As China worked to contain the COVID-19 outbreak, the Hamilton Lugar School hosted a particularly timely panel on US-China relations as part of the conference on America’s Role in the World® that analyzed the origins and future of the complicated relationship between the two nations.
John Yasuda of the Hamilton Lugar School led the wide-ranging discussion, and the panelists had no shortage of topics: the future of Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang, security challenges posed by North Korea, and the rapidly evolving COVID-19 outbreak. The importance of global engagement and the ability to work with other nations to solve complex problems by sharing expertise are crucial lessons right now, the panel argued.
First, experts weighed in on the trade dispute between the two nations. Wendy Leutert, the GLP-Ming Z. Mei Chair of Chinese Economics and Trade at the Hamilton Lugar School, provided an overview of the situation. The world’s two largest economies are in an economic conflict largely as a result of the bilateral trade deficit between them, worth $350 billion, with the US importing far more than it is exporting. Phase one of the agreement between the two nations included a commitment from China to purchase $200 billion worth of goods from the United States, but there are still questions. First, since the plan is phased in over two years, is it possible that if Donald Trump isn’t reelected, the agreement won’t continue with the next president? And, crucially, since COVID-19 is disrupting supply chains, manufacturing, and consumer spending, will this agreement still hold?
Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, who covers China for Axios, pointed out that there have been psychological effects of the trade war within the business community, making some wonder how essential China’s market is and whether there are other options besides engaging with China, although US CEOs generally still want to do business there.
There also appear to be conflicting goals within the Trump administration itself. Adam P. Liff, Assistant Professor of East Asian International Relations at the Hamilton Lugar School and Director of its 21st Century Japan Politics and Society Initiative, pointed to two different groups within the administration, with one believing that the trade war should be a means to achieve reforms in how business is done and another viewing the trade war as an end in itself as the two nations economically decouple.
“China is a global phenomenon,” he added, and it is “impacting the lives of American voters, American workers, in very direct ways.” It is expanding not just its economic footprint but also its political footprint all over the world as it attempts to export its authoritarian model of governance.
The sort of great power politics that is returning with the rise of China indicates that we need a “full-spectrum approach,” which includes trade, investment, military power, and a “projection of what we stand for in the world in terms of our values,” Twining argued.
Other panelists agreed. Allen-Ebrahimian pointed to criticism from Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo against the persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang as evidence that the administration is taking violations of human rights and civil liberties in China seriously. However, she added that the administration has not made use of a 2015 law enabling sanctions against human rights abusers that would punish officials complicit in what is an attempt at cultural genocide.
COVID-19, which at the time of the panel was an outbreak concentrated in mainland China, has further complicated the nations’ relationship. Twining criticized the Chinese Communist Party for firing local officials who told the truth, keeping doctors quiet, and preventing the open release of information about the virus until after it had claimed many victims.
“What kind of political institutions do you want to have…to manage these kinds of crises that come out of the blue and really are globally disruptive?” Twining asked, pointing toward the importance of democratic and press freedoms combined with a nimble state.
COVID-19 has “made China very unpopular amongst just average Americans,” who may not follow international affairs closely, Leutert said. Distrust between people is rising, as are conspiracy theories, with some Americans believing China created COVID-19 as a biological weapon and some Chinese people believing the CIA or US military planted the virus in China to weaken it. There is resentment on both sides, Leutert pointed out, with Chinese people feeling that they are being targeted around the world and citizens elsewhere upset with China for not doing more to prevent the spread of the virus when it was first discovered.
But there are also opportunities for collaboration. Leutert pointed out that China and the US have some of “the best science and medical research facilities and teams in the world,” who can “work together to share information.” Mutual aid, scientific knowledge, and best practices for treatment are all areas in which the US and China can cooperate.
This kind of cooperation and openness “should be carefully guarded and preserved so that those ties are not weekend by the mutual distrust and resentment,” Leutert argued.
Working with allies in the region can make this kind of cooperation easier. “Cooperation with allies and partners,” Liff added, “enhances US power and influence.”
This kind of global engagement, Twining said, is the surest way to promote prosperity and security in the United States. While isolationism is tempting, he argued, “generations and generations of Americans have learned that what happens out there comes here.” COVID-19 is only the latest example, along with a worldwide refugee population greater than at any point since World War II.
So what does global engagement look like? Twining pointed to four tools: military defense, development assistance, diplomacy, and democracy. This “toolkit” can accomplish quite a lot, but it requires principled leadership and foresight.
“American leaders need to keep making the case to the American people that our way of life at home is linked to the state of the world,” Twining said.
Since the panel took place, tensions between the two nations have risen. China announced it will expel American journalists employed by several major US news organizations from the country. President Trump has increased his criticism of the Chinese Communist Party’s response to the outbreak and has begun referring to COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” which some Asian Americans say has contributed to hostility toward them.
It remains an open question how the US and China will or will not work together to contain the fallout of what is now a worldwide pandemic.
This crucial panel indicated that the relationship between the US and China is quickly changing and that the threat of China’s authoritarian model can be combatted by diplomacy, the use of alliances, and the promotion of American values.