Tracing the Evolution of U.S.-China Relations with Wu Xinbo
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As ties between the United States and China continue to their latest downward turn, Fudan University’s Wu Xinbo cautions about the rivalry, friction, and uncertainty afoot.
He shares his journey from studying the history of U.S.-China relations to its more contemporary dynamics. Wu further diagnoses the state of bilateral ties between Beijing and Washington, sheds light on the contours of China’s vision of international order, and traces shifts among generations of Chinese elites studying the United States.
Eleanor M. Albert: Today, our guest is Wu Xinbo. Wu Xinbo is a professor and dean of the Institute of International Studies, and director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University.
You teach and research China’s foreign and security policy, Sino-U.S. relations, and U.S. Asia-Pacific policy. You are also on the editorial board of the Washington Quarterly and European Journal of International Security; and on the International Advisory Board of International Affairs. He is a member of the Advisory Council of the Asia Society Policy Institute, as well as a member of the Trilateral Commission.
Professor Wu, welcome to the show.
Wu Xinbo: Thank you.
Eleanor M. Albert: I was wondering if you could start off by telling us your, "U.S. story." How and when did your interest in studying U.S. foreign policy and the interactions between the United States and China come about?
Wu Xinbo: Well, my interest in studying China-U.S. relations dates back to my PhD years. When I did my PhD program in late 1980s and early 1990s at Fudan University, I studied the history of China-U.S. relations under the guidance of Professor Wang Xi. And I did my dissertation on President William Taft's Dollar Diplomacy towards China. That was before World War I.
After I graduated in 1992, I joined the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, where the research interest is more on contemporary U.S. politics, economy, society, and foreign policy. I shifted my interest from history to the contemporary state of this relationship.
In 1994, I went to the United States as a visiting scholar, working with Professor Harry Harding at George Washington University. And that was a very useful experience for me to gain important knowledge and insight about U.S.-China policy. That laid a very solid ground for my research on this relationship.
After that, I also spent some time at the Brookings Institution (2000) and also the U.S. Institute of Peace (2006-2007). Having studied and done my research in the United States in Washington, DC think tanks, gave me a lot of firsthand information and material about the U.S. foreign policy process.
My intellectual career really benefited from these kinds of interactions and exchanges between our two countries. Since then, I have been working on this relationship for over three decades. A long time.
Eleanor M. Albert: My next question is in no means intended to be reductive, but if you had to characterize or describe the current state of the U.S.-China relationship in two or three words, what would they be?
Wu Xinbo: The three words on my mind would be rivalry, friction, and uncertainty. Rivalry, because as a we can see, since the late Obama administration, especially since the Trump administration, the rivalry between two countries has intensified. And this has come all the way into the Biden administration. The U.S. is now defining China as its arch competitor.
Friction, because starting with the Trump administration, our two countries come into sometimes conflict in economic, finance, technology, diplomacy, ideology, people-to-people exchanges. In almost every area where we used to have a lot of coordination and cooperation, now they become the major source of contention.
Uncertainty, because the old frameworks for this relationship have collapsed. But we haven't yet found a new solid framework governing the rising rivalry between two countries. No one can predict with confidence how bumpy the road ahead is, and how serious conflict may be.
Again, rivalry, friction, and uncertainty. I'm sorry, I do not have very positive information to share with you, but that's really my concern about the current state of this relationship.
Eleanor M. Albert: You were just talking about the previous framework that grounded the relationship falling apart. From your perspective, how have these trend lines in U.S.-China exchanges come about?
This can include both the more formal bilateral relationship, as well as people-to-people. Why have we seen a deterioration in these past several years? What is the cause of the uncertainty?
Wu Xinbo: As I just mentioned, my intellectual career of starting this relationship coincided with the post-Cold War period, in which bilateral relations have evolved. I not only studied, but also personally experienced this change in this relationship.
I think basically, there are two stages. The first stage is from early 1990s to the Obama years. During this period, the two sides established a post-Cold War framework for bilateral relationship, in which trade, economic ties expanded. The exchanges and links between two societies increased. And also, the two countries had more and more coordination and cooperation on international and global issues.
In this framework, Washington believed that China's economic growth provided great commercial opportunity for the United States and a rising China could be a useful partner for the U.S. in managing many international challenges.
And on the Chinese side, Beijing tended to believe that China could achieve its national goal of modernization, economic growth in cooperation with the United States. And the U.S. would basically tolerate China's rise. I think in this framework, we see the growing economic interdependence and increasing exchanges between two peoples and two societies.
But then, this suddenly changed when Donald Trump came into office. This started a second stage from 2017, especially 2018, when Washington defined China as a major strategic competitor, and began to launch the trade war, tech war, financial war. As well as pressured China in other areas, like security, ideology, people-to-people exchanges.
This so-called “strategic competition” actually led to strategic confrontation at the end of the Trump years. To some extent, this also had to do with the episode of COVID-19, which really dampened Trump's prospect of getting reelected. He just really blamed China for everything, and which gave a free hand to the hawkish [voices] on his team, who really wanted to treat China as enemy. Biden basically inherited Trump's definition of China as a major strategic competitor, and also his overall framework about China.
The current state is that in the U.S., there is a bipartisan consensus that China poses a major challenge to U.S. supremacy. And it should no longer continue the past policy trajectory of engagement with China.
And on the China side, over the last several years, there's also a wide consensus that the U.S. can no longer tolerate China's rise as it did before. And as a result, we have seen the coordination, cooperation link between [the] two countries shrink and also decoupling. This kind of downward turn continues and may accelerate down the road. This is where we are today.
As I said, I personally benefited from the intellectual social cultural exchanges between our two countries. Actually, my son, he also benefited from this. Because after graduating from Fudan University, he went to the UCSD to pursue his master’s degree.
Today, I think young people in China, including students at Fudan University, they're always asking me if they plan to go abroad to pursue their graduate studies, should they go to the U.S. or they should go to other countries?
In the past, this was a non-issue. Of course, the U.S. is first choice. But now, I think the students and also their parents have become more and more hesitant and worried about going to the U.S.
You can feel this chilling effect coming from the Trump administration. Biden administration changed some of these policies regarding visa control for Chinese students. But still, people worry about the overall atmosphere of this relationship. And also, they worry about the rising anti-Asian and Chinese sentiment in the United States. They just feel uncomfortable and unsafe about this situation. That's very unfortunate.
Eleanor M. Albert: I want to draw out a couple things that you were just talking about. China has become an increasingly global actor, and there's a lot of talk in DC in particular, about whether China has a vision for world order, or its vision or idea of international relations. And I wonder if you think there is, and how would you characterize it? And how does that view fit with current norms that exist in the international order?
Wu Xinbo: China does have a vision, an idea of future international order, which can be characterized as politically more pluralistic. It's not going to be a unipolar world, but a multi polar world with more pluralistic power centers at play.
With a liberal economic order, which is not only open but also fairer to developing economies, which means emerging economies—not just China, but India, Indonesia, Mexico—they can have more of a say at the table, because the current economic mechanism was established largely by the West. We are kind of a norm picker, not a norm maker.
And on the security front, we want to see not an international order so much dominated by the U.S. security alliance, which basically does not take into consideration the security interest of countries who are not U.S. allies. Because in this world, you have more countries who are not U.S. allies than the U.S. allies. And the international security order should promote something cooperative and equal security, rather than security for one country or one block of countries.
I think that's something like the Chinese vision for the future world order. Having said that, I think it's important to that China is a major beneficiary of the current international order, which allowed China's economic growth and the reduction of poverty for the population.
China does not want to overthrow the current order or start a new world order from the very beginning. That's not what China intends to do. What China wants to do is to preserve the current international order, at the same time pushing for the reform and improvement of the order. This kind of improvement is gradual, incremental, rather than revolutionary.
And in terms of the norms, I don't think there's big difference in the Chinese preference with the current norms. The difference is only in the center of gravity [that] China stress[es]. For example, China may stress more on political equality, may pay more attention to equal opportunities for developing economies, for a louder voice, for more just representation for the developing world.
And we care about liberal norms, like open, free, cooperative, because these are the norms that has allowed China to grow and flourish. But we have our preferred stress on these norms, sometimes overlapping with the West, sometimes there's some divergence.
But overall, I want to emphasize that China wants to preserve the current world order. In this way, I think that's a difference between China and Russia. China is beneficiary. Russia to some extent is a loser of the current international order. Every time I hear Washington talk about China and Russia, they put China and Russia together. I think they imply there's a kind of a Sino-Russian axis of evil. I think they're terribly wrong. It's a big mistake.
Eleanor M. Albert: I wanted to turn back to students thinking about coming to the United States, and obviously Americans going to China is more challenging right now. I also think the overall political climates have become very different from when you were first spending time in the United States, and benefiting from people-to- people exchanges. And even when I was, not that long ago.
But I feel in a way that politics in the United States has become super nationalized and internationalized. There seems to be more of that in China as well.
And I wondered what you thought the role of nationalism in the United States and in China plays? And how rising levels of nationalism have manifested themselves. And we see it particularly in a relationship that is as dynamic and fraught nowadays between the U.S. and China. Are there risks in fueling this sentiment? I, from an American perspective, certainly think that there are risks.
I also know that the conversations that I had with Chinese people the very first time I went to China in 2008, were very different from the last time I was there in 2019. When I would tell people that I was an American, the tenor of the conversation was just different. And I wondered what you thought the role of nationalism might play in this important relationship?
Wu Xinbo: Americans usually don't believe that there's nationalism in the U.S. Also, they don't believe there's an ideology, but actually they are there sometimes in a hidden way.
In my study of the U.S., I think the nationalism is manifested in a strong desire to maintain the U.S. supremacy. And also, in a belief that the U.S. is only country that is qualified, both materially and morally, to lead the world.
When it comes to the foreign policy, this kind of nationalistic sentiment shaped a kind of political culture. And sometimes even arrogance and bias against other countries. And particularly in relations with China, I think nationalism in the U.S. works in a way that the U.S. cannot treat China equally. And sometimes cannot respect China's legitimate national interests.
On the Chinese side, the nationalism is first and foremost manifested in national pride, as a country with a long history and splendid culture, as well as its achievements in socioeconomic developments over the last several decades.
I think people, including the young generation, are feeling more and more self-proud. This is also manifested in a kind of sensitivity to outside pressure, especially from the West, particularly from the U.S.
This sensitivity has to do with the historic memory about the century of humiliation from the Opium War in 1840, to the founding of PRC in 1949. This combination of both national pride as well as sensitivity, shape a kind of uncompromising attitude towards perceived pressure from Washington.
Overall, I think nationalism in both countries today contributes to growing a conspiracy theory about each side and their intentions, and also, to the growing hostility between two countries and between two societies, which actually gives rise to hawkish groups on both sides. And as a result, the hawks are gaining more and more influence when it comes to U.S.-China relations, it's becoming politically correct to be tough on each side. Especially if you look at some of the Republican Senators and Congressmen, getting tough on China is a convenient leverage for their political performance.
Eleanor M. Albert: Right. It's politically popular.
You were talking about how there are younger generations of Chinese who have innate pride. And I wonder what you think the generational differences are among Chinese analysts of the United States and the U.S.-China relationship. The different contexts…
Say people who are getting early training now, the circumstances for how they will engage with the U.S. are very different from what your experience will have been. And I wonder what you think the implications of that might be moving forward?
Wu Xinbo: Very interesting question. I think there are at least three generations of Chinese analysts of the U.S.
My professor, Professor Wang Xi, he graduated from the Wharton School in UPenn in 1940s, and then returned to China before liberation in 1949. For his generation, they experienced the Cold War years in which China and U.S. were enemies. But also, they experienced the normalization, the improvement, and two countries rediscovering each other after China opened up the door.
I think for them, they appreciated very much the development in this relationship. And as China undertook the modernization drive in late 1970s and early 1980s, the U.S. was regarded as a major example for China to learn. "How can we learn from the U.S. to push our modernization process?" They were mainly looking at the U.S. as an example. That's for the earlier generation.
The second is my generation. We grew up in the open-up and reform years. We saw the expansion and growth in exchanges and connection between two countries and societies, and we personally benefited from this process.
As a result, very naturally, we want to see the development of China-U.S. relations. We pay more attention to [issues like], "How can we expand cooperation between two countries, while reducing and managing the differences?" We view the U.S. as a major and indispensable partner.
Now, this takes to the younger generation, maybe my son's generation. They experienced China's rapid economic growth, modernization. They become more confident and proud about China itself. At the same time, they're more and more aware of the problems in the U.S., both in terms of its domestic governance problems, as well as the failures in U.S. foreign policy, including Iraq war, Afghanistan war, the financial crisis.
They no longer really view the U.S. as a paragon, to put it that way. And also, they have witnessed the sharp downturn in U.S. policy towards China over the last several years, particularly since the Trump administration. And they're not happy with the U.S. crackdown and even containment of China. When they study China-U.S. relations, they're paying more and more attention to the domestic source of the U.S. foreign policy, as well as its domestic politics. The social inequality, partisanship, political polarization, racial friction, all these kinds of things.
They think the source of contention between China and U.S. comes on the one hand, from the U.S. domestic problems and, on the other hand, from the U.S.’s declining self-confidence as a hegemon, vis-a-vis a rising China. To some extent, they view the U.S. as a declining hegemon. You can see this kind of shift in the perception of the U.S. in the three generations. Example, major partner and declining hegemony. That is very illustrative of the changing Chinese attitude among the elite.
Eleanor M. Albert: What do you see as the pressing obstacles or the most significant stumbling blocks in the U.S.-China relationship right now? Are there certain sticking points for Beijing in particular? There are a lot of things that U.S policy has done, but this is a two-way street. Looking at what the obstacles might be from a Chinese perspective would be helpful.
Wu Xinbo: Well, I think the first and foremost issue is a huge trust deficit between two sides. The Trump administration distorted China's intention in their official narrative, and which really had a contagious effect on the U.S. elite and public.
Without a decent level of trust, I don't think [the] two countries can develop a stable and workable relationship. I think what the two sides should do is really to engage in serious strategic dialogue to reduce the distrust of each other.
For China, I think it should convey the message to the U.S., strongly and clearly, that China cannot replace the U.S. as the world's number one. Even [if] our economic size overtakes the U.S., we will remain lagging behind the U.S. in many other areas, including technology, finance, international influence, cultural influence, etc.
This is not a power shift between a rising power and the current hegemon. It's not that simple. And also, we should tell Washington that China has no intention to overturn the current international order. The current international order is not perfect. It needs to be improved.
For Washington, I think it should have a very serious discussion about how to define a rising China in U.S. foreign policy. Is China really the arch competitor to the U.S., or is it more a combination of both partner and competitor? And is China's economic growth just a challenge to the U.S., or [does] it continue [to] provide, as it did in the past, huge commercial opportunities for the U.S.?
I remember during the Obama era, Obama used to say, "Both countries want to see the success of the other side. Because they can succeed only when the other side succeeds." I think it's still the case. That is the first issue, the big trust deficit.
Second, I think we should start to clean up the Trump mess. There are still this kind of extra tariff imposed on imported Chinese products worth over $200 billion. That is counterproductive to both sides. Economically unreasonable. Unsensible.
If two sides can start to work to reduce and finally eliminate these Trump tariffs, that will do a lot to re-normalize bilateral economic relations, which remain a solid foundation for this relationship, in spite of the rhetoric that the U.S. is a victim of this economic relationship. I just looked, last year, the bilateral trade reached a new height in spite of the extra tariff rate imposed on products on both sides.
And the third issue is Taiwan issue. This is a very serious concern. Because I think this is the only issue that can bring two militaries into a standoff and even a conflict, which will be a disaster. Not only for two countries, but for the region and even for the entire world.
Currently, from Beijing's perspective, the separatist momentum in Taiwan is getting rampant, as the DPP, the pro-independence party, is in power in Taipei. While in the U.S., there has been a rediscovery of the strategic value of Taiwan in U.S. regional strategy—the so-called Indo-Pacific strategy.
These two trends, the internal trend in Taiwan, and also external trend in U.S.-Taiwan policy, they have combined to push the situation in the Taiwan Strait to a very dangerous direction. At same time, Beijing is trying to screw up the pressure on Taipei.
Economic warfare as we saw during the Trump era, or even tech war, are not likely to lead to military conflict between the two sides. But the Taiwan issue certainly can. I think that's my major concern, and also this is a major sticking point from a Chinese perspective.
Eleanor M. Albert: I wonder if we could try and talk about some steps that you would recommend to help redirect U.S.-Chinese exchanges. Is there room for improvement, given what we've just talked about? Where might that be? Are there, are there certain policy areas where we can have some cooperation on international issues?
There's certainly a lot of areas where it would be in both countries' interests to work on things. And maybe steps need to be taken, not necessarily at the official level. Maybe things are too fraught there. Are there things at other levels of exchange that could help get this relationship back on track?
Wu Xinbo: Well, I promise you as someone who has worked on improving China-U.S. relations, I have a long list of recommendations. But let me be brief for sake of time. First and foremost, we need to find a new framework for this relationship.
Without a new framework, I think the policies on two sides are just drifting. What the new framework looks like? The Trump administration, when they talk about strategic competition, and actually, it took to strategic confrontation. But for the Biden administration, when it talks about strategic competition, they clarified that competition should not lead to confrontation, which means Washington agrees that there should be a floor to this relationship.
On the Chinese side, we also emphasize the importance of managing differences under the current circumstances. That led me to think about a framework characterized by peaceful coexistence.
We need to learn how to coexist in a peaceful way, because both sides do not want to see a head-on conflict. It does not serve the interest of anybody. If that is a policy framework, then we can sit down to discuss how to come up with concrete policies in different areas to consolidate this framework.
For example, on the economic side, the first step is to remove the Trump tariff and re-normalize economic relations.
The second step is that we should make our diplomatic engagement more pragmatic and constructive. Diplomatic engagement is not a political show to domestic audience on both sides. They should work to enhance dialogue, build trust, and help solve problems. We should increase our diplomatic engagement and improve the efficacy of such engagement.
The third area is that we should stop demonizing each other. We should stop poisoning the atmosphere in the overall relationship. In the U.S., this kind of anti-China rhetoric has led to the growing violence against Asian Americans and Chinese Americans, which is really a major concern.
The Biden administration has taken some steps in this regard, but not enough. Do not stir up the hatred and distrust between two societies and two peoples. Do not spread hostility towards the other side. But rather, encourage people-to-people exchanges, especially after the coronavirus episode. Let's do our best to resume the student exchanges, the exchanges between two societies, as much as we can.
And also, Taiwan is a big issue. We should sit down to discuss how to manage the differences of the Taiwan issue, how to reduce the risk of unintended incidents between two militaries in the air and in the Taiwan Strait, and also more broadly, in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Do not let Taiwan issue or South China Sea issue become the strategic leverage against the other side.
And finally, we still have a lot of areas of common and shared interest, which require cooperation and collaboration. The Trump administration in its later years, they didn't talk about cooperation. Cooperation was a bad word, sounds like appeasing China. But the Biden administration admitted that cooperation is a part of U.S. policy. Competition, some confrontation, and some level of cooperation, if possible.
On China side, we always talk about expanding areas of cooperation. As we have seen in the last year, since the Biden administration, we have resumed our cooperation on climate change issue, on the Iran nuclear issue, on Afghanistan issue. And we stay in contact on North Korean nuclear issue and other regional and global issues.
I think the necessity for cooperation and collaboration is there, like it or not. The only difference is the preferences of the policymakers. In the long term, cooperation and collaboration are equally important, if not more than competition.
Because in today's world, just look at the Russia-Ukraine conflict. I promise you, this is not the last major challenge to world peace and security. Things do not just occur in Europe. It can occur in Asia, in the Pacific, in South Asia, in the Indian Ocean, and other areas, which require China and U.S., two permanent members of UN Security Council, to cooperate.
If our leaders really have a broad vision about the world, and also a responsible sense about the role they should play in world affairs, I think cooperation and collaboration between China and U.S. should be a strong incentive for us to improve this relationship.