Task Force Gives Recommendations for a U.S.-China Relationship at 'a Crossroads'

Susan Shirk lays out three of the most "worrisome" trends affecting U.S.-China relations. (3 min., 28 sec.)

On Wednesday, Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-Relations and UC San Diego's 21st Century China Center launched their new task force report U.S. Policy Toward China: Recommendations for a New Administration. Compiled by a group of 20 former government officials, scholars, and think tank researchers who focus on China, the report offers policy suggestions for Donald Trump. Speaking in New York, several of the report's co-authors discussed key challenges in the relationship and their recommendations for addressing them.

“We've concluded that U.S.-China relations are really at a crossroads and the trends are worrisome,” said Susan Shirk, co-chair of the report and former deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for U.S. policy toward China. “There are some elements of a Cold War kind of situation … even a possible risk of military conflict.”

Shirk said that the task force identified three major trends the U.S. is grappling with in the relationship: China's increasing assertiveness in enforcing its maritime territorial claims, its mercantilist and protectionist economic policies, and repressive domestic restrictions affecting American academics, NGOs, journalists, and social connections between the two societies.

“President Trump has identified some of the problems like the South China Sea, the North Korea nuclear threat, and unfair trade practices, but what to do about it?” Shirk said. “We don't think that across the board tariffs or rejecting the One China Policy — those kinds of radical approaches — are the way to go.”

Shirk said that the approach the task force recommends includes more clearly articulating U.S. national interests, preserving long-standing American alliances in the Asia Pacific, and keeping lines of communication open at high levels. Signaling that the U.S. does not wish to contain China is important, she added, but that doesn’t mean rolling over when China oversteps. “We should not flinch from pushing back more than we have in the past,” she said. “We should insist on fair reciprocity, even if this means accepting a bit more tension in the relationship.”

Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted that much of the United States’ past successes in making gains with China have involved a firm posture. “Across the board, China has had to be cajoled, prodded, pushed, shamed, and sometimes threatened with sanctions in order to step up to the plate to do the right thing,” she said.

Though President Trump has taken a tough stance on China with many issues, one that received very little attention during his campaign was human rights. Winston Lord, former U.S. ambassador to China and assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said that while human rights has rarely been a dominant issue with past American presidential administrations, it’s almost always been part of the agenda.

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, there’s been a sweeping crackdown on dissent that’s involved media and internet censorship and jailing of perceived dissidents. The crackdown has also yielded greater restrictions on foreign journalists and NGOs. “And China is exporting its human rights abuses,” Lord said. “Whether it's abducting Chinese citizens from other countries, threatening Chinese in other countries who speak out, or trying to enforce censorship on international programs — everything from book fairs to beauty contests.”

“Meanwhile China has absolutely free reign in terms of the media, think tanks, and scholars coming [to the United States],” he added.

In the above video, Susan Shirk lays out some of the key challenges the U.S. is facing with China. Watch the full program in the video below. Read the full task force report here.

Orville Schell, Susan Shirk, Winston Lord, Elizabeth Economy, Charlene Barshefsky, and James B. Steinberg share recommendations for American policy on China. (1 hr., 10 min.)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.