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July 10, 2020, 1:42 p.m. EDT

What the world could use now: a reset between the U.S. and China

The two leading superpowers could help heal the world as the coronavirus has damaged global economies

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By Peter B. Walker

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Containment has failed

The Belt Road Initiative is generating substantial good will and economic opportunities, as China’s trade with Africa is now about $500 billion annually, versus $5 billion for the U.S. China remains well-positioned to succeed in the 21st century given its scientific advances in renewable energy, high-speed rail, telecoms with 5G, advanced computing and artificial intelligence. It also boasts an ever-growing population of graduating scientists, technology specialists, engineers and mathematicians that in raw numbers is many times a multiple of comparable graduates in the U.S.

In nearly every way, containment has been a failure. What we need is a return to a position of constructive engagement, and a partnership that would lead to collective global leadership. To get there, the U.S. needs another fundamental mindset shift.

The first stages of this shift require acceptance on both sides — but particularly in the U.S. It must understand that each country will always have different models, each rooted in its own unique history and culture. The U.S. emerged naturally from the early settlers’ experience in Europe. Having escaped monarchies, a class-driven economic system and limited personal freedoms, the Founding Fathers designed a minimalist democratic government with maximum personal freedoms.

The core idea was to have America shaped and driven by its free-enterprise economy, not the government. China’s model was shaped by Confucian values with a focus on the family and society, not individuals.

The history of China also contains a constant threat of invasions from the north, frequent floods, famines and other disasters that led almost inevitably to an all-powerful central government with a nearly unlimited scope. Implicit in the model is the sense that, like dynasties, governments would endure as long as they had the support of the people.

China’s international role

Unlike the U.S., where citizens expect some sense of control while selecting leaders through elections, China has selected its leaders meritocratically, through ongoing performance reviews and examinations. Although China does not have popular elections above the local government level, the support level of Chinese people for the government is among the highest globally, according to research done by the Pew Foundation.

For thousands of years, China has focused inward — a stark contrast to the U.S.’s interventionist role to spread democracy and protect human rights. China still has among the most peaceful records among major countries in terms of involvement in foreign wars. And it is active globally to improve its economics for the ultimate benefit of its people.

Despite assertions to the contrary by China hawks, China has, in words and actions, proven it has no interest in exporting its governance model to other nations.

Such is the unchangeable nature at the core of both the U.S.’s and China’s models. If the two powers could only accept what cannot be changed — and what they cannot expect to change about each other — the doors would begin to open for cooperation. We need this desperately, for who better to begin to solve global issues?

Dealing with the threat of our current pandemic jointly would be a great start. There are so many other global issues that stand to benefit enormously from this cooperative model, too, such as climate change, clean air and water, world hunger, the refugee crises, and nuclear proliferation.

China would welcome this development. Whether the U.S. is ready to accept China as it is, refocus its energy and resources on its core domestic issues, and co-lead with China to solve these global problems remains an unanswered question. The far easier question to answer is whether or not the world would celebrate such a partnership. It would.

Peter B. Walker is the author, most recently, of “Powerful, Different, Equal: Overcoming the Misconceptions and Differences Between China and the U.S.” He’s a former senior partner at McKinsey & Co.

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