The U.S.-China relationship is at a crossroads. It has long been challenging, but recently it has become inflamed as President Donald Trump confronts China’s leaders over trade imbalances and its theft of U.S. intellectual property. Moreover, maintaining the United States’ commitment to Taiwan continues to cast a shadow.
These problems aren’t new, but the narrative has shifted, said Syaru Shirley Lin, adjunct professor of politics at UVA and a participant in the panel “China as a Presidential Challenge.”
“There was always this sense that the landscape was not fair. In many ways we all saw the reckoning coming,” Lin said. “When you have an economy with more state-owned interests dominating the economy, the ultimate battle of market democracy vs. authoritarian systems will have to be on the horizon.”
Added moderator Will Dobson, chief international editor of NPR’s International Desk: “A lot of conventions and norms that have guided the relationship are being called into question,”
Still, conventions and norms have been questioned before. U.S. presidents historically have addressed China with varying degrees of engagement and success. After years of isolation, President Richard Nixon visited the People’s Republic of China and opened the door to talks. President Bill Clinton tried to link most-favored-nation status with China to a significant improvement in human rights, but without success, said panelist Harry Harding, faculty senior fellow at the Miller Center.
U.S.-China relations could deteriorate further, said Brantly Womack, C.K. Yen Chair and professor of foreign affairs at the Miller Center. “But that will be increasingly costly to all sides. Why don’t we look at the vulnerabilities not just of us, but the rest of the world?”
The long-run stability of other Asian economies is also at stake. Inequality is rising. Fertility rates are falling. People are living longer. The economies of South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan are declining. A low birth rate means fewer people to fund rising entitlements for the aging population.
Joining the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) could help, said former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton, also a panelist. Without it, China will exert its influence on its neighbors. How do we help those countries?
Yet, Harding said, the TPP won’t be supported by the public until the United States can truly create a global economy. This is complicated by the difficulty developing and maintaining meaningful policy in the face of a divided Congress, administration, and public. Especially now, when bipartisan consensus is rare.
There’s an “enormous tendency to declare it in simple, polarized terms,” Dobson noted. “Is China our partner or our adversary? The American political process doesn’t handle complexity that well. It’s more complicated than a bilateral negotiation can handle. China’s not the only place that’s involved in intellectual property theft, it’s just the biggest place.”