A Path Forward: Advancing U.S.–China Relations through Public Diplomacy

The original version of this report was presented at the 2016 China-U.S. Diplomacy Summit held at Renmin University in Beijing on June 19, 2016, and was originally published by the Pacific Council on International Policy.


The relationship between the United States and China is more important than at any time in history. It has been said that the two superpowers are neither friends nor foes, and indeed, the remarkably complex U.S.-Sino relationship comes with its fair share of contradictions. As two Pacific powers with unique global responsibilities and reach, it is indisputable that both countries share an interest in global and regional stability.

The central issue is whether or not the two countries can successfully manage their relationship in a manner that advances strategic mutual trust and allows for increased cooperation on security issues in the Asia-Pacific; this question weighs heavily on diplomats and generals across the globe. Minimizing costly and dangerous rivalry, especially in the military sphere, is in everyone’s interest. To do this, China and the United States must be acutely aware of the fashion in which they view one another. No longer can the two rest upon the laurels of economic interdependence as the primary guarantor of peace; far too many countries throughout history have forsaken economic interests in order to protect strategic ones.

Instead, the United States and China must take a path that advances mutual understanding and respect at every level—a path that can be immeasurably smoothed by public diplomacy. Public diplomacy can be an avenue dynamic enough to reverse decades of rivalry while garnering popular support in both countries, reaffirming alliances abroad, and reinforcing mutual trust between Americans and Chinese writ large and not just between Washington and Beijing at the highest levels of government.

Contradictions and Mutual Concerns

The United States and China are often at odds. Militarily, the United States is concerned about the modernization and expansion of China’s armed forces and its strategic domain, while China is worried about attempts at strategic containment by the United States and its regional allies. Economically, the United States and China now compete in almost every market. This competition has at times resulted in the two leveling accusations1 against one another2 of unfair trade practices and economic espionage. Human rights remain a consistent point of contention between the two, with Washington long ago incorporating the goal of expanding human rights abroad into its foreign policy platform and Beijing adopting the view that human rights should be defined by each country’s unique history and socio-political system.

Despite these areas of disagreement, it is within these very same theaters that the United States and China have overlapping and even interdependent interests. Both governments want to peacefully manage North Korea, to secure access to affordable energy, to guarantee free navigation of the seas, to combat terrorism and contain the spread of violent extremism, to bolster cybersecurity, to promote global development and trade, and to curb climate change, environmental degradation, and pollution. Getting the United States and China to cooperate on these issues will require greater dialogue between ordinary Chinese and Americans, as the policies of our governments will only begin to change once the perceptions of our publics lead the way.

Data from a recent Pew Research Center poll found that most Americans and Chinese do not hold favorable views of each other. Just 38 percent of Americans think positively about Chinese, and just 44 percent of Chinese think positively about Americans. However, “young people in both countries express more favorable attitudes of the other nation,” according to Pew’s analysis of the survey. Fifty-five percent of American adults under 30 gave China a positive rating, and 59 percent of Chinese adults under 30 gave the United States a positive rating. Interestingly enough, 59 percent of young Chinese also said they “like American ideas about democracy.”3

Even so, more than half of Chinese respondents said the United States is trying to prevent China from becoming as powerful as the United States. Indeed, as The New York Times recently pointed out, “The Chinese hold contrasting, schizophrenic views of America. For many Chinese people, the depth of their admiration for the American system and way of life is matched only by their animosity toward the country.”4 We can safely assume this is at least partially attributable to the narratives both governments are responsible for espousing.

It is here that the role of public diplomacy comes in as a potentially very powerful force for positive change. Relying on the core elements of public diplomacy—listening, advocacy, cultural diplomacy, exchange, and international broadcasting—both China and the United States can strengthen their vital relationship, avoid confrontation, and chart a way forward that is mutually beneficial.5 Los Angeles in particular, a key city that is aware of and values its multifaceted ties to Asia, and home to the Pacific Council on International Policy, is uniquely well positioned to play a central role in this process.

A Regional Model for the Nations

At the Pacific Council’s 2016 Spring Conference, Atman Trivedi, senior director for policy at the U.S. Department of Commerce Global Markets Bureau, said, “The relationship between China and Los Angeles is incredibly important. Chinese investment and tourism in Los Angeles County is a major driver for economic growth. Los Angeles is a gateway to U.S.-China international trade.”6 Indeed, on trade, energy, business cooperation and investment, education, health care, tourism, and the environment, Los Angeles and California already have a unique relationship with China. The entertainment industry is at the forefront. With China expected to surpass North America’s box office numbers in 2017,7 and with more Chinese money being invested in American studios and films,8 the entertainment industry’s connection with China is a vital piece of this puzzle. Entertainment, media, and creative services—with an ability to reach and influence hundreds of millions if not billions of people—could serve as an important tool in recasting our perceptions of one another.

In 2016, the Chinese firm Dalian Wanda Group purchased Legendary Entertainment, which produced The Dark KnightJurassic World, and several other blockbusters, for $3.5 billion.9 Major Hollywood studios have been “aggressively pursuing film co-financing deals with Chinese companies, including Alibaba Pictures,” according to the Los Angeles Times. Hollywood studios increasingly have Chinese audiences in mind when producing new films. There is a natural opportunity here to use entertainment as a medium for public diplomacy messaging. The more we learn about China and the more they learn about us, the more likely and able both sides will be to update narratives of one another and to begin a more meaningful and far deeper level of engagement.

Los Angeles is leading the way in many other areas as well. In May 2016, the Los Angeles-based U.S.-China Cleantech Center (UCCTC)—a public-private partnership between the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation and the U.S. Department of Commerce—hosted the U.S.-China Cleantech Innovation Forum, a series of conferences and exhibitions promoting bilateral cooperation in trade, culture, and the environment. About 200 Chinese and American government officials, business leaders, and clean energy and environmental policymakers attended the forum in Pasadena, California. “China and the United States, the two most powerful countries in the world, can work together and achieve global magnitude in clean technology,” an article about the forum quotes Dr. Feng An, founder and executive director of UCCTC, as saying.10

Peter Shiao of the Los Angeles Business Journal cited a new report by research firm Rhodium Group and the non-profit National Committee on U.S.-China Relations that found California is the top destination for Chinese direct investment.11 From 2000 through the end of 2015, 452 California businesses received $8 billion. “Chinese-owned businesses already directly employ almost 10,000 Californians, and indirect jobs through tourism and construction multiply that figure several times,” wrote Shiao. Nationally, 90,000 American jobs are now directly tied to Chinese organizations based here in the United States.12

Chinese investment in the United States could reach $200 billion by 2020, according to Rhodium economist Thilo Hanemann, with California—and Los Angeles especially—reaping the lion’s share of this investment.13 One need only look across the street from the Pacific Council’s offices for evidence of this massive trend of investment in Los Angeles: the new Metropolis building is being constructed by Chinese developer Greenland for $1 billion. Several other major mixed-use projects currently under construction in downtown Los Angeles are also financed by Chinese developers.

With so much Chinese capital at play, as well as this city’s sizable Chinese population, Los Angeles is uniquely positioned to influence China’s perception of the United States and of Americans and American’s perceptions of China and of the Chinese people.

On the environment, subnational government entities are already circumventing Beijing and Washington. California has been a leader on this front as well. Orville Schell of the Asia Society and Geoffrey Cowan of the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands released a report in 2015 highlighting the success of Chinese provinces and the state of California in partnering against climate change.14 In 2013, California Governor Edmund Brown, Jr., and China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) Vice Chairman Xie Zhenhua, China’s top climate official, signed a joint, historic memorandum of understanding to combat climate change.

“The fact that the National Development and Reform Commission of the People’s Republic of China is entering into an agreement with one of the fifty states reflects the important position of California not only in the economy, but in science, technology, and climate change initiatives,” said Governor Brown before signing the agreement.15 “I see the partnership between China, between provinces in China, and the state of California as a catalyst and as a lever to change policies in the United States and ultimately change policies throughout the world.”

Also in 2013, presidents Obama and Xi met at Sunnylands in Southern California where, according to a press release from the historic estate, “the meetings resulted in stronger relationships between the two leaders, along with significant progress on several issues of bilateral importance, including cybersecurity, North Korea, and controlling rising hydrofluorocarbon emissions from industrial activities.”16

However, Schell said, “In the end if the United States and China do come together in a meaningful way to deal with climate change, it is not going to exclusively be between Washington and Beijing. In fact that may be the least important link. Where the rubber will really meet the road is with states and municipalities dealing directly, so that the solution ends up being more of a patchwork, kind of a mosaic, rather than some big grand design where the presidents wave a wand in Washington and Beijing and bring about a solution.”

Los Angeles is already out in front on this and many other issues. It would be a mistake for China to engage only New York and Washington, D.C. in its relations with the United States, as the East Coast is only part of the story in terms of U.S. public diplomacy resources. Californians would be eager to cooperate on an initiative with China, along the lines of the state’s partnerships with other countries.

Expanding What Works in the Military Realm

The armed forces of the United States and China may have a complex professional relationship, but in recent years bilateral cooperation has deepened. Now, the military-to-military relationship has the potential to alter the adversarial narrative in both countries. Both sides know that in contentious arenas like the South China Sea, rivalry could boil over into something far more costly.

We have already seen limited examples of positive engagement between the U.S. and Chinese armed forces. When the United States Navy recently sent a carrier strike group through the South China Sea, Rear Admiral Marcus Hitchcock was highly complimentary of his Chinese counterparts, saying that he was engaged on an almost “twenty four-seven basis” with a “completely professional” People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).17 This mutually respectful and open-line approach by the two forces fostered a safe and non-threatening environment in which they could operate despite their differences. In summer 2016, the PLAN joined military exercises known as RIMPAC near Hawaii, which furthered that cooperation.18

“Where the People’s Republic of China is building real naval capabilities, most are actually best suited for cooperating, rather than competing, with other world powers,” writes David Axe in The Diplomat.19 “Indeed, there are signs that China intends to be a full partner in a loose, emerging alliance of developed world navies aiming to suppress piracy and seaborne terrorism and to provide rapid relief in the wake of coastal natural disasters.”

On the other hand, during the recent rollout of a Department of Defense report20 to Congress on Chinese military and security developments, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia Abraham Denmark stated that China’s Coast Guard and fishing vessels sometimes act in an “unprofessional” manner “in the vicinity of the military forces or fishing vessels of other countries in a way that’s designed to attempt to establish a degree of control around disputed features. These activities are designed to stay below the threshold of conflict, but gradually demonstrate and assert claims that other countries dispute.”21

The aggressive spirit behind China’s maritime activity has not been overlooked. The actions taken by China’s fishing fleet and Coast Guard, including their land reclamation efforts in the South China Sea, has pushed many of its neighbors such as Vietnam and the Philippines to deepen their ties with the United States in an attempt to balance against China. This rebalancing has seen the Philippines invite American troops back22 for the first time since expelling U.S. forces from the country nearly 25 years ago, and, even more extraordinarily, has seen the complete end to the U.S. arms embargo on its Cold War-era foe Vietnam.23

These developments clearly run counter to China’s strategic interests. However, Beijing must not resent Washington for reacting to the demands of its regional partners. Instead, China should take note of the second and third order effects that its aggression is having on its long term strategic interests in the region and abroad.

If China’s commitment to a cooperative—rather than competitive—approach is genuine, Beijing will need to bring the professionalism of its Coast Guard and the behavior of its fishing fleet fully in line with that of its navy. As it stands, China’s Coast Guard and fishing fleet communicate less effectively and more aggressively than their counterparts in the PLAN.

Cooperation on these challenges would go far in helping to create a new narrative between everyday Chinese and Americans regarding the relationship of their countries’ armed forces; particularly with the proper media focus, shift in public statements by government and military officials, and vocal support for such efforts from academics and think tanks. Greater engagement and interaction between the upper echelons as well as the rank and file of the two forces could help empower moderate voices within both organizations as their working relationship expands.

Areas for Collaboration and Cooperation

On the topic of North Korea, Beijing has already stepped up its cooperation with Washington on sanctions, but Beijing is unwilling to go further and thus risk the destabilization of the Korean Peninsula. Accordingly, Washington must seek China’s assistance in freezing North Korea’s nuclear program, which would help to reinforce U.S.-Sino mutual trust and advance cooperation by avoiding the need for a buildup of U.S. military forces on the Peninsula. Such a buildup, while in the interest of the United States should North Korea’s nuclear program continue to accelerate, will only be seen by the Chinese as the U.S. government taking advantage of the situation in an attempt to contain China. Some in the United States are already calling for nuclear weapons to be returned to South Korea,24 and Kim Jong-un’s continued missile tests are not helping the situation. For China, cooperation with the United States on these matters also has the added benefit of bolstering its soft power and standing on the world stage, not to mention the potential to curtail the strength of the country’s jingoistic elements.

Washington can also ramp up its support of exchanges with China. While the 100,000 Strong Initiative student exchange program reached its goal of increasing Americans studying in China, student exchanges are just the beginning. Professor Jay Wang, director of the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy, wrote about the importance of initiating “dialogs and substantive exchanges between practitioners and scholars of public diplomacy of the two countries. Nurturing and sustaining a positive relationship between the two countries is consequential not only for the United States and China, but also for the world. And, it requires the active engagement of public diplomacy, which plays a crucial role in steering this vital relationship in a positive direction. Popular perception of each other matters, because it forms the climate of opinion in which policies and actions are considered, weighted, and pursued.”25

These solutions will not solve all of the problems between the United States and China, but they will go a long way towards avoiding real conflict between the two nations.


The United States and China must continue to highlight each other’s cultural achievements and brainstorm new ways to cooperate in an increasingly complex, interconnected, and often dangerous world.

In order to advance strategic mutual trust and allow for increased cooperation on security issues in the Asia-Pacific, China and the United States must recast the way they view one another. One of the most powerful tools we have to accomplish this goal is public diplomacy. The stakes are too high—financially, politically, strategically, and culturally—to flounder at this critical moment in history. If Americans and Chinese do not learn to understand and respect each other, the worst case alternative is a frightening future with the potential for violent conflict not seen in almost a century.

Dr. Jerrold D. Green is the president and chief executive officer of the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles. He is also a research professor of Communications, Business, and International Relations at the University of Southern California. Prior to this he served as a partner at Best Associates in Dallas, Texas, a privately held merchant banking firm with global operations. He also served as the director of international programs and development at the RAND Corporation where he oversaw the activities of the Center for Asia-Pacific Policy as well as the Center for Russia and Eurasia. At the same time he directed RAND’s Center for Middle East Public Policy. He is a member of the United States Secretary of the Navy Advisory Panel where he was awarded the Department of the Navy, Distinguished Civilian Service Award for his service. Green also served on the selection committee for the U.S. Department of State Herbert Salzman Award for Excellence in International Economic Performance by a Foreign Service Officer.

Justin Chapman is the communications associate at the Pacific Council on International Policy and the managing editor of Public Diplomacy Magazine. He is an author, journalist, travel writer, actor, poet, musician, and politician. Justin was the youngest elected member of the Altadena Town Council at age 19. He graduated from University of California, Berkeley in 2009 and is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Public Diplomacy at USC. He has written for over 20 print and digital publications, frequently for the Pasadena Weekly. His book about his travels through Africa, Saturnalia: Traveling from Cape Town to Kampala in Search of an African Utopia, was published by Rare Bird Books in January 2015. He also serves as president of Men Educating Men About Health and as secretary of the West Pasadena Residents’ Association. As a professional child actor he performed in dozens of commercials, television shows, and movies. He and his wife Mercedes live in Pasadena, California.

Alexandre Moore is the events officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy. Alex assists in managing the organization’s Events Department, where he researches and monitors shifts in foreign policy, oversees the logistical and operational elements of events, and recruits U.S. and foreign diplomats, military officials, and experts to meet with the Council. He previously worked as a legal assistant for the Law Offices of David Lee Moore and as a finance and administrative assistant to Eloise Reyes for Congress in California’s 31st congressional district. Alex interned at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, China where he assisted the Embassy’s public affairs officers facilitate cultural and educational exchanges between China and the United States. While in Beijing, he won recognition as PKU TV’s “Best New Actor” and was one a handful of U.S. students selected to meet with China’s 18th National Congress of the Communist Party to discuss China’s future 10 years. Alex graduated from the University of California, Riverside Cum Laude, where he received a B.A. in Global Studies and a B.A. in Political Science and Administrative Studies. Having been born and raised in Ojai, Alex is a California native.


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