The Evolution of US-China Relations Under Xi Jinping at Georgetown’s Asian Studies Program

posted by Eleanor Shiori Otsuka Hughes on November 9, 2020 - 2:21pm

About two months ago, I had the great pleasure of moderating an hour-long webinar with Lyric Hughes Hale, Editor-in-Chief of EconVue, on US-China relations since Xi Jingping’s rise for Georgetown’s Asian Studies Program, which also happens to be my graduate program.

As I addressed in my introduction, coincidentally enough, I last moderated a discussion at the University of Notre Dame back in late-February with Lyric as one of our panelists. We were incredibly fortunate in having that particular discussion in-person, because a few weeks later, COVID-19 forced many places—including Georgetown and Notre Dame—to close their doors. Nonetheless, I was incredibly gratified for this opportunity, along with our engaging audience from all over the world, including students from Georgetown’s Qatar campus. 

Recognizing that her thoughts may perhaps challenge the conventional dialogue behind what factor(s) are driving an ever-intensifying US-China relations, Lyric illustrated that the purpose of her talk was two-fold:

  • First, to address that it’s not the U.S. political atmosphere and/or the Trump administration’s handling of political and trade relations with China, but rather Xi Jingping’s own political vulnerabilities on a domestic level compelling him to consolidate his power with more aggressive means on an international level.
  • While it might be intuitively obvious to fixate the intensification of U.S.-China bilateral relations based on trade relations and COVID-19 (since the virus originated in Wuhan), this bilateral reckoning will not occur in the trade arena but in the technology realm. 

Right now, China is facing diplomatic, military, and economic difficulties with other countries, including Australia, India, and even Germany. In fact, Germany released an Indo-Pacific report for the first time in early-September, signaling that it too is grappling with China’s aggression in the Asia-Pacific. Therefore, in this case, Washington is no outlier. 

But why is that the case? As Lyric mentioned, it’s also important to consider Beijing’s involvement in continued territorial and maritime disputes along the South China Sea, the erosion of political autonomy in Hong Kong, and worsening cross-strait relations with Taiwan. In addition, she also pointed out that traditionally, China has not had a propensity to diplomatically engage with the world, though now wolf-diplomacy has become quite prevalent. That being said, wolf-warrior diplomacy does not seem to be projecting China’s image in a favorable manner for Beijing. But besides that, historically, they’ve resorted to isolationism. Similarly (or ironically enough), that is a trend that is quickly reemerging in the United States, as it appears to be favoring disengagement from multilateral forums. Charles Kupchan, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and a professor of international relations at Georgetown, recently published a book on this topic entitled Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself form the World

Now, in regards to the technological realm, some U.S.-based tech companies that produce computer hardware such as Apple were able to gain a foothold into the Chinese markets. On the other hand, while Mark Zuckerberg studied Chinese with the hopes that Facebook can acquire market entry into China, his best efforts were to no avail. Twitter and Google attempted the same and also received unfavorable results. In echoing what Lyric previously said, I’m sure that these tech executives find it incredibly unnerving when they can see that the sky is not the limit in their business ventures. 

Now, despite the prevalence of realpolitik and what appears to be a growing penchant for isolationism in the U.S, this is not preventing the Chinese and American medical communities from exchanging ideas and best medical practices in finding effective treatments for COVID-19 via Zoom, whose servers are based in China, by the way. In concluding her remarks, Lyric made one more salient point: there’s a prevailing notion that Chinese politicians think long-term gains whereas American politicians do not. But to be candid, one must be careful about making this assumption, as politicians in Beijing are no less political than they are in Washington, and vice versa. 

Before I opened the floor with questions from our audience, I commented on how news outlets from all over the world have been electric with headlines surrounding U.S.-China relations, and the same goes for person-to-person conversations—even here in the Midwest. Therefore, I asked her about what we will see in hindsight that we don’t see right now in assessing the turbulent relations between the US and China in 5-10 years, to which she iterated that these tensions go beyond the scope of the two countries, and are very much global in nature. Lyric then asked me how Japan views all of this, to which I briefly commented that former-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had announced his resignation on August 28th due to chronic health issues, and that Japan cannot simply undergo a complete economic decoupling from China, as their economies are too interdependent upon one another. 

After discussing what news sources people consult with to learn more about U.S.-China relations, she then briefly asked a member of our audience, Dr. Takatoshi Ito from Columbia University, on Japan’s recent change in government and what their perception of China and the greater U.S.-China relations are now. Professor Ito outlined two members of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s cabinet who have inclinations either towards Beijing or Taipei. In addition, while the Japanese public opinion of China is predictably low right now, the Japanese business community does not want to be sandwiched in the middle of a conflict between Washington and Beijing. To end his comment s, Professor Ito lauded Japan’s efforts in promoting free trade agreements (FTAs) and other multilateral pacts such as the TPP 11, but that being said, Japanese stability can disintegrate very quickly in the event that a military assault occurs in the Taiwan Straits and/or the Senkaku Islands. 

The audience then asked questions about China’s increasingly aggressive activities in the South China Sea; whether or not Xi’s hold on his power is as secure as it appears; and commercial powers not going to war with each other. With regard to the latter question, Lyric referenced that before World War I, Great Britain and Germany had strong economic ties but ultimately fought on opposite ends during World War I. Presently, while Washington was not able to convince Beijing to integrate itself into a political system akin to that of other democratic nations, the U.S. and China nonetheless share close trading ties. But based on history and as we are now witnessing with Washington and Beijing, two countries with close commercial ties can become adversarial quite quickly.  

To put it simply, it is quite evident that Beijing is drawing criticism from many corners of the world for its method in engaging with the world, and the COVID-19 pandemic is shedding a light on this even more. What is truly worrisome, as Lyric pointed out, is that the world may soon undergo a transition in which we will have to coexist with two different technological standards. And I’ll address my question once again: as Beijing and Washington are experiencing a great-power rivalry the likes of which we have not yet experienced in the 21st century, what trends and other concerns will we be examining later on that we are not looking at right now? As the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) released a comprehensive survey on U.S.-China relations last month, American, European and Asian national security and economic thought leaders deem competition over technology as of the utmost concern. 

Once again, I want to thank all of our attendees from Georgetown and from all over the world for their interest in one of the biggest challenges in U.S. foreign policy—and international relations at-large—for years to come, and wish everyone a wonderful and safe autumnal season.