A Path Forward: Advancing U.S.-China Relations Through Public Diplomacy

JUNE 28, 2016

By: Jerrold D. Green, Justin Chapman, Alexandre Moore, Pacific Council

The relationship between the United States and China is more important now than at any time in history. Today, the Pacific Council publishes a new report by President and CEO Jerrold D. Green, Communications Associate Justin Chapman, and Events Officer Alexandre Moore on the important role of public diplomacy in improving the complex U.S.-China relationship. 


Read the report


As two Pacific powers with unique global responsibilities and reach, both the United States and People's Republic of China share an interest in global and regional stability. Minimizing costly and dangerous rivalry, especially in the military sphere, is in everyone’s interest.

In order to advance strategic mutual trust and allow for increased cooperation on security issues, Washington and Beijing must recast the way they view one another. We must take a path that advances mutual respect and understanding at every level - a path that can be measurably smoothed by public diplomacy. 

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. 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, and can play a leading role in advancing relations between the two countries.

This report was presented at the 2016 China-U.S. Diplomacy Summit held at Renmin University in Beijing on June 19, 2016. Read it now.


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 accusations against one another 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.”

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.” 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. 

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 in April, 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.” 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 by 2017, and with more Chinese money being invested in American studios and films, 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.

This year the Chinese firm Dalian Wanda Group purchased Legendary Entertainment, which produced The Dark KnightJurassic World, and several other blockbusters, for $3.5 billion. 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, 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.

There are also a number of Chinese companies with operations headquartered in Los Angeles, such as the BYD Company. The Chinese automaker’s decision to produce electric buses in Lancaster, a city in Los Angeles County, is a good example of how the complex U.S.-China economic relationship can be mutually beneficial: Chinese companies gain access to the U.S. market, employ U.S. citizens, and offer a valuable product. In this specific instance the product being offered also contributes to local sustainability goals.

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. 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.

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. 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 and Pacific Council’s board of directors released a report last year highlighting the success of Chinese provinces and the state of California in partnering against climate change. 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. “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.”

U.S. President Barack Obama and China President Xi Jinping at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif., June 8, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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.”

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). 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 is expected to join military exercises known as RIMPAC near Hawaii beginning June 30, which will further that cooperation.

“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. “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 report 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.”

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 back 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.

U.S. Navy vessels in the South China Sea

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

One of the most publicized and possibly damaging issues dividing the United States and China is the new Chinese law requiring foreign NGOs to register with the police and to submit budgets, among many cumbersome restrictions. To the United States and other outsiders, this is perceived as paranoia about alleged infiltration, espionage, and subversion by foreigners. The vast majority of foreign NGOs are performing vital work in China, and most Americans believe that Beijing should reevaluate this overreaching law.

North Korea victory parade

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, 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.

Recently, Washington missed two key opportunities to cooperate with China on economic development and trade. When the United States decided not to support the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), it lost a chance to work with China to set the bank’s agenda on environmental protections, human rights, anticorruption measures, and other governance standards. Additionally, by actively discouraging other nations from participating in the bank, the United States damaged its relationship with China as well as its credibility abroad, as the AIIB will be crucial for development in Southeast Asia.

Last year China surpassed Canada as America’s largest trading partner. Some Americans believe that it is imperative that China be included in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the largest free trade agreement in a generation that is firmly centered on trade within the Asia-Pacific. China’s participation in the arrangement would be a financial boon to all parties and the reforms they would need to undergo in order to participate would allow the United States to better compete within China’s domestic market. Interestingly, during a recent address to the Pacific Council in Los Angeles, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that China has inquired about what the process might be for entry into TPP. Meanwhile, China is pressing ahead on its own version of the trade agreement. There is ample room for collaboration and cooperation on this front.

For the United States to avoid missing additional opportunities, it should develop a clear and realistic path for China’s eventual participation in TPP and should begin exploring with China a role for the United States within or alongside the AIIB.

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.”

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 Pacific Council on International Policy and other think tanks – especially those in China such as the National Academy of Development and Strategy at Renmin University – can play a key role in this process. We must continue to highlight each other’s cultural achievements, convene strategy sessions like the 2016 China-U.S. Public Diplomacy Summit, 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. Read more about his background.

Special thanks to Justin Chapman, Communications Associate, and Alexandre Moore, Events Associate, for their assistance researching and drafting this paper.

This report was presented at the 2016 China-U.S. Diplomacy Summit held at Renmin University in Beijing on June 19, 2016.

The Los Angeles-based Pacific Council is an independent, nonpartisan organization committed to enhancing the West Coast’s impact on global issues and policy. Since 1995, the Pacific Council has hosted discussion events on issues of global importance, convened task forces and working groups to address pressing policy challenges, and built a network of globally-minded members across the West Coast and the world.

Visit us at www.pacificcouncil.org.