Julian Gewirtz is the author of “Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China.”
President Trump’s “America First” philosophy has increased tensions around the world, but the biggest shoe has yet to drop: He hasn’t laid out his policies toward China, a country he has repeatedly denounced . As a 27-year-old American who grew up traveling to the country and studying its language, I fear that Trump’s aggressive actions toward China could be his most potent threat to the long-term safety and prosperity of the world that my generation will inherit. A reckless, belligerent policy upending decades of stability in U.S.-China relations is not what most members of my generation want.
Trump has presented China as a major foe of the United States — second only, it would seem, to “radical Islamic terrorism.” Trump’s strong anti-China rhetoric has emboldened those calling for a more confrontational approach, and his chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, once even predicted a war with China in the South China Sea “in five to 10 years.” Overall, just 37 percent of Americans have a favorable view of China, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. When you break out the figures by age, a remarkable pattern emerges: Americans between 18 and 29 hold much more favorable views of China than those over 50. Similarly, China has the largest generation gap regarding views of the United States of any of the countries surveyed by Pew, with close to 60 percent of Chinese people between 18 and 29 — more than double the number of those over 50 — holding a favorable view.
This startling generation gap — apparent in both countries — should inform policy. Trump appears poised to treat China as an enemy, but my generation will have to live in a far less prosperous and more dangerous world should U.S.-China relations fall apart. So I have a message for our elders: Don’t throw in the towel yet. It’s too important — and too soon — to give up on tenaciously seeking a more cooperative, forward-looking U.S.-China relationship.
China isn’t an abstraction for me. After a Chinese folktale captured my imagination as an 8-year-old, I closed the book and announced to my parents that I wanted to learn Chinese. I’ve been studying China ever since and have lived and worked there extensively. China is a part of who I am: I have grown to understand China and its complexities better at the same time that I have come to understand myself and my place in the world.
These experiences are emblematic of a new generation of Americans who started learning about China early in our lives. My connection may be much greater than most other people’s, but all of us have come of age alongside China: In 1989, the year I was born, China’s gross domestic product was $348 billion; by 2015 it was $11 trillion, second largest in the world. Thanks to high levels of tourism, educational exchange and immigration, we’ve grown up with Chinese Americans and Chinese citizens as friends.
Yet as we’ve become adults, we increasingly seem to live in a country where people see China as an adversary. There’s no doubt that China’s economic boom has caused painful dislocation for many hard-working Americans, and that policies to help those U.S. workers transition to new jobs haven’t kept pace. With its growing military power, China’s sovereignty claims and nationalism pose security challenges. Just as there is mistrust of China in many U.S. quarters, many in China are inclined to see the United States as China’s enemy. China has also disappointed many of the most buoyant hopes that the country’s economic reforms would lead its political system to become more open and democratic. China has become rich but remained illiberal, and President Xi Jinping’s recent crackdown is a sobering reminder that the Chinese Communist Party still runs the show.
But China is not monolithic. The incompatibility of our political systems makes it even more important that we seek out areas where we can build strong, resilient ties. These areas exist within our governments, of course, from our partnership to fight climate change to our cooperation on the Iran nuclear deal. But they also exist on a profoundly personal level — in individual relationships that allow us to reduce distrust and benefit both countries. If the United States under Trump stops trying to build a constructive, cooperative relationship with China, it will only become easier for Xi’s lieutenants to isolate Chinese liberals from their friends around the world and prevent the next generation of independent reformers and internationalists from engaging with outside influences.
The right path isn’t dovishness or toadying but rather policies that seek to achieve a constructive U.S.-China relationship based on both the premise of U.S. strength and an understanding that we will need to work with China to solve major global problems. This surely should include greater reciprocity in the economic domain, especially pushing China for greater openness to U.S. investment, resolve against any military challenges and vigorously protecting U.S. interests and values. But our relationship is simply too important to be guided by a quest for decades-late economic retribution or some desire to find enemies on the world stage. Our leaders must do all they can to bridge U.S.-China differences, and my generation will do our part to contribute to the better future for U.S.-China relations that remains possible.
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