Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts U.S.-China Relations: An Uncertain Balance
U.S.-China Relations: An Uncertain Balance

U.S.-China Relations: An Uncertain Balance

Each week during the summer, FPRI holds a seminar exclusively for its interns. On June 30, Jacques deLisle, Director of the Asia Program at FPRI, Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law, Professor of Political Science, Director of the Center for East Asian Studies and Deputy Directory of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered the third talk.

Professor deLisle began his presentation on what he referred to as one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships by discussing China’s growth over the last fifty years. While China is not yet on equal footing with the United States, its long-term quest for wealth and power has put it at second on the global stage, an incredible show of economic growth. It is important to take into account, though, that while China is attempting to increase its power and influence, China doesn’t see this as a rise to power, but rather as a return to power after a decline caused by decades of Western imperialism and China’s own chaotic politics.

However, while China’s growth over the past 50 years has been impressive, the situation is not so simple. As Professor deLisle explained, China is currently seeing a decrease in its growth rate as it transitions from a developing to a maturing economy. China is also dealing with the effects of its demographic control policies—such as the “One Child Policy”—which has resulted in a population bulge that, as its members reach retirement age, will need to be cared for. Other worries in China, which include food quality, pollution, and quality of life, have arisen from China’s rapid industrialization and economic growth.

Professor deLisle went on to discuss what this reality in China means for the United States. There is a spectrum of views on China’s capabilities, painting China as anything from an economic juggernaut, set to overtake the U.S., to a fragile superpower with an economic structure likened to a house of cards. There are equally diverse opinions on China’s intent within East Asia; some think that the United States will have to battle China for dominance, while others believe China has been socialized into supporting the international status quo.

This diversity of opinion continued as Professor deLisle examined some positive and negative assessments of China’s foreign policy and China-U.S. relations. On the positive side, he explained, China has been engaging in the international order, taking part in organizations such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. Additionally, relations between China and the United States have been stable in many ways, with both nations finding ways to cooperate with respect to cyber issues, the financial crisis, and, at times, Taiwan. On the negative side, some worry about China’s economic clout, with its ability to, for example, threaten to embargo rare earth metals, as well as because the United States is in debt to China. China’s continued assertiveness in the South and East China Seas or lingering anti-intervention policies with respect to North Korea could have negative effects in the future.

These assessments were followed by a discussion of “The Question of Taiwan.” This issue remains a point of possible friction between China and the United States, especially as the United States continues to sell weapons to Taiwan. This friction was exacerbated at the beginning of the Trump administration, when Trump took a call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen in December 2016 after his electoral victory the previous month. However, with the official policy of the United States being still in support of the status quo, the situation has remained stable.

Despite these incidents of friction, Professor deLisle explained that up to the current day, China’s rise has been based on not being a threat. Terms used by China to describe its actions were “peaceful rise,” “peaceful development,” and “harmonious world.” However, given China’s growing assertiveness, there is a possibility that this could be an “inflection point” in China’s foreign policy. That is, rather than insisting on being peaceful and non-threatening, China may be actively rivaling U.S. economic institutions and security arrangements in East Asia through initiatives such as One Belt One Road (OBOR), Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), as well as aggressively pursuing maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Professor deLisle then shifted focus to China’s view of the United States, and why is distrusts America’s motives. He brought up the claim that efforts by America to “rebalance” to Asia could be seen as a means of “containing” China, or holding China back. He also mentioned the idea that China feels as though it is stuck in an international order that it had no part in creating, or that U.S. meddling in issues like the South China Sea disputes or pushing agendas of human rights or political change could be seen as trying to change China “at home.” These views have made understanding and cooperation more difficult.

He then discussed some key points of friction between China and the United States in the current international system, many of which center around economic openness versus protectionism. The United States and China disagree on the appropriate level of economic openness and economic nationalism, or how much favor a government should afford its own companies. A similar ideological difference exists with respect to the internet: how much information should be freely spread, and how much should exist within the sovereignty of an individual nation? Additionally, the term “Eastphalia” is brought up to counter the concept of Westphalia, though it is unclear as to what “Eastphalia” actually means.

These points are only exacerbated by the current uncertainty that each nation is experiencing with respect to the other. From the point of view of the United States, while it is clear that China’s economy and general “capacity” is growing rapidly, there is disagreement as to the size of the gap that China has to cross to catch up, as well as to how quickly that gap is being bridged. Disagreement also persists with respect to Chinese intentions. While some believe that China is becoming more integrated to the global economy and that the rivalry between China and the United States will wind down, others believe that a “Thucydides trap” is unavoidable. They see China as a rising power which will inevitably frighten the United States into a response, against which China will fight back.

The view from China’s perspective is equally divided, according to Professor deLisle. While some are sure of America’s continued decline and China’s ability to overtake it as the world’s leading superpower, others warn that the United States is too resolute to allow that gap to close so easily. Perceptions of American intentions are less polarized; many believe that the United States is trying to hold China down, and these observers see American debt build-up as reckless and dangerous.

As important as the relationship between the United States and China is, it is equally complex, according to Professor deLisle. While both nations have proven that they can come to agreements on some issues, uncertainty on both sides with respect to the other’s capabilities and intent has caused resentment and suspicion. While it isn’t yet clear where either nation is headed in the coming years, it is undeniable that the relationship between them will continue to be one of global importance.