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Participants Debate the Arrival of a Tipping Point in China-U.S. Relations at the 2018 Young Scholars Forum

The U.S.-China Young Scholars Forum (YSF), initiated by the Carter Center and The Global Times since 2014, took place this year on January 30-31. On Tuesday, January 30, young Chinese and American scholars presented their research in panel presentations. In the round table discussion on the second day of the YSF, five well-known Chinese and American opinion makers discussed the potential impact of the 2018 U.S. National Security Strategy (NSS) on the most consequential relationship in the 21st century and what can be done to reduce misperception and hostility between Washington and Beijing.

Unveiled by the Trump administration last December, the 2018 NSS is significant for the way it refocuses American foreign policy objectives away from combating global terrorism to “great power struggle” with the “revisionist powers” (China and Russia). In the document, the Trump administration argues that reprioritizing American national security interests is warranted because China is increasingly applying its power and wealth to advance a geopolitical agenda conducive to the preservation of its one-party system and elevate its position on the world stage. Overall, the 2018 NSS frames China as a rival to U.S. national security interests, and that the U.S. should prepare for economic, geopolitical, and even military conflict with China. The question that Robert Kapp, moderator of the round table panel and senior advisor to the China Program of The Carter Center, posed to the panel of Chinese and American experts was simple: Is this shift in the U.S. foreign policy as bad as it looks for the future of the U.S.-China relationship?

Panelist’s Remarks

Both panelists representing the Chinese media were concerned by the rising anti-China attitudes within the U.S public and expert community. Ding Gang, editor of the Global Times English edition, worried how his counterparts in the American media conflate China’s rise into a threat. Hu Xijin, the chief editor of The Global Times, directly answered Kapp’s question by stating that the change in U.S. strategy makes conflict with the U.S. more likely. Hu also provided interesting insights about the Chinese perspective, noting that China has altered its historical conception of its central place within the world (i.e. “middle kingdom”) and embraced the reality of a world system that is increasingly multipolar. He implied that it is time for the U.S. to follow China’s acceptance of the multipolar system and set aside its anxiety regarding China supplanting the U.S. as the sole superpower. Hu also explained how the ways ancient China related to its neighbors continues to influence the Chinese view. According to a common interpretation of Chinese history, even when China was at the pinnacle of its influence, China did not seek to dominate other countries by force because Chinese emperors understood that Chinese strength was based on peace with its neighbors. Similarly, modern China does not seek to start conflicts with other countries, because its leaders know that such ambitions would jeopardize its “peaceful rise” strategy.

Zhu Feng, Executive Director of the China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea, agreed with Hu Xijin and Ding Gang that the 2018 U.S. NSS is concerning, but added that U.S. apprehension about a rising China is also irrational. He emphasized the U.S. is a mature power, while China is only a transformative power. Given the enormity of the power disparities between the two countries, U.S. anxiety is not based on a rational assessment of China’s current intentions and capabilities to subvert American security interests, but derived from the fear of what it might one day be able to do. Zhu acknowledged that this rivalry also extends into the economic sphere. But competition in the commercial, trade, and financial realms is far less concerning because it promotes rather than undermines the prosperity that is necessary to maintain a stable bilateral relationship.

Xin Qiang, an associate professor of international relations at Fudan University, departed from the consensus opinion of his Chinese colleagues by asserting that the 2018 U.S. NSS may not be as important as most people think. He noted that there is often a mismatch between the rhetoric and actions of the U.S government. Generally, a country should judge another country based on its actions and not empty rhetoric that is often directed at a certain political constituency. Under this premise, Xin believes that 2018 U.S. NSS alone is not an insurmountable obstacle to strengthening mutual understanding between the two countries. If the U.S. responds to a rising China with the containment strategies described in the U.S. NSS, then the U.S. may create a clear enemy, but for now we can advert that future if U.S. continues to engage with China on a set of shared national interests.

Robert Daly, Director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, was blunter in his commentary than any of the Chinese contributors. As the U.S. moves forward from the anti-China attitudes that produced this year’s NSS, strategic thinkers should not operate under the illusion that the U.S. and China will become true partners. American experts on China also cannot let the fact that we engage blind us to the fact that China is increasingly assertive and repressive. Daly therefore embraces the foundational premise of the NSS that the notion that political liberalization will follow the opening up of its economy is a fallacy. Instead, both countries should come to terms with the reality that they are long-term strategic rivals.

Unlike the 2018 NSS and the companion document released by the DoD, the National Defense Strategy (NDS), Daly argues that rivalry should not be confused with zero-sum fights for dominance. It is possible to navigate the tremendous differences in the way Chinese and Americans see the world, while maintaining a close relationship. The key to walking this tightrope is to not connote too much judgement against the Chinese, Daly argued. After all, all countries with power and wealth use these resources to make the global environment conducive to its national security interests. China is by no means exceptional in this regard. Another problem with the 2018 NSS in Daly’s view is that it does not appreciate that Chinese influence in other country’s economic, political, and social institutions falls along a spectrum from “organic” (innocuous) to “government-directed” (potentially harmful).

David Firestein, the Executive Director of UT Austin’s China Public Policy Center, also agreed with the framework of the 2018 U.S. NSS that the U.S. and China are rivals and that this is unlikely to change any time soon. However, he rejects the stronger language found in this year’s summary of the NDS that China not only “seeks Into-Pacific regional hegemony…[but also] the displacement of the United States to achieve global preeminence in the future.” China’s actual intentions are far closer to what Hu Xijin described in his remarks. China simply seeks to enter into a multipolar world and gradually make itself more equal to the other poles. The misassessment of Chinese foreign policy objectives reflects a psychological phenomenon that Firestein refers to as the two-fold inconvenient truth, where each side regards the other as a fundamental threat to the preservation of its political system and/or way of life.

Without even realizing it, Trump’s statements on China in his State of the Union speech were a product of this two-fold inconvenient truth, Firestein implied. On January 30, President Trump declared that, “We face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia that challenge our interests, our economy, and our way of life.” Not only does he fail to make a distinction between China and Russia, Trump also lumps these so-called revisionist powers with Iran, North Korea, and terrorist groups. While these actors are all security threats to the U.S., Firestein noted that only China and Russia were mentioned explicitly because they are the nations with nuclear arsenals sufficient to annihilate the U.S. The challenge for U.S.-China relations is how both sides avoid impulses driven by fear and rationally assess the intentions and capabilities of each side.

The participants of the 4th Annual YSF roundtable discussion: (from left to right) Zhu Feng, David Firestein, Hu Xijin, Robert Daly, and Ding Gang.

Discussion with Audience

In the discussion portion of the roundtable panel between Firestein, Daly, Kapp, and the audience, a few important insights emerged:

  1. The Cold War doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD) ensures that the Thucydides Trap, or that a rising power is destined to collide with an established power, is a myth. However, so long as both China and the U.S. have a dominant strategy to distrust the other side, the equilibrium outcome is mutually assured misperception. Of course, this outcome is not as bad as nuclear annihilation, but it is still suboptimal.
  2. On trade, the Trump administration has been more in line with the policies of previous administrations than is widely appreciated, especially within the context of campaign rhetoric that was historically protectionist. However, the Trump administration has also issued strong signals, including the recent USTR report, to the Chinese government that the trade relationship as practiced in the last two decades is not politically sustainable. Other signals include the Trump administration’s rejection of corporate mergers and acquisitions by foreign entities on broad national security grounds, as well as efforts in Congress to expand this executive power. In September 2017, the Trump administration issued an order rejecting the acquisition of Lattice Semiconductor Corporation by China Venture Capital Fund (CVCF), a Chinese corporation owned by Chinese state-owned entities. Each one of these signals may indicate that a break from orthodox U.S. trade policy may be coming sooner rather than later.
  3. Regarding Chinese influence in Latin America and Africa, the panelists referred back to their remarks on the importance of exercising cautious judgements of the use of Chinese power in these regions. They emphasized that China is not necessarily going to far corners of the globe because it wants to capitalize on the opportunity to become a neocolonial power. Such a strategy is not productive because many places where China is active were dominated by European colonists in the 19th and 20th centuries and are therefore deeply skeptical of foreign powers. As a result, leaders of these nations will want assurances from the Chinese government and state-owned enterprises (SOE’s) that they have something to provide for the local population, such as employment, infrastructure, or educational and health services. China’s interest in overlooked regions of the world is not to dominate countries and leverage them in global institutions, but a practical response to its late emergence onto the world stage.
  4. Finally, the main challenges China will likely pose to the U.S. in the next couple decades are not necessarily the direct challenges that are generally the most concerning to American foreign policy wonks. As noted previously, China and U.S. are unlikely to collide militarily (see point #1), but they will almost certainly collide ideologically. One current blow to American soft power throughout the world is that its political system is often so paralyzed by hyperpolarization and interest group politics that it cannot even enact its immediate policy priorities. By contrast, China’s one-party system is capable of long-term planning that the U.S. can only dream of. The moderator, Robert Kapp, added the qualification that China was only capable of effective long-term planning after the Reform and Open-Up period in 1978. Kapp’s comment implies that China’s success depends just as much on regular contact with the West as on the initiative and ingenuity of its people.

The Arrival of a Tipping Point?

Three years ago, David Lampton, Director SAIS-China at John Hopkins University, delivered his “tipping point” speech at The Carter Center that is now widely regarded as prophetic. In that speech, he noted that nobody in either China or the U.S. regarded the other side as the enemy until very recently. China was content with “living with the hegemon” while it developed its economy. On the other side of the Pacific, the U.S. devoted nearly all its national security efforts and resources to combating global terrorism. After U.S. normalized relations with China in 1979 until about 2010, the hope that a robust bilateral relationship would bring prosperity and security was at least as great as the fear that one country might defect from the relationship, generating harms that would reverberate throughout the world. Critically, Lampton did not characterize the relationship as it had been practiced in that period by unbridled hope. Fear has always been a part of the equation. What makes our current situation different from the past is that fear is beginning to dominate over hope, he argued. This dynamic does not guarantee that a tipping point—where relations have deteriorated to such an extent that they are beyond either nation’s ability to repair—will occur. However, every year we ignore the strains in the relationship, the closer we get to the tipping point Lampton warned about.

Nearly all participants agreed with Lampton’s notion that fear is the mechanism that will bring about a tipping point. Firestein referred to the two-fold inconvenient truth, where each side has unsubstantiated fears that the other seeks to undermine the other countries’ way of life. Likewise, Zhu Feng implied that hawkish elements of the U.S. foreign policy establishment are operating under irrational assumptions about the future capabilities of the Chinese military, worsening relations between the two countries. Other participants noted the ways fear influenced the 2018 U.S. NSS in a few specific areas. From “sharp power” to expanding economic presence in Africa, the U.S. NSS often conflates normal activities into threats to American primacy. In addition, all participants agreed with Lampton’s assessment of what is at stake. If tensions are left unaddressed, “both countries will have progressively less security, at higher cost…the world will enjoy less cooperation on transnational issues…and, economic welfare in both societies will be diminished.” Put in another way, a peaceful and prosperous world depends on a healthy relationship between the U.S. and China.

Yet the views of the participants diverged on many hot button issues, from trade to regional security. In general, many Chinese opinion makers do not consider the perspective of the American side when it defends itself against specific allegations, and vice versa. American allegations of Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait demonstrate this phenomenon. Robert Daly represents the American position well by stating that Chinese territorial claims, which include Taiwan, cannot be reconciled with American commitments to its allies in the region. Rather than directly addressing the issue at hand, the Chinese tend to respond with a theoretical concept, peaceful rise, that does little to assuage American concerns. During the roundtable discussion, the peaceful rise argument was best summarized by Hu Xijin who echoed President Xi’s remark to former Secretary of State John Kerry, “The broad Pacific Ocean is vast enough to embrace both the U.S. and China.”

The gaps between the two sides are often just as wide on trade policy. In their rhetoric, President Xi and other CCP elite often fail to recognize the hypocrisy of embracing the virtues of free markets while propping up their domestic industries with subsidies to protect against foreign competition. Like President Xi, Zhu Feng’s embrace of the orthodox economic principle that competition across nations always maximizes overall prosperity did not acknowledge that China often engages in anticompetitive trade practices. Firestein expressed American frustrations when he stated that China has not been nearly as equitable in trade access and intellectual property protections as the U.S. While he explicitly rejected the recent US Trade Representative (USTR) report’s conclusion that supporting China’s ascension to the WTO was a mistake, he implicitly endorsed the Trump administration’s efforts to signal that the trade relationship is unsustainable. Some these signals can be found in the specific complaints of the USTR report, which alleges that the China has expanded rather than lifted the state’s role in the economy over the last five years.

These trade issues are serious, but China should not be blamed for them either, Firestein and Daly clarified. As noted by a recent article in The New York Times Magazine, nearly all developed countries pursued protectionist policies until their industries no longer needed them to compete. At which point, these nations, including Britain and the U.S., preached the gospel of free trade. In Asia, the European powers often went one step further and compelled their colonies to accept free trade at the barrel of the gun. This historical context demonstrates that China is merely acting as other rising countries act when they try to advance their economic and geopolitical interests. Blaming China for mercantilist policies the U.S. practiced more than a century ago would be unwise and hypocritical. Refraining from blame is also in U.S.’s best interests because blame sows distrust and hostility. The goal of managing American and Chinese ambitions in the international system becomes much easier if blame does not detract from leader’s ability to clearly see what is at stake.

The final way in which Americans and Chinese differ is on the issue of engagement. Chinese leaders intuitively understand that the engagement of the last 40 years has helped China become the dynamic power that it is today. By contrast, there are many hawks in the U.S. foreign policy community, including the authors of the U.S. NSS, who are openly questioning whether engagement with a rival like China coincides with American national security interests. The reason why these Americans are rethinking their positions on engagement with China is that they are noticing that engagement is not the magic bullet that will make China more like the U.S. As silly as it may sound to Chinese readers, this assumption, known as integration theory, was widespread within the China field. In some respects, Firestein and Daly agree with these hawks that integration theory is a fallacy and that there is a need for a new paradigm describing how the U.S. should conduct its engagement with China. Unlike the hawks in the Trump administration who are suggesting that the U.S. should scale back its engagement with China, Firestein and Daly state the obvious—future peace and prosperity are dependent on a strong bilateral relationship. Engagement is too important to abandon, even if the America and China will never have interests that coincide. Sustained engagement may even be more important in a world where the two greatest economic and military powers are likely to remain strategic rivals for the foreseeable future.


The fact that even basic precepts, such as engagement is the foundation of U.S.-China relations, are being challenged is an eerie harbinger for what is likely to come in the relationship. Nonetheless, the panelists did not let the gloomy state of the relationship deter their hope that a catastrophic tipping point can be averted. In the end, the U.S. national strategy documents are just words. They only matter to the extent that they reflect the views of American foreign policy makers who have the power to translate and implement these ideas into concrete policies.

Yet the emergence of China as an incipient superpower is clearly a tipping point in its own right. Just 15 years ago, China was almost entirely focused on using its domestic resources to improve the standard of living its people. Even in its backyard in East Asia, the Chinese government was perfectly content to “live with the hegemon”, as Lampton noted in his speech. While the CCP’s goal is still to improve the standard of living of the Chinese people, China suddenly has ambitions outside of its borders. These ambitions present a challenge that will require American leaders to see past political pressures to get “tough on China” and instead adopt the policy that is best for the long-term prosperity and security of both countries.

In my view, we should look to President Carter for wisdom on how to navigate nationalist impulses to realize common interests for the people of both countries.  After all, he was the U.S. president that normalized relations with China that ushered in an era of unprecedented exchange and prosperity across the Pacific. But the way President Carter approached the other signature achievement of his presidency, the Camp David Accords, is arguably even more relevant to the current challenges facing U.S.-China relations. The climax of those negotiations occurred when the Israeli Prime Minister received pressures from hardliners in his party to leave Camp David and scrap the negotiations. With characteristic calmness, Carter responded by writing handwritten notes on photographs of the three leaders to each one of Prime Minister Begin’s eight grandchildren. When Begin read these notes, he realized that the point of the peace negotiations was not to select the strategy that would offer the least resistance for his ability to govern in the present, but to offer to all people of the Middle East, including his own grandchildren, the possibility of a long-lasting peace. Chinese and American leaders concerned by the recent turn in the relationship should ask themselves the same question that President Carter posed to Prime Minister Begin in 1978: Do we feel comfortable leaving this world to our children and grandchildren?

President Carter’s actions at the Camp David Accords to bring the leaders of Israel and Egypt together offers insight on how China and U.S. should conduct their future relations, recognizing that peace, stability, and prosperity are goals that are more important than the differences that exist between the two countries.

The following summary was prepared by Vincent Palumbo-Smith, an intern at the Carter Center’s China Program for Spring 2018.