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October 3, 2019

Opposing Visions in an Increasingly Competitive World

It has been over a year since the start of President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, and still no deal has been reached. As time drags on with uncertain prospects for reconciliation, talk of economic decoupling is on the rise. With these issues heavy on their minds, the 2019-2020 U.S.-China student fellows met for the first time in Washington, DC, from September 28 to October 3, 2019 to gain a firsthand understanding of the bilateral relationship from top scholars and leaders alongside their fellow cohort.

2019-2020 Student Fellows
2019-2020 Student Fellows

Guided by the theme “A World Order Under Stress,” the group of 12 undergraduate students from leading American and Chinese universities discussed a wide range of issues including trade, technology, security, human rights, and regional initiatives. They engaged different perspectives from agencies such as the U.S. Department of State and Chinese Embassy, as well as think tanks and advocacy groups. The fellows also discussed the key values of their respective cultures and debated how to handle the toughest problems facing the United States and China.

China’s Goals on the World Stage

During their visit the student fellows were able to gain insight on the Chinese perspective during two important meetings. The first meeting, with Professor Wang Jisi of Peking University, was spent discussing China’s focus domestically, as well as its goals internationally. According to Prof. Wang, China is concerned with maintaining peace and supporting development both at home and abroad. He posed some thought-provoking questions to the student fellows, calling for reflections on the essence of the U.S.-China competition and how the United States and China can coexist without pushing their value systems upon one another. Student Fellow Heather Yuan (Renmin University of China) reflected,

I think it is quite essential for the United States and China to deeply understand and follow each other's change of focus, which can account for each country’s movement and action about a specific issue, such as the trade war. This method of putting oneself in the other's shoes sounds not very hard, but when it comes to more complex issues, it can be quite difficult to change our ways of thinking.

In another meeting with DCM and Minister Li Kexin at the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States, the student fellows had an opportunity to ask more questions about China’s global intentions. In regard to China’s participation in the WTO and its status as a developing nation, Minister Li told the students that, “Politically, China will always be a part of the Third World; economically, it is too diverse to fit a label.” These conversations left the students with a lot to consider in terms of China’s outlook on world affairs and its place in the international order.

Student Fellows meeting with Chinese DCM and Minister Li Kexin
Student Fellows meeting with Chinese DCM and Minister Li Kexin

Growing Concerns in the United States

While in Washington, the students also spent time around the city talking with various U.S.-China experts trying to better understand how the United States views its current relationship with China.

At a meeting with Rick Waters, director of the office of Chinese and Mongolian affairs at the U.S. State Department, the topic of discussion shifted to the idea of increasing competition, and how that does not necessarily equal the attempt to contain the rise of China. The students also reviewed U.S. security policy with Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. O’Hanlon suggested that the United States should heed the lessons of World War I and avoid allowing competition over small matters to drag the United States into larger-scale military conflicts.

Finally, in a consultation with Craig Allen of the U.S.-China Business Council, Allen noted that relations between the United States and China have undergone fundamental change since 2009. In the U.S. view the shift has only been exacerbated by the increased role of the Chinese Communist Party in every aspect of Chinese life and society, including the rise of civil-military fusion and the increasing severity of Chinese intelligence laws. When asked if the United States and China should decouple, Allen noted that large-scale decoupling could lead to a “prisoner’s dilemma” situation, and if the United States and China decouple it should be on a very narrow margin of national security-related sectors.

The Next Generation Is Finding Their Voice

When the student fellows weren’t busy with meetings around the city, they spent their time with the initiative’s managing director, Dennis Wilder, discussing what they learned and sharing their own personal views on key issues. Their first task was to work in separate groups to determine the global security goals of both the United States and China respectively. The students reflected on the continued relevance of nuclear deterrence, potential changes to the global international order, and the viability of continued cooperation between both sides.

While considering the upheaval in U.S.-China economic relations, the students took time to view the recently released Netflix documentary American Factory. This timely look at the convergence of U.S. and Chinese business interests opened a conversation amongst the students on the deep difference of values between the two sides, and whether or not a clash of values is inevitable. Despite the differing views amongst the group, and the various opinions of the speakers around Washington, DC, the students left with a sense of camaraderie and a better understanding of the other side. According to Student Fellow John Rindone (Georgetown University),

“I learned that there are few binaries in Sino-American relations: across the group's conversations, each of my peers -- American and Chinese -- offered a distinct perspective based on their own experiences and sensibilities, even when we discussed polarizing issues within the U.S.-China relationship. Additionally, I greatly enjoyed engaging with leading scholars and officials in the field of U.S.-China relations, and then discovering how my Chinese friends reacted to the different opinions offered by said individuals. Finally, in reflection, I am most struck by how cultural differences -- even among a distinguished, informed cohort -- can influence divergent viewpoints of politics and international affairs.”

The student fellows will meet again in Beijing in the spring of 2020. Until then follow their cohort blog posts to learn more about their experience and views on the current status of U.S.-China relations.