Rocky US-China relationship could benefit from couples therapy strategies

SCMP | June 28 , 2023

From SCMP, 2023-6-28

 ■ Antony Blinken’s successful visit to Beijing has opened a window of opportunity to establish a more constructive and harmonious US-China relationship.

■ Four principles from relationship therapy could be adapted to geopolitics and help the two sides forge stronger, more stable ties.

Illustration: Craig Stephens

By Wang Huiyao | Founder of the Center for China and Globalization(CCG)


Conflict is inevitable in any long-term relationship. What really matters is whether partners can manage, resolve and move on from their disagreements and build a healthier bond over time. This insight applies to international diplomacy as much as to romantic relationships.

It is fair to say the aftermath of the balloon incident in February was not a shining example of conflict resolution. Rather than communicate calmly and effectively, China and the United States got caught in a cycle of blame and recrimination, sending the relationship to its lowest ebb in decades.

Thankfully, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s successful visit to Beijing has opened a window of opportunity to establish a more constructive and harmonious US-China relationship. Both sides have a responsibility to seize this chance – as two of the world’s foremost powers, their dynamic not only influences their own nations but the entire global landscape.

Blinken’s visit, the first to China by a US secretary of state in five years, saw constructive meetings with Foreign Minister Qin Gang, top diplomat Wang Yi and President Xi Jinping, the last of which was by no means guaranteed. These positive interactions send a strong signal that, having veered dangerously close to the edge, both sides recognise they cannot risk a complete break and are committed to putting the relationship on a more steady footing.

It is now crucial for China and the US to work together to build a solid foundation for their relationship so future incidents cannot derail ties in the manner we have seen in the last few months. To achieve this, there are four principles from relationship therapy that can be adapted to help guide the development of stronger, more stable US-China relations.

First, open and regular communication is the cornerstone of any strong partnership. China and the US must get back to having frequent and transparent dialogue about their intentions, concerns and expectations.

The first priority is to step up high-level interactions to clear the way for a meeting between Xi and US President Joe Biden at the Group of 20 or Apec summits later this year. Hopefully Blinken’s trip will be followed by visits by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo and Biden’s climate envoy John Kerry.

Regular contacts at lower levels of government should also be restored, as well as the bilateral dialogue that withered during the Trump administration. Collectively, these meetings can provide platforms to explore avenues for cooperation and address any brewing issues and defuse tensions before they snowball into larger conflicts.

Second, any relationship needs robust mechanisms to manage and resolve conflict when it does occur. China and the US must establish channels for swift and effective communication during crises, as well as pre-established protocols to manage such events, to help de-escalate such situations before they become unmanageable.

Even at the height of the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union maintained channels for communication and crisis management, including a hotline between Washington and Moscow. China and the US lack those kinds of mechanisms.

Looking to the longer term, the third point a relationship therapist might emphasise is the need to develop mutual respect, empathy and shared interests. Couples going through a rough patch are often advised to try to understand the other person and engage in joint activities or hobbies to strengthen their bond.

In a similar vein, nations can foster empathy through cultural exchange in areas such as education, research and tourism, helping to enhance mutual understanding and reduce the “us versus them” mentality. Cultural ties between China and the US have waned in recent years because of politics and the Covid-19 pandemic.

China is now open again, but the lack of enough flights to and from the US remains a bottleneck. Fewer than 6 per cent of flights between China and the US that existed in 2019 have resumed, according to a recent Nomura report, and flights that remain are expensive. Part of the issue is that restrictions on flying over Russian airspace add a significant cost to operating these routes. Both sides need to explore ways to increase the number of flights.

More broadly, both sides should strive to promote bilateral exchange across society. The number of US students in China dwindled to just around 350 last semester. Hopefully this number will begin to rise as students make new applications for next term. It would also be beneficial to promote academic exchange, including by reducing the red tape involved in having foreign guests participate in academic conferences in China.

Meanwhile, the Fulbright China programme sent US scholars to China for more than four decades and sent their Chinese counterparts the other way. It was cancelled in 2020 but should be revived, as should the Peace Corps programme, which withdrew from China the same year.

Finally, shared goals and collaborative projects play a pivotal role in helping couples deepen their connection. Similarly, China and the US must identify areas of common ground and pursue joint initiatives that benefit both nations. This should extend beyond addressing immediate concerns and conflicts to encompass broader, more constructive themes such as climate change and global financial stability. Long-term collaboration and incremental achievements on such issues can help unite both nations under a common cause.

Like successful couples, both nations must invest time and effort in nurturing their partnership. After Blinken’s visit, there is a chance for China and the US to build a more solid foundation for their relationship so it is not derailed when the next surprise comes. As with any relationship, there will be bumps in the road, but these can be overcome with careful management.


From SCMP, 2023-6-28