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The Carter Center Views Mr. Deng Goes to Washington, Discusses the Future of U.S.-China Relations

            On Friday, November 11th 2016, a group of scholars and academics who focus on U.S.-China relations convened at the Carter Center to view Mr. Deng Goes to Washington, a documentary about Deng Xiaoping’s historic nine-day visit to the United States in 1979, and to discuss what relations between the U.S. and China might look like under Donald Trump, who will become the 45th President of the United States on January 20, 2017.

            Written and directed by Fu Hongxing, Mr. Deng Goes to Washington examines the history of U.S.-China relations, which can be traced back to Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping’s memorable visit to the U.S. during the administration of President Jimmy Carter.  While the underpinnings of the relationship between the U.S. and China began during the administration of President Richard M. Nixon (1969-1974) the Carter administration is credited with normalizing relations.  In an address to the nation preceding Deng’s visit, President Carter stated, “…That normalization of Sino-American relations is not only in the interest of the Chinese and American people, but also contributes to the cause of peace in Asia and the world.”

            During his visit Deng Xiaoping made a tremendous effort to normalize relations, emphasizing the need for communication between the nations. Through diplomacy and strong central leadership, the U.S.-China relationship developed into what is considered the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. However, President-elect Trump is often critical of China, which has many observers, including the panel assembled at the Carter Center, speculating on how the incoming Administration will view China. Below I summarize the leading assessments of the U.S.-China Relations panel.

            The discussion at the Carter Center opened with Alan Abramowitz, a professor of political science at Emory University and one of the nation’s leading election forecasters. At a Carter Center event held two months before the November election, Professor Abramowitz predicted the next president-elect to be Hillary Clinton, the nominee of the Democratic Party.  However, Republican Party nominee and businessman Donald Trump – in the biggest presidential upset in modern history, won the electoral college, and with that, the highest elected office in the United States.

            In a welcome return to the Carter Center, Abramowitz explained how he, and so many other pollsters, were wrong in predicting a Clinton victory and why Donald Trump performed so strongly, despite a litany of scandals and controversial statements. According to Abramowitz, the strongest predictors of relative performance for the two candidates were diversity and education. Secretary Clinton was overwhelmingly favored by minority populations and college graduates. Conversely, Mr. Trump did significantly better in populations with less diversity and no college education, concentrating heavily on white voters.

            While the final votes have not been counted, Secretary Clinton is projected to win the popular vote by nearly 1.5 million votes, or favored by 1.2 percent of the population. But as Abramowitz noted, two of the last five presidential elections have resulted in the winner of the popular vote losing the electoral college, “…This 18th century institution created by the founding fathers is coming back to bite us yet again, and the result is Donald Trump entering the White House.”

            Exit polls paint a picture of a deeply divided nation, and the educational divide in particular is a growing trend in American politics that has accelerated during this election. Even within the Republican party there are growing cultural and ideological divides, especially on the issues of immigration, healthcare, and the proposed wall between the U.S. and Mexico.  Upon reviewing voter demographics, Clinton won the African American vote by 80 points, the LGBTQ vote by 64 points, and non-religious affiliation vote by 42 points. President-elect Trump won the white vote by 21 points, white evangelical vote by 65 points, and overall conservative vote by 66 points. Additionally, senate elections were won in every state where their presidential candidate won the state, displaying strong partisan consistency.

            So what does this Trump victory mean for the U.S. and China moving forward? It is difficult to foretell, but President-elect Trump made numerous promises during his campaign, that if implemented, could severely impact U.S. foreign relations, such as imposing a 45 percent trade tariff with China, renegading on the Iran Nuclear Deal, and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accord.

            Professor Abramowitz answered questions from the audience about third party candidates, and how other potential candidates would have performed against Trump. Abramowitz notes that support for third party candidates dropped off closer to the election, but that it’s too soon to know whom these voters supported, which may be part of the answer to the puzzle of how the polls were wrong.

            When asked how Senator Bernie Sanders or Vice President Joe Biden may have fared against Trump, Abramowitz said it is an impossible scenario to predict. He questions how Senator Sanders would have held up as a general election candidate since he never had to endure the rigors of a sustained attack from GOP candidates. Abramowitz speculates a more mainstream candidate such as Vice President Joe Biden, due to his working-class qualities, may have had more appeal to white voters, a demographic that voted overwhelmingly for Trump. In the end, only time and further review will reveal the intricacies of this election, but as for U.S.-China relations under a Trump presidency, Professor Abramowitz predicts, “It’s going to be a wild ride.”

            Next to speak on the topic of U.S.-China relations was Mr. Zhou Zhixing, a distinguished political commentator who is the founder, president, and editor-in-chief of both Leaders and Financial Digest, two increasingly prominent journals in China. Additionally, Mr. Zhou is the founder of Consensus Net, a digital platform for political debate within China.

            Mr. Zhou began by questioning whether President-elect Trump possesses the same courage and vision as Deng Xiaoping, and whether he will carry the torch to enhance U.S.-China relations.  Mr. Zhou claims the election of Trump reflects numerous social issues the U.S. government has been unable to adequately address, such as unemployment and social welfare. Instead of analyzing polls and predicting elections, more effort should be placed on whether the American people and international community can trust President-elect Trump’s campaign promises, and what can be done to fix the divide in this country.

            Mr. Zhou claims that despite the overall negative attitudes towards Mr. Trump from Chinese-Americans, many still voted for him because of his reputation as a pragmatic business man, and because he is prone to isolationism; a policy that would allow China expanded international influence. However, due to the sudden and unexpected victory of the presidential race, many Chinese people don’t know much about Mr. Trump besides his real estate businesses.

            For this reason, Mr. Zhou advocates for open channels of discussion to enhance understanding and improve bilateral relations between both the people and leaders for both countries. While there has been communication between the U.S. and China since 1979, it has mostly been for collaborating information rather than building a relationship. Mr. Zhou contends it is imperative for leaders of two countries to build friendships, as seen with Deng Xiaoping, so they may better communicate on core issues and cut through strategic subtlety. Mr. Zhou encourages the U.S. and China to define their super power relationship, and make their intentions known. While hesitant, Mr. Zhou notes that Trump could potentially be a strong president for U.S.-China relations, quoting the proverb, “To replace a person is similar to replacing a knife.”

            Next to speak on the topic of U.S.-China relations was Henry ‘Hank’ Levine, senior advisor for Albright Stone Bridge where he assists clients as they enter and grow in the Chinese market. Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Asia, Mr. Levine draws on decades of experience as a U.S.-China market expert.

            According to Mr. Levine, there has been a significant turn towards the containment of China in the U.S. policy community, arguing that U.S.-China relations are perhaps the worse since President Nixon’s years. Mr. Levine contends China is viewed as a threat to the United States, and instead of engaging with China, policy makers now advocate containing its growth. Mr. Levine provided six factors from a U.S. perspective that perpetuate a containment line of thinking:

1) China’s military growth over the years, while overstated, is perceived as threatening

2) The anti-trade/anti-globalization wave experienced across the U.S. accuses China as a leading participant of the alleged damage caused by globalization

3) Growing anxiety among multinational companies that the Chinese government interferes in a method advantageous to China and harmful to U.S. competitiveness

4) The deteriorating human rights situation among minority populations in China has played into the narrative that China is wicked

5) President Xi Jinping’s assertive stances on international issues such as the South China Sea

6) President Obama and his current advisors have lost the strategic vision and desire to manage U.S.-China policy that predecessors such as President Nixon and Henry Kissinger valued.

            In an effort to challenge the narrative driven by the containment policy, Mr. Levine argues that the U.S.-China policy conceived in 1979 has resulted in the last 40 years of unprecedented peace and prosperity in the East Asia region. Additionally, Mr. Levine disputes the notion that China is, “Out to conquer the world,” citing the enormous amount of cooperation displayed by China on the international stage. Mr. Levine concludes that while the containment voices are growing, they are wrong and destructive, and only through smart policy can both countries avoid turning a beneficial relationship into one of true hostility.

            The event concluded with closing remarks from Shannon Tiezzi, managing editor of the online international affairs magazine, The Diplomat. Prior to her work with The Diplomat, Ms. Tiezzi served as a research associate at the U.S.-China Policy Foundation, a non-partisan, non-profit organization that promotes a greater understanding between American and Chinese policymakers.  While at the U.S.-China Foundation, Ms. Tiezzi also hosted the China Forum, a televised educational program that discusses contemporary issues relating to China with a diverse panel of experts.

            According to Ms. Tiezzi, President-elect Trump views China in almost exclusively economic terms, which is unsurprising since he’s a business man with no previous political experience. Ms. Tiezzi agrees Trump is likely to follow a U.S. policy of containment towards China, but is uncertain on whether he will keep his campaign promises to label China a currency manipulator, abandon the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea and Japan.

            Ms. Tiezzi notes that China is not unfamiliar to receiving reproach from U.S. presidential candidates, and that China has developed a perfunctory attitude over the years towards this criticism. However, President-elect Trump is a reputed iconoclast affirmed to shake the Washington foundation, and must be taken seriously no matter the absurdity of his claims.

            Ms. Tiezzi argues that President-elect Trump has not said anything of substance on his policy in Asia, and that she is skeptical of his threat to withdraw U.S. troops. According to Ms. Tiezzi, Mr. Trump did not fully consider the repercussions of his responses in an interview about U.S. military alliances abroad, comparing him to President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, who recently rescinded support for U.S.-Philippines alliance.

            An unlikely area of potential boon for the U.S.-China relationship may dwell in Trump’s stated lack of interest in human rights. The president-elect has advocated for the use of torture and killing of families associated with Islamic terrorism, and is unlikely to condemn China for any human rights violations or treatment of minority populations. It is also likely that Mr. Trump’s attention will focus primarily on U.S. involvement in the Middle East and countering ISIS terrorism, allowing China greater influence in Asia.

            However, a Trump presidency threatens the greatest source of cooperation between U.S.-China in previous years: The Paris Climate Accord on climate change.  President Obama and Xi Jinping have both agreed on climate change policies and emissions reductions, an agreement President-elect Trump has vowed to eliminate. As such, what was once an effective means of diplomacy may now become a source of confrontation and diplomatic chill.

            Moving forward, Ms. Tiezzi claims Mr. Trump faces a steep learning curve, and will likely rely heavily on his political advisors. That said, Ms. Tiezzi believes we can expect a return to previous U.S.-China patterns as witnessed under President Reagan, President George H. Bush, and President Clinton: pledged tough policy towards China in their first two years, followed by a return to normalization.

Written by: Paul Vizza