You are here

US-China ties: History favours détente over sabre-rattling


WHILE much of the hand-wringing over China has abated somewhat during the Covid-19 crisis, the fears animating Western attitudes towards that country have not disappeared, and could resurface at any moment. These tensions represent a major, vexing dilemma for the world, given China's massive and growing economic power. And the situation certainly has not been helped by the failure of the other major economic powerhouse, the United States, to manage the current crisis effectively.

Owing to my professional background, I usually approach issues like the Sino-American relationship first as a macro-economist.

But as the chair of Chatham House (a London-based, non-profit, non-governmental international affairs think tank), I have developed a more nuanced view of the issue, taking into account not just the economic dimension but also security, diplomacy, culture and other factors.

To that end, it seems only reasonable that we should adopt a broader "optimisation framework" for understanding and managing relations between China and the West. Not to oversimplify matters, but if the economic opportunity that China represents can be expressed as X, Western leaders who want to confront China about actual or perceived transgressions need to weigh the potential costs of doing so against that benchmark.

Your feedback is important to us

Tell us what you think. Email us at

Such thinking is only natural, and I suspect that it is already implicit in British and European governments' approaches to China in recent years. But in following this framework, policymakers need to ask themselves a subtler question: Is strong economic engagement more effective than unbending confrontation in achieving the desired policy changes in China?


Answering such questions will require an open mind. During China's semi-annual Golden Week holiday this month, many Chinese people appear to have travelled far and wide within the country without triggering another wave of Covid-19 infections.

Yet when I point this out to other Westerners, their first instinct is to question the anecdotal evidence and reject the credibility of Chinese data. And even when they concede that the evidence may be sound, they say they are unsurprised, given the control China's authorities assert over the Chinese people.

I would have more sympathy with this argument if China and other authoritarian countries were indeed the only ones to have prevented a serious second wave of Covid-19 infections this year. But similar stories can be found in places like Japan and South Korea, suggesting that we would do better to look for lessons than simply dismissing the evidence.

Soon, we will have data on China's third-quarter real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) growth, and many analysts expect to see an acceleration to around 5 per cent year on year, coming on top of a second-quarter estimated growth rate of 2.6 per cent. If so, there will be good reason to believe that China is experiencing a classic "V-shaped" recovery, putting it on track to register 8 per cent growth next year.

These are just forecasts, of course, and unforeseen developments could radically change the state of play, as 2020 has shown.

But if the current growth figures are reasonably accurate, the implication is that China's nominal GDP (US$14.1 trillion in 2019) will match that of the US (US$21.4 trillion) later this decade, or soon thereafter.

Moreover, at the current growth rate, China is poised to contribute an additional US$1.5 trillion to global GDP just next year, and Chinese consumers will drive close to 40 per cent of that.

For comparison, US$1.5 trillion is greater than the national GDP of all but the top 15 or so economies. China will effectively be creating another Australia or Spain in the space of a single year. And given that consumer spending continues to account for a growing share of China's expansion, the scale of the economic opportunities on offer cannot be overstated.

That takes care of the macro-economics, but we cannot ignore the other issues. China's human-rights abuses are legion, particularly in Xinjiang. Its clampdown in Hong Kong and incursions in the South China Sea have heightened tensions across the region, as has the Belt and Road Initiative, through which China is asserting its influence in other countries. Beijing's insistence that even private companies toe the party line raises serious doubts for Western firms and governments dealing with the country.


These are serious concerns, and they take us back to the question posed by the optimisation framework. Those advocating more confrontation with China must weigh the probabilities that their approach will succeed as intended, that it will curtail Chinese growth, and that it may reduce economic opportunities for the West.

If all of these outcomes are borne out, Western leaders could decide that the strategy was worth it. But if there were a reasonable chance that China's growth would continue while the opportunities for the West shrank, a policy of confrontation would be utterly self-defeating.

It might be cathartic to opine noisily about another country's standards and practices, but there is substantial historical evidence to suggest that a country's citizens will tend to value economic opportunity over most other issues. That axiom applies as much to the US, the United Kingdom, and Europe, as it does to China.

Moreover, even if a country's leadership still prefers a confrontational approach after considering the potential costs, it would have a much better chance of success by cooperating with other governments in a programme of positive engagement rather than zero-sum brinkmanship. Surely diplomacy and other subtler forms of engagement would go further towards changing a country's standards than sabre-rattling and trade warfare ever could.

If there is a change in US leadership next month, one hopes that it will set the stage for a renewed effort at the G20 to resurrect the post-war international order, and to bring governments back to the same table. Everyone has a role to play in working towards a more prosperous and inclusive future. PROJECT SYNDICATE

  • The writer, a former chairman of Goldman Sachs Asset Management and a former UK Treasury Minister, is chair of Chatham House.

BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to