Bush China Foundation President David Firestein Emphasizes Importance of Future U.S.–China Relationship
Asia Society at Home
HOUSTON, January 22, 2021 — With President Joe Biden recently sworn into office, Asia Society Texas Center (ASTC) hosted David Firestein, the president and CEO of the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.–China Relations, in a webcast to examine the future of the new administration’s policy toward China. In conversation with Foster LLP chairman and ASTC board member Charles C. Foster, Firestein addressed what led to the current state of the U.S.–China relations as well as his hopes for the future.
The past four years
Firestein noted that the current U.S.–China tensions mark the lowest point since normalization of the relationship in 1979, marred by friction in the trade relationship and other areas. In reflecting upon how relations changed under the Trump administration, Firestein said his main takeaway is that things are, by any metric, worse now from an American perspective than four years ago, suggesting that Trump Administration policies failed to achieve their stated goals. He pointed to the facts that the U.S. deficit to China has increased, that a historical agricultural surplus in the U.S. has become a deficit, that the tariffs imposed on Chinese imports translate to higher prices for American consumers, and that China’s behavior in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea has grown more concerning from the point of view of American interests.
Additionally, Firestein indicated that the coronavirus pandemic has further strained the relationship over the past year. He stated that China is culpable for significant mistakes in its early handling of and response to COVID-19, including an insufficiently aggressive response and lack of openness and transparency, but he disagreed with the characterizations some have made that that China intentionally “unleashed” the virus on the U.S.
Firestein said that the rules for public policy are simple: “Don’t make things worse, and find solutions that aren’t worse than the problem.” In his view, the Trump administration did correctly identify some problems in the existing U.S.–China relationship, but responded in ways that worsened many aspects of the relationship compared to four years ago.
China as competitor or adversary
According to Firestein, much of what will shape the future of U.S.–China relations depends on whether policymakers in the Biden administration view China as a formidable competitor or as an adversary and existential threat. Firestein advocated for using the former framework as he said China is bound inextricably with the economic future of the U.S., and there will be serious consequences for the U.S. to reject the idea of comparative advantage. He emphasized the importance of pursuing more fairness and reciprocity in the trade relationship with China, but said that continuing to engage with China is essential for the American economy, including its workers, farmers, and consumers.
He noted that the Biden administration seems to share that perspective, with the campaign indicating opposition to the current tariffs and seeking a return to the modern era trade posture. Additionally, Firestein noted that incoming Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s remarks about outcompeting China were distinct from his remarks around more traditional U.S. adversaries such as Iran, Russia, and North Korea.
Most pressing issues facing the U.S.–China relationship
Among the top concerns around China beyond the trade war are technological and cyber security and China’s role on the world stage. Firestein urged caution about any notion of a blanket U.S. policy of banning Chinese technology and social media, on the grounds that the costs of doing so — including the hit to U.S. credibility as an advocate for its own social media companies and the broader cause of societal openness — could well outweigh the benefits. Rather than a tit-for-tat policy, he instead supports seeking “smart reciprocity” reflecting the end goal of advancing U.S. interests and bettering people’s lives.
Firestein went on to say that he does not believe that China seeks to supplant the U.S. as the world’s only superpower or become the world’s policeman, explaining that China is unlikely to want to send its soldiers to foreign battlefields or to bear the financial responsibilities of global leadership. However, he indicated that it is important for the U.S. to be at the table to help shape outcomes globally, lest China take on that role in absence of the U.S. He said the U.S. should continue to express its values and condemn deplorable actions with regards to human rights and also continue to sanction officials as appropriate, while understanding that China will similarly wield sanctions in return.
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Hopes for the future
Firestein described the current policy around China as driven by a combination of legitimate, ideological, and political issues. For the future, he encouraged a return to a less juvenile, less ideological approach to the relationship that is instead more measured, businesslike, and fact-based. He said it is necessary for confidence-building measures from both sides to stabilize the relationship under the new Biden administration so policymakers can focus on the issues and how to solve problems. One such step, Firestein added, would be to reopen the respective consulates – the Chinese Consulate General in Houston and the U.S. Consulate General in Chengdu.
“China really bears on the future of this country like no other country in the world,” Firestein said. “We have to get this relationship right because the consequences of getting it wrong are unpleasant and far-reaching.”
Business and Policy programs are endowed by Huffington Foundation. We give special thanks to Bank of America, Muffet Blake, Anne and Albert Chao, ConocoPhillips, ExxonMobil, Nancy Pollok Guinee, and United Airlines, Presenting Sponsors of Business and Policy programs; Nancy C. Allen, Chinhui Juhn and Eddie Allen, and Leslie and Brad Bucher, Presenting Sponsors of Exhibitions; Dr. Ellen R. Gritz and Milton D. Rosenau, Presenting Sponsors of Performing Arts and Culture; Wells Fargo, Presenting Sponsor of Education & Outreach; and Mitsubishi Corporation (Americas), Presenting Sponsor of the Japan Series. General support of programs and exhibitions is provided by The Brown Foundation, Inc., The Hearst Foundation, Inc., Houston Endowment, Inc., the City of Houston through Houston Arts Alliance, McKinsey & Company, Inc., National Endowment for the Arts, Texas Commission on the Arts, Vinson & Elkins LLP, and Mary Lawrence Porter, as well as Friends of Asia Society.
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