Recent rhetoric among senior U.S. policymakers has characterized the last 50 years as a series of U.S. missteps towards China. While the U.S.-China relationship has reverted to a more hostile status with the emergence of significant friction since 2012, Ambassador John D. Negroponte, former Deputy Secretary of State, pointed to the many benefits that have stemmed from the U.S.-China relationship since 1970, arguing that the last 50 years have not been a failure, but that the U.S. now faces a challenging new situation altogether.
Cautioning against viewing the international relationships of the U.S. entirely through an American lens, Samantha Vinograd, Co-Founder and Managing Director at Global Opportunity Advisors, raised the question of what kinds of changes have occurred within the Chinese political system to shape its global behavior. John Holden, Senior Director at McLarty Associates, noted the importance of domestic politics in shaping the Chinese government’s actions globally, arguing that President Xi’s decision-making centers around preserving stability at home and within the Chinese Communist Party.
In recent months, there has been debate over whether the U.S. and China are entering a second “Cold War.” Negroponte and Vinograd agreed that this is a flawed analogy due to the high level of integration between both economies, unlike the minimal economic codependence between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. However, there are some parallels, particularly in how “engagement” with China has become a politically charged idea in the U.S. Negroponte called for a resumption of dialogue on both hot button topics and less charged issues, as even during the Cold War, there remained dialogue between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. Climate change and pandemic response are both natural areas for continued cooperation, as demonstrated by the strides President Obama and President Xi made that led to the 2015 Paris Agreement.
Following the 2020 election, Vinograd made the case for a more aligned strategy towards China than the Trump administration has thus far demonstrated. While some officials have been more hardline, the President has struck a friendlier tone in his personal relationship with President Xi, leading to bifurcation.
Holden advised that the next administration start with a strategic assessment of both sides’ interests, capabilities, and options, taking potential U.S. partners into close account. Some interests are more sensitive than others, with Holden pointing out that recent senior-level Chinese speeches characterize Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet as the four core interests of China. Recent developments in Hong Kong do not bode well for the viability of “one country, two systems” for Taiwan moving forward, according to Holden, but on other issues, there may be an opening for progress.
In light of the 2020 election, Negroponte warned against a “race to the bottom” between the Trump campaign and the Biden campaign to see who can outdo the other in having a hardline China policy. The best approach, Negroponte contended, would be a holistic one that includes a summit with President Xi, as well as a focus on reinvigorating U.S. alliances, strengthening defense capabilities, and cultivating regional partners while rebuilding the U.S. at home. Building on this, Vinograd emphasized the importance of strengthening the competitiveness of the U.S. economy and formulating an effective strategy to compete with the robust Chinese economy.
Finally, the panelists addressed the question of how the U.S. should approach like-minded countries that might have similar qualms about the Chinese government’s behavior. Negroponte stated that for many of these nations, it is not in their interest to express their concerns in the same way as the U.S. Holden explained that “wolf-warrior diplomacy” among Chinese officials may have an adverse effect on the strength of China’s own international relationships, opening up opportunities for the U.S. to lead a global effort to institute sensible guardrails.