Charting the Course for US-China Relations

China-U.S. relations have reached a turning point. While President Trump recently announced that trade war negotiations were going well and a deal may be imminent, any settlement is likely only the beginning of a new era of competition. As China has grown in power and influence, it has begun to exert more influence in world affairs. In some cases it has challenged international norms and organizations while seeking to create new ones.

The times of highest tension between China and the U.S. have been rooted in immediate crisis: protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989, missile tests in the 1995 Taiwan Straits Crisis, and the 2001 collision of a U.S. surveillance plane and Chinese fighter jet. This new conflict instead arises from a growing realization that fundamental differences in governmental systems and values make it increasingly difficult to get along. Previous optimism that China would gradually democratize or become more ‘western’ have been dashed by Chairman Xi Jinping, who has overseen China’s swing towards more authoritarianism, repression, repudiation of human rights and an increasingly aggressive foreign policy. This growing conflict raises important questions for the United States. How should the US understand the nature of their relationship with China? What should be done?

“Course Correction: Toward an Effective and Sustainable China Policy” provides answers to these important questions. This report, published by the Asia Society Center on U.S.-China Relations and the 21st Century China Center, explains the current situation between the U.S. and China while providing concrete policy proposals and solutions. The co-chairs of the report, Susan Shirk, chair for the 21st Century China Center at UC San Diego, and Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, worked in collaboration with fifteen experts with years of experience studying and researching China. The group features a variety of professors, former government officials from multiple administrations, researchers, and private sector employees.

Susan Shirk and Orville Schell at report launch and press briefing in New York.

The report is not so striking in any one specific conclusion but in the cohesion and specificity of its analysis and proposals. Building on their previous report, “US Policy Towards China: Recommendations for a New Administration,” Course Correction provides a new framework to respond to China’s rise and its increasingly assertive stance on the world stage.  The main goal is to find the right balance in responding to Chinese aggression while charting a course for the future of US-China relations.

The report places the blame on this new rise in tensions squarely on China. While some have pointed to Trump’s bluster and rhetoric as inflaming tensions, the report states unambiguously that “Beijing’s recent policies under Xi Jinping’s leadership are primarily driving this negative dynamic”. According to the report, the United States faces three main challenges: China’s unfair neo-mercantilist industrial policy, its effort to project power and influence in East Asia, and its growing authoritarianism.

The report finds that the Trump administration is right to take more forceful countermeasures, but these efforts have lacked a coherent strategy. The authors recommend a new three-point strategy of “smart competition”: forcefully standing up to China’s abuses and violations, preserving opportunities for collaboration and fair competition with China, and partnering with allies while upholding our values and institutions. It is with the last two where the Trump administration has most room for improvement. Under Trump’s leadership, the U.S. has missed opportunities for cooperation and neglected two of the most effective tools it has in resisting China: strong allies and multilateral institutions.

The rest of the report takes stock of new developments and provides specific policy proposals in five dimensions of the U.S.-China relationship: trade and economics, security, global governance, human rights, and China’s overseas influence activities. Each section gives a cohesive summary of the most important issues facing the world’s most important bilateral relationship in these areas and the best ways to manage them.

The consensus is growing that China policy needs a more forceful response and with either Republican or Democratic control of Congress and the White House this is likely to continue. In the US’ dysfunctional political climate, this bipartisan consensus presents a rare opportunity to build a coherent China strategy. While the Trump administration so far has done well to respond forcefully to China, the U.S. has many other strengths it can bring to bear to restore an equitable U.S.-China relationship: tariffs and tweeted threats are not the only way forward. As U.S. policymakers begin to chart a new course for the US-China relationship, Course Correction presents a capable guide.

Read the report and watch the accompanying press briefing.

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Mark Witzke

Mark is a Master of International Affairs student at UCSD-GPS studying international politics and economics with an emphasis on China. He graduated from Tulane University with a BA in History and Asian Studies in 2014 and then spent three years working and traveling in China. During his time abroad he taught English and studied Chinese while exploring China's growing influence outside its borders and its role in the world order.

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