been unsettling. Under Xi Jinping the Chinese Communist Party has made it more difficult than ever to hope that the People’s Republic is still dedicated to the agenda of “reform and opening up” that was the mantra of the Deng Xiaoping era. Instead, Beijing has served up a neo-Maoist cocktail of autocracy within and truculence without.
Despite meetings between Presidents Xi and Obama, and a yearly Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the level of discouragement and pessimism, especially among China specialists, about the future of Chinese-American relations is at its highest since the bloodshed of 1989.
To the litany of the old problems — Taiwan, Tibet, human rights, intellectual property, currency policy — a host of new ones have been added. In China, advocates for civil and political rights have been arrested; civil society groups harassed; controls on free expression in academia, the media and civil society tightened; and “universal values” attacked. Outside China, Beijing’s new assertiveness has inflamed disputes in the East and South China Seas even as new controversies have multiplied over hacking and other cyberattacks, harassment of political and social activists, blockage of news media websites, and punitive denials of visa applications for American journalists, writers and scholars who want to work in China.
The Pew Research Center finds that only 38 percent of Americans view China favorably, down from 51 percent four years earlier. In a recent poll by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, a champion of closer relations, 60 percent of respondents said that foreign businesses were less welcome than they used to be, up from 41 percent a year earlier.
The idea that countries with such different political histories, systems and values could ever cooperate arose out of two summit meetings: in 1972, President Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry A. Kissinger, visited Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai (with both countries alarmed about the Soviet Union) and in 1979, Deng Xiaoping visited President Jimmy Carter (when both countries resumed full diplomatic relations). Sadly, these breakthroughs were followed by a breakdown, the suppression of pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and cities across China, in 1989. Nonetheless, over the ensuing decades the relationship improved enough to allow many on both sides to imagine that, with more time, economic liberalization, and educational and social exchange, China might evolve into a more open society and a more responsible “stakeholder” in global affairs, giving us a common goal.
It is this inchoate hope that has now been arrested by Mr. Xi’s “Chinese Dream,” an indigenous reverie confected to rally his people not to the promise of greater openness and constitutionalism, but greater wealth, power, national unity and global clout.
President Bill Clinton once scolded President Jiang Zemin for being “on the wrong side of history.” As far as Mr. Xi is concerned, history is now on China’s side, as it returns to a central role befitting its ancient civilization and its status as the most populous country.
How should America respond to this new challenge?
We should reaffirm in the most public way possible that while we welcome China’s “rise,” we will not accommodate unreasonable claims around the world and, if necessary, are even prepared for a latter-day strategy of “containment,” which Western democracies used to circumscribe the Communist bloc during the Cold War. However, at the same time, we must make it indelibly clear that we far prefer a collaborative path forward. Such a path needs a road map, and a personal presidential commitment.
To send such a signal, and to set the stage for their meeting in September, Mr. Obama should appoint a special envoy to China, and ask Mr. Xi to reciprocate. (The meetings between Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Vice Premier Wang Qishan, during President George W. Bush’s administration, are a model.)
Second, Mr. Obama should create a China think tank within the White House, composed of experts, to examine our government’s basic strategy toward China.
Third, to edify public discussion during an election season, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee should hold special bipartisan hearings, as Senator J. William Fulbright, Democrat of Arkansas, held in the 1960s on the conduct of the Vietnam War, to elicit views from an even broader range of American experts.
The threat of climate change presents both countries with, paradoxically, a fortuitous area of common interest that could catalyze the “new kind of major-power relationship” that Mr. Xi has called for. Last fall’s joint agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is a potential game-changer.
But to achieve any kind of lasting breakthrough in the China-United States relationship, both sides must be prepared to make difficult concessions.
The United States should contemplate such previously unthinkable options as:
• Giving climate change at least as high a priority as democracy and human rights in the management of our relationship with China;
• Acknowledging that China is entitled to some kind of “sphere of influence” in the South China Sea, just as the United States has in the Caribbean, without completely yielding to all of its territorial claims;
• Imposing new limits on flyovers by American military intelligence aircraft near China’s coastal waters;
• Openness to discussing terms for the end of arms sales to Taiwan;
• Guaranteeing that, if Korea unifies, the United States will place neither troops nor nuclear weapons in the North;
• Exploring new ways of giving China a greater governing role in the International Monetary Fund and other institutions of global governance;
• Investigating how the United States could actively support Mr. Xi’s new economic reforms to spur domestic consumption, as the success of those policies is also in our national interest.
The Chinese side might contemplate such options as:
• Agreeing to allow maritime disputes to be adjudicated by international law;
• Consenting to support sanctions against the North Korean regime in a more effective way;
• Discussing terms for a disavowal of the use of military force in the Taiwan Strait;
• Allowing Hong Kong more autonomy to work out its timetable for attaining universal suffrage.
Because these issues are so intractable, a breakthrough is a long shot. But what’s the alternative? Allow China to follow the path of Vladimir V. Putin’s Russia — which is now well beyond any hope of “reset”? It would be a great pity to let the Chinese-American relationship — of far more importance than the Russian-American relationship — reach a similar state of military impasse without a herculean effort to arrest the slide.
Perhaps the growing pessimism is justified, and the only possible outcome is containment, even confrontation. Am I optimistic? Not really. In China, there is too much paranoia — and talk about covert “hostile foreign forces” as the cause of China’s problems — to instill confidence. But if I have learned anything in my more than six decades of studying China, it is that when it comes to interacting with the outside world, China can be a counterintuitive and unpredictable player. I have learned to remain open to surprise.
If there is still a peaceful way for the United States to accommodate China’s rise, it will involve a judicious mix of resistance and compromise. Perhaps now, with China’s plummeting stock markets rattling the party’s nerves, is the moment for a bold, concerted effort to recast the way our two essential nations interact.
Orville Schell is director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society and co-author of Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the 21st Century.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on July 10, 2015, on page A27 of the New York edition.