Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria
Photo: Reuters/Carlos Barria

Cross-Pacific tensions are rising. Political leaders on both sides threaten to toss hundred-billion-dollar tariff/tax thunderbolts at one another: they do so, even when aware that these lightning flashes are so potent and so imprecise in their effects that the exchange of fire may, by way of collateral damage, harm their own people and interests (as well as “punishing” their antagonist), at least in the short run.

The situation is complex. Or is it? What if the two players looked at the situation from their opponent’s point view, and also considered what their opposite number had done contemporaneously as an act of simultaneous reconciliation? The result could allow for compromise.

Neither party really benefits from unmitigated confrontation. We are going to suggest, as a “front end” prior to hard words some artful expression of appreciation for prior manifestations of apparent goodwill. We want something less artificial than the smooth language of diplomacy. We suggest that a simple “thanks” be sent over to the other side (when appropriate) with a view to softening, if not resolving entirely, the real cross-ocean tension.

This exchange of “shots over one another’s bows” is mixed in with simultaneous offers of helpful co-operation and improved lines of communication, albeit conducted sometimes out of public view. So, we see, or at least hope we see, benefits to America arising from China’s summons of Korea’s Kim Jong-un to Beijing for “discussions” (or instruction). Similarly, while US President Donald Trump raises from US$50 billion to $100 billion the metric of the trade costs he threatens to impose on China, he informs the American press, via his subordinates, of the high regard in which he holds the president of China.

Both China and the US silently continue to give mutual support to the cooperative spirit that makes possible the exchange of thousands of students and job-seekers who annually cross over to the “other side” of the Pacific Ocean as seen from their “home port,” in order to study, learn about one another and sometimes even make personal and professional homes 16,000 kilometers away from their respective birthplaces. Our suggestion in this essay is that we Americans and the Chinese might wish to say, especially during a time when we are otherwise critical of one another, “thank you” for the degree to which we, during other relational situations, recognize our common interests and shared goals.

But just so we don’t make things worse in the case where we don’t properly understand one another’s “body language” and “signaling traditions,” let us review just what constitutes “thank you” in our sometimes contrasting national lexicons. We need a subtle translation if we are to see the moderate and even conciliatory signals being sent from East to West and West to East.

A primitive Western ‘thank you,’ especially when exchanged between two powerful men, is almost a wordless grunt, combined with a hand-clasp and perhaps a drink, or, in dramatic cases, a shared meal, rife with jokes about one another’s (always trivial) personal failings in matters of dress or deportment

A primitive Western “thank you,” especially when exchanged between two powerful men, is almost a wordless grunt, combined with a hand-clasp and perhaps a drink, or, in dramatic cases, a shared meal, rife with jokes about one another’s (always trivial) personal failings in matters of dress or deportment. Only later will softer words pass between the main players, often words spoken, metaphorically, by the “wives” of the now-reconciled “emperors.” The rough primitivism is diluted with language from diplomats, bureaucrats and other “servants” of the high masters. Conventional words appear, like “a heartfelt thank you,” or gratitude from the bottom of the speaker’s heart. These days it may be “Much gratitude,” “With much appreciation” openly published in social media.

A Chinese “thank you” is not much different from the “cleaned-up” Western version. In the Chinese language with Pinyin pronunciation, the Western “thank you” becomes 谢谢; much gratitude is 万分的感谢, etc.

With these definitions of “thank you” in mind, what have we to say by way of guiding the actions of our mutual leaders’ public pronouncements? Surely such public exchanges of thank you are needed to dilute the sour note introduced (by recent trade disputes between Trump and President Xi Jinping) into trans-Pacific political relations.

During the recent visit to Washington by French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump picked a particle of dandruff off his jacket. It was a gesture far too Western, far too much of a “guy thing,” far too personal to be a model for anything Trump might attempt with Xi. But there was something in the US-French state dinner that could work. That is a tease, to be filled out below.

Skilled craftsmen in China, according to archeological findings, were able to weave silk as long ago as 7000 BC. Silk is one of China’s signature products, and its excellence makes it an ideal “action thank you.”

Our suggestion for an exchange of interesting action thank-you gifts is to take advantage of the “family diplomatic corps” present in each president’s household. Trump has a famous and increasingly “political” wife, Melania, who was especially effective at setting an elegant tone for the US-France state dinner. Her poll numbers are more than 15 points above her husband’s. An “active” idea is for Melania to invite the daughter of Xi, who is currently studying at Harvard, to the White House, where the “Princess of China” and the first lady could discuss their mutual experiences as important political women, and also exchange ideas concerning their shared interest in women’s education.

On China’s side, China’s first lady could send Melania a bolt of fine silk, or better yet an exceptional silk gown, designed in China (Mrs Trump’s Chanel dinner dress was, of course, of French design) that Melania might wear during a US-China dinner where cross-Pacific tensions are aired.

Our plan allows a form of “thank you” (for the aforementioned help with North Korea on one hand and for America’s hosting of so many young Chinese students who are not princesses on the other hand) that could smooth over possible rough spots in the much-needed near-term cross-Pacific talks concerning trade and the uncertain outcome of Korea talks.

Whether our exact plan is the right one or not is not as important as the underlying intention: a mutual thank you for the things that go well in the China/US relationship will make it easier to talk about the problems that remain. If you have a better idea, comment below.

Tom Velk is a libertarian-leaning American economist who teaches and lives in Montreal, Canada. He is the chairman of the North American studies program at McGill University and a professor in that university's economics department. Jade Xiao is a McGill University graduate.