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U.S.-China relations hinge on shifting reactionary mindset

Rep. Andy Kim said the U.S. needs to become more proactive in its relationship with China amid growing tensions between the two countries.

The Biden administration needs to rethink its approach to China and find a way to collaborate and compete simultaneously, according to a lawmaker on the new U.S. House committee investigating China.

Building a more strategic approach to U.S.-China relations means first adjusting the U.S.'s reactionary mindset, Rep. Andy Kim (D-N.J.) said. Kim, a member of the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, spoke during a Brookings Institution webinar Tuesday on whether the U.S. can build collaboration with China.

Kim said it's crucial that the U.S. craft a more proactive, comprehensive approach to relations with China -- something other experts agreed with during the Brookings webinar. Yet relations with China have historically been complex, and recently the U.S. cracked down on exports of advanced technologies such as semiconductors to China. China retaliated by banning U.S.-based chip company Micron Technology, with several U.S. leaders calling on the Biden administration to reciprocate in kind.

"So much of the conversation on Capitol Hill is reactionary in terms of how we're responding to the latest issue, whether that's the spy balloon or TikTok," Kim said. "I've seen very little space in the committees I'm on to be able to think about this more strategically and to understand where we're trying to go to."

Focusing on collaborating with China could lead to benefits such as establishing a clear line of communication and reducing the risk of miscommunication, Kim said. The U.S. doesn't currently have a reliable "baseline level of engagement and communication" with China, which Kim said concerns him.

"I don't see a situation in which we can have a world that is functioning if the two most powerful countries in the world don't have a level of engagement," he said.

Increasing U.S.-China collaboration

President Joe Biden is already seeking to ease tensions with the country -- something Kim said will enable the U.S. to make better decisions in the long run.

Some of that rhetoric that is trying to minimize the efforts on engagement are underestimating the need for diplomacy in this new era.
Rep. Andy Kim

"Some of that rhetoric that is trying to minimize the efforts on engagement are underestimating the need for diplomacy in this new era," Kim said.

Though the Biden administration has also made it clear that it will compete with China on advanced technologies to protect national security, cooperation and competition are not mutually exclusive, said webinar panelist Lily McElwee, a fellow in the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

McElwee said the U.S. doesn't need to "play to a kindhearted sense of needing cooperation" with China. She said the U.S. can instead play to China's national interests, such as its desire for global influence.

"Some form of collaboration and cooperation on those issues could come out of China's own self-interest in terms of building influence, because cooperation can really be a force multiplier in terms of impact," McElwee said.

Some of the pressures limiting cooperation and collaboration stem from mistrust. There is fear that the other side will back out or cheat, or that one side will benefit more than the other, said webinar panelist Jennifer Lind, associate professor of government at Dartmouth College. Both the U.S. and China have already hurt their relations, she said, with China engaging in intellectual property theft and the U.S. limiting exports to China, for example.

However, in today's increasingly connected world, Lind said it does provide the U.S. and China more opportunities for cooperation.

"I would underscore the importance of what are the areas we need to figure out at least to have a working relationship on," she said.

Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget Editorial, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.

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