Skip to Initiative for U.S.-China Dialogue on Global Issues Full Site Menu Skip to main content
Evan Medeiros
Evan Medeiros
June 14, 2022

A Fragile Equilibrium in U.S.-China Relations and Navigating Competitive Coexistence with Evan Medeiros

Podcast Series:

U.S.-China Nexus Podcast

Georgetown’s Evan Medeiros shares how his high school and college debate topics shaped his path to studying Chinese foreign and security policy.

He assesses the fragile equilibrium in the current U.S.-China relationship, amid expanding competition in four distinct but nested baskets: security, economics, technology, and governance choices. Medeiros chronicles his experience working on China policy at the White House during a time of substantial transition with a shift from China’s traditional Dengist, low profile approach to foreign policy, to a more activist and risk tolerant one under Xi Jinping. He concludes by warning of the challenges for Beijing and Washington in a dynamic context increasingly characterized as a state of competitive coexistence.

Eleanor M. Albert: Our guest today is Evan Medeiros. Evan is the Penner Family Chair in Asia Studies in the School of Foreign Service and the Cling Family Distinguished Fellow in U.S.-China Studies at Georgetown University. Your research and teaching focus on the international politics of East Asia, U.S.-China relations, and China’s foreign and national security policies. You also served on the staff of the National Security Council for six years as Director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia, and then as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Asia. Before your time at the White House, you worked as a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and served for a year in the Paulson treasury department working on the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue. Evan, it’s a pleasure to have you on the show!

Evan Medeiros: Thanks, Eleanor. Great to be here.

Eleanor M. Albert: I was wondering if you could start off by telling us your “China story.” How and when did your own interest in studying China come about?

Evan Medeiros: My interest in China came about in the early 1990s. I was a very active debater in high school and to some degree in college. Our debate topics were often international topics. And through them I became very interested in global politics but especially arms control and non-proliferation affairs. And this was really the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s, right? You had the INF treaty just signed between Reagan and Gorbachev etc. And of course, in the early 1990s, you had all the revelations about Iraq’s nuclear weapons and chemical weapons programs. North Korea. So nonproliferation was replacing arms control as an issue.

I was interested in those topics and when I graduate from college I was very fortunate to get this fellowship at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and I worked for a senior associate there who was tracking global proliferation developments and he wanted me to focus on Asia.

One of the most striking things I found was the dearth of information, or perhaps more strikingly, the dearth of expertise on anything related to Chinese foreign and security policy. It felt like literally there were four people in the world, people like Michael Swaine, Bates Gill, a few others, that actually looked at these issues. There were very few Chinese publications. You know this is in the 1992, 1993, 1994 time period. So it felt like a puzzle, a really interesting, intricate puzzle, to try and understand it. And so that was an intellectual challenge. Then, when I met some of these specialists, they were very encouraging of my dual interest in international security issues on the one hand, and China on the other hand. It became apparent to me that I could match my functional interests with my regional interests, and perhaps that would be interesting and useful.

China in 1995 was not the China of today, right? This was not the second largest economy in the world, rapidly growing military. You hadn’t even had the Taiwan Straits Crisis at that point though we were on the cusp of that obviously in 1995 and then in 1996. So, it really grew out of my interest in international security affairs. And when I went to graduate school, I decided “Hey, I really want to pursue this.” And got a masters in Chinese studies and then a PhD focused on East Asia with a specialty on Chinese foreign and security policy.

So it felt like an interesting intellectual challenge, personally it was interesting. And then when I started to really travel to China, not just for language study, but for research, what I found was there was a small community of specialists at Chinese think tanks, the Foreign Ministry think tank, the CICIR, within the Foreign Ministry itself, that were also interested in these issues. There was sort of this small community of Americans and Chinese, and my interest just grew from there.

Eleanor M. Albert: That’s right before so much starts happening in East Asia in terms of proliferation. You have obviously provocations by the North Koreans which lead to China’s involvement in all of the Six Party Talks, which alas are long gone, but certainly a fascinating time and to see how much China has changed since then.

Evan Medeiros: I mean, Eleanor, to give you a sense. Back in the mid-1990s, to try and understand Chinese policies on arms control and proliferation, we were literally interpreting opinion pieces in China Daily and suggesting that perhaps that signaled Beijing’s policy is shifting. Nowadays, an opinion piece in China Daily doesn’t really mean anything. But back then you didn’t even have an arms control department within the Foreign Ministry, right?

There were a handful of people within the Chinese military that worked on these issues largely because they had served at the Chinese mission to the UN in Geneva working on conference on disarmament issues. It sort of felt like we were working on something that itself was in its infancy. I can remember in 1997, when the Foreign Ministry decided to establish its first department of arms control and proliferation affairs, headed by this very outspoken, somewhat flamboyant, chain-smoking, Chinese diplomat known as Sha Zukang. And anybody that knows Sha Zukang will laugh at that image because he’s since retired, but he was very much a nationalist and sort of a quirky pick to be head of the arms control department, but he also got stuff done.

Eleanor M. Albert: Flashing forward to the current climate, if you had to choose one, two, three words, to describe the current state of U.S.-China relations, what would they be?

Evan Medeiros: I would say that the relationship today is a fragile equilibrium. I think that as of today, my general view is that when one assesses the U.S.-China relationship, there is usually a characterization for the short term, what does zero to six months look like because things are very fluid and very dynamic. But then one has to look beyond the short term. Sometimes I refer to it as the cyclical features of the relationship and the structural features. And, I think we are in a period of cyclical equilibrium, but a fragile one. But I think structurally we’re in a period of long-term deterioration in which the competitive dimensions of the relationship are expanding, they’re intensifying, and they’re diversifying.

Both sides are displaying a much greater willingness to use confrontational approaches as well. But for right now I think it’s a fragile equilibrium. The fragile equilibrium is basically built on two things. Number one is the Chinese want to put a floor under the deterioration in the relationship. Largely because of this being a year of leadership transition. They don’t need a major crisis in the U.S.-China relationship.

Number two, they face pretty severe economic problems at home. There are some professional economists that are asking whether or not China may face a recession this quarter, in other words negative growth, which is a striking question to be asking for a country that has experienced the growth rates that China has experienced. So they have a lot going on at home.

And then, of course the Russian invasion of Ukraine has put a lot of geopolitical stressors on many of China’s major power relations, as well as the regional relations. The fragile equilibrium is on the one part the Chinese effort to put a floor under the deterioration in the relationship, and I think that’s reflected in how Washington and Beijing handled Biden’s video chat with Xi Jinping in March, but the Chinese floor is matched with an American ceiling.

I think the U.S. is trying to put a ceiling on China-Russia relations. I think that is really the immediate priority in U.S.-China relations – trying to cap the degree of Chinese material support for Russia. And I think that’s largely succeeded. You haven’t seen systematic and sustained Chinese violations of the international sanctions and the Chinese didn’t provide overt material support to the Russian military effort. And so, you have the Chinese floor, you’ve got the American ceiling, and as I’ve said, I think that forms an equilibrium of sorts. But I have real doubts about whether or not it’s sustainable. It may be an equilibrium, but it’s probably a fragile one and the fragility is driven by on the one hand, I think as the war grinds on in Ukraine, Russia is simply going to become needier, and is going to need more from China. And the Chinese may face pressures to bust through that ceiling.

On the flip side, even though China has tried to put a floor under the deterioration in the U.S.-China relationship, I think that Chinese concerns about U.S. policy toward Taiwan are growing and that may lead them to believe that the floor itself that they’ve sought is unsustainable. But look, the Chinese have a lot of big problems at home and instability in the U.S.-China relationship isn’t going to help that. So equilibrium now, but it’s fragile, let’s see how long it’s sustained.

Eleanor M. Albert: You were just talking earlier about the competitive dynamics. Competition seems to be a recurring, dominant trait of this bilateral relationship. Is it purely issue-based, is it geography-based, a combination of the two? And separately, are there any areas that might be able to bypass being put in the competitive basket? Are there things that we can still try and work together on?

Evan Medeiros: I see the competition, Eleanor, more as issue-based than geographically based, but of course, U.S. and Chinese interests intersect in certain geographies, the Indo-Pacific being the obvious one – that’s the crucible of U.S.-China competition because more of our interests intersect in more ways and more frequently than pretty much any other part of the world. But fundamentally I see the competition as issue-based and its broadened. America and China have competed on issues of security and economics for a long time, decades, that’s not new or surprising.

But I think the competition in both security and economics is definitely broadening. But you can now add to those two baskets, technology and even questions of ideology. And by ideology what I really mean is governance choices, choices about political and economic governance, but also choices about global governance. I think our views are diverging. The thing about these four baskets – security, economics, technology, and ideology – is that unlike before, they are all nested and linked together.

In other words, security competition manifests in U.S. policy on economics and technology. U.S.-China technology competition has expressions in economic policy, putting Chinese companies on the Entity List and the same thing with security. Technology manifests in terms of security policy. And so, when you have these four baskets of competition and they are linked and nested in ways unlike in the past, I think what that means is that the ability of Washington or Beijing to compartmentalize issues, as a way to manage this intensifying and expanding competition, just becomes harder. That was one of the traditional tools that both sides relied on. Hey, we’re simply going to decide we’re going to take these differences put them to the side, but we can still work on trade and investment, or we can still work on North Korea, or Iran, and nonproliferation. What concerns me is because competition in one basket has expressions in other baskets and they all become linked it makes it much more difficult to manage this competition.

Another way to look at it is to look at the drivers of the competition. One of the phenomena that concerns me, Eleanor, about this phase of the relationship we’re in, is that I worry domestic politics in both countries, not just in the United States, but in both countries, may be driving the competition in some arenas more than actual geopolitics. As the U.S. Congress in the U.S. and as party institutions, and especially the propaganda bureau in China, become more active, you have these, let’s call them bottom-up, domestic political forces that are just accentuating the differences in national interest. And I worry that domestic politics will start to play a greater role than just garden-variety national interest calculations.

Then, third point to make would be, as our areas of competition expand and intensify and domestic politics in both countries play a greater role, what we are seeing is new dynamics emerge. In other words, new ways in which these areas of competition are being expressed. So what you see is greater tolerance for risk and friction, both sides much more willing to pursue openly confrontational strategies, right?

And I think in particular, about the disinformation efforts that the Chinese have been promoting in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. And the thing about disinformation is, we can understand as much as we dislike Chinese propaganda, but disinformation, actively promoting lies about the United States and the U.S. support for Ukraine. That America operates secret biological weapons facilities, right? Those disinformation, those lies, are being promoted not just by some nebulous Chinese netizen, but actively being promoted by Chinese government agencies, state-directed media, I mean literally from the podium of the foreign ministry. So openly confrontational strategies.

And then to get to your second question about where are areas where we can grow. I have to admit, I’m fairly bearish. I simply don’t see many areas of sustained cooperation. One of the most unfortunate, and in many ways disturbing dimensions of the covid-19 crisis globally has been, if there is one area that you would have expected the U.S. and China to cooperate on. If you had conducted a hypothetical experiment five years ago, ten years ago, give me a scenario, you would have come up with a pandemic. And what we learned was that the pandemic was a source of divergence, not convergence.

In the traditional baskets of climate change, global health security, global trade and investment, macroeconomic stability, and even nonproliferation, you don’t see very much sustained cooperation. For listeners, it’s early June, and just a few days ago, the Chinese and the Russians vetoed a UN Security Council resolution condemning North Korea’s launch of an ICBM. A couple of years ago, that was sort of a no-brainer. North Korea just blatantly violated many UN Security Council resolutions and they need to pay a cost. And the Chinese and the Russians said “Nope, we’re not interested in working with you on that.” So, unfortunately, I don’t see many growth areas.

And then the hearty perennials, that we’ve always relied on as a foundation of the relationship with deep roots are people-to-people ties, especially educational ties. Of course, you and I work at Georgetown, a Jesuit university, with strong beliefs about people-to-people interaction and it’s something that we obviously work on and support, but because of some of the policies Xi Jinping has adopted, some of those people-to-people interactions between our business communities, between NGOs and civil society, between educational institutions. When Georgetown students who are PRC nationals have to be careful about what they write and say in class in Georgetown or any institution because somebody might report what they are saying or writing, that is a really unfortunate state of affairs.

So even education ties, which we always expected to remain as sacrosanct, almost protected dimension of the relationship, it’s facing stresses as China becomes more ideologically oriented and the mistrust of the United States seeps into civil society, media, business ties, university-to-university interactions. It feels like we are in an environment where distrust is growing, restraint is declining. I worry at the level of our military interactions that the risks of an accident or a miscalculation are there, because our militaries are both very capable and coming into more frequent contact with one another.

Eleanor M. Albert: I want to tease out a little bit more on the ideological component. And, containing it to the foreign security policy area, do you think China has a vision for world order and if so, what are its attributes, traits, or characteristics? Is there any cohesive body of thought towards its international affairs?

Evan Medeiros: I do believe that China has a vision. I believe the vision has key attributes and these are expressions of long-standing perceptions and preferences. The vision includes instincts toward looking at international politics in terms of hierarchy, a strong belief in centrality for China, but what exactly hierarchy and centrality mean is difficult to say.

So I think there is a vision but the vision is somewhat inchoate, it’s still evolving. At some level, it’s very unsurprising for scholars of international politics, because it’s about maximizing freedom of action, it’s about reducing constraints, it’s making sure in China’s case that it has a veto on any behavior, especially behavior by countries in China’s immediate periphery, that is inimical to its interest. I think the Chinese want to make sure that they have unfettered access to the inputs of growth that they need. And I think that they believe that China deserves a greater voice in the rules, norms, and institutions that guide international affairs. And where those rules, norms, and institutions are inconsistent with Chinese values, the Chinese are looking at marginalizing them.

So, the most liberal aspects of the Liberal International Order, in particular the UN based human rights rules and norms. I think the Chinese are uncomfortable with those and they want to minimize those, hence Chinese activity in the Human Rights Council to try and privilege social and economic rights over political and civil liberties, for example. They try to minimize the influence those institutions in terms of criticizing China’s own behavior at home, whether it’s the crackdown in Xinjiang or just the awful treatment of Uyghurs and so I think the Chinese want to shape and change some of those liberal norms.

I think the Chinese want to use international institutions to further validate China’s own efforts, like Belt and Road. I find it very curious, curious in the sense that no other country does this. China trying to get Belt and Road Initiative language into UN documents. I mean that’s like the U.S. trying to get the UN documents to refer back to “Build Back Better.” And so, at some level because the party itself is so focused on legitimacy and self-validation, Chinese foreign policy in a way has become yet one more tool of helping the party to legitimate and self-validate itself. And I think that’s another dimension of China’s vision. On other words, making a world that is safe for China’s version of single-party, authoritarian political system and state-directed development.

Usually when people talk about China’s approach to international affairs, and this is Iain Johnston’s good work, he says the order, there’s no one order, the order is really a collection of different orders, which makes sense. China likes some and dislikes others. But even those orders, like the collection of rules and institutions on liberal trade and investment, even on those, the Chinese are starting to call into question some of those. And then of course there are others, like cyberspace or the Arctic, where the Chinese are trying to write the rules as the rules are being written.

Eleanor M. Albert: I wanted to tap into your expertise that comes not just from your research, but also from your direct policy experience. You’ve had a lot of exposure to Chinese interlocutors through both fronts. What are some of the things that you think are most misunderstood about China’s conduct and about its thinking about its role in international affairs?

Evan Medeiros: It’s a hard question to answer because I think that there’s a diversity of types of misunderstanding. It depends on what audience you’re talking about. Are you talking about the audience of American allies and partners in East Asia? There’s often misunderstanding about how the U.S.-China relationship operates. Are you talking about commentators in the United States, especially China watchers? I think the misunderstanding varies depends on the community you’re talking about.

Also, my experience was a particular experience because the six years I was involved in this at the National Security Council was six years of pretty substantial transition. So the simple way to talk about it is transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping and the transition from the Dengist approach of taking a low profile, the iconic phrase of tao guang yang hui, to something that’s more activist in nature. A Xi Jinping that’s actually more risk acceptant, risk tolerant, looking to push boundaries, and advance Chinese interests even if it generates pushback and blowback by the United States, other major powers, or more peripheral states in East Asia.

So I was there at a very, very particular time. What struck me was, number one, how long it took to get things done. Dialogue and interaction with China often takes time. The system processes things very, very slowly. It’s exceptionally top down, that’s uniquely the case under Xi Jinping.

There was quite a bit that we could get done in the first term of the Obama administration dealing with the Chinese ambassador in Washington, Zhang Yesui, his counterpart in Beijing, the Vice Foreign Minister in charge of the U.S.-China relationship, Cui Tiankai, and Dai Bingguo who was the State Councilor. Those three were a uniquely effective team at communicating among themselves, and getting things done. And basically, listening to what we had to say, negotiating with us, taking it to Hu Jintao, and getting it done.

We were able to do serious pieces of business, like get Chinese support behind a very serious UN Security sanctions resolution on Iran as the Iranian nuclear problem was becoming a major global issue and this was in late 2009, early 2010. And getting Chinese support for that, the Chinese ultimately abstained, they didn’t support it, but we didn’t want them to veto. But bringing them around to do that was a big piece of business. Sanctions back in 2010 aren’t what they are today in terms of being a globally accepted feature of international politics. So things took time and effort.

Under Xi Jinping what we found was that it only became more difficult because so much decision-making was centralized around Xi. And once Dai Bingguo left, Cui Tiankai came to Washington, Zhang Yesui moved to the margins, we had to rely on Obama and Xi to do a lot of big pieces of business. It’s hard to put everything on that one relationship and it’s not as if they were talking and/or meeting all that regularly.

The other piece that surprised me that’s difficult to convey to people is simply the degree of distrust of the United States that seemed to grow over time. I know some China experts will disagree with me on this, but in my experience, our efforts to reassure the Chinese: we weren’t interested in regime change, we weren’t trying to overthrow China, or our policy was not to expand the Arab Spring from the Middle East to East Asia. We literally got that question nonstop for about a year after the Arab Spring. And then the same thing over Hong Kong. Even despite Obama’s discussions with Xi Jinping after the Umbrella Revolution in the fall of 2014, it was almost as if the system was simply hardwired to view the U.S. as constantly seeking to undermine, delegitimize, and destabilize the CCP. That only grew under Xi Jinping and it made it very difficult to cooperate.

What we saw was the aperture of cooperation gradually declined over time. Often times what the Chinese did was that they claimed that they were interested in cooperating, but really what cooperation was, was not really cooperation, it was actually dialogue. They will just talk with you about cooperating and we will use that to manage you and manage your expectations, while continue to do what we want to do. Which in some cases, like in the South China Sea, was incredibly destabilizing. Dialogue and cooperation, while the Chinese talk a good game, very difficult to see that materialize.

Eleanor M. Albert: On the discussion of diplomatic tools, are there tools or areas in the bilateral relationship that you think are underappreciated or untapped?

Evan Medeiros: There’s no tool for one period. In other words, as the relationship evolves, as the political environment in the relationship changes, as the drivers of the relationship change, different tools are going to applicable in different instances. Because of where the Chinese economy is today, because of the zero-covid policy, I think once the Chinese stabilize their economy, it’s possible that they could be open to some more trade and investment with the United States. The question is, for American companies, is in it in our interest to do so, right? Will their interests be protected? Does it create national security risks for the United States?

I hope we get to a point where we get to rebuild the people-to-people ties. That’s going to be important to prevent the drift from strategic competition to outright enmity, hostility, or confrontation. Once we get out from covid and the Chinese will have to abandon zero-covid at some point. They are going to have to figure out a way to do that. But it feels we are at a minimum of twelve months off from that if not longer.

I’d like to see our educational and civil society ties expand. We should always be talking. One of the virtues of technology, as you know, is many of us spend evenings talking with Chinese colleagues, colleagues really from all over the world, on Zoom, to at least make sure that the channels of communication remain open. So I think the educational ties and people-to-people ties are going to be important.

But look, given the competitive dimensions of the relationship, given the national security risks, we have to be attentive to those, too. In those areas of the relationships, science and technology, the national security concerns are there, and I think that’s going to be a constraint on educational ties in that space. But we’re going to have to look at educational ties in other areas because it’s one barrier to that drift, that uncontrolled drift, from competition to hostility and confrontation.

Eleanor M. Albert: To conclude, I wanted to get your thoughts on what are the two pressing obstacles or most significant stumbling blocks in the relationship?

Evan Medeiros: Well, the first one is an obvious one and that is in Taiwan. There are anxieties on all three sides of the Taiwan question; Beijing, Taipei, and the United States. We need to find a way to stabilize the deterioration on the Taiwan question, because if not, I worry we could create the conditions, not immediately, but eventually, for a fourth crisis over the Taiwan Strait if the divergence continues. That doesn’t mean pulling punches and I think the United States needs to remain true to its policies and its commitments but I think we also need to be attentive to managing the security risk. Deterrence plays a big role in that. So I think the Taiwan issue is one.

And I think, number two, this is more of a theoretical point, Eleanor. I think the United States needs to figure out how to balance the competitive dimensions of the relationship with the interdependence. The conversation about China, the U.S.-China relationship, and China policy in Washington is largely focused on competition. What types of competition? Where does it exist? What are the drivers? How do we manage them? But the competition is only half of the relationship. We ignore the fact that we have a $650 billion trade relationship with this country. We have a massive investment relationship, and we are the two largest economies globally, we are growth centers.

So, to me, the challenge for policymakers is to recognize not just the competitive dimensions of the relationship, but how we reconcile them with interdependence. Interdependence is not just in economics. There’s ecological interdependence – Joe Nye has made this point. There’s technology interdependence, whether we like it or not. And then simply because of the presence of nuclear weapons and questions of strategic stability, there’s a connection between us there that we cannot deny, similar to during the Cold War. So the interdependence is not just economics as important as that is.

We are going to need to find a way to talk about the U.S.-China relationship in a way that reconciles these two aspects. Because the more you compete with China, there may be costs and tradeoffs because of the nature of interdependence. Are we willing to pay those costs and tradeoffs? Are you willing to tell American companies that employ thousands of American workers that they’re going out of business because we can no longer buy intermediate goods from China? And I don’t think we’ve really, seriously, had that debate in the United States.

Again, and to be clear, that’s not an argument for pulling punches on competition, it’s simply to point out that the competition is dissimilar to the Cold War because of that interdependence. And that interdependence is multilayered and where that takes you is a relationship that is less about an end state and is more about a steady state. That steady state is some dimension of competitive coexistence. We need to figure out what is competitive coexistence mean for the United States. It will probably mean different things over time as the U.S.-China relationship evolves, not unlike how the U.S.-Soviet relationship evolved. The tolerance of our partners and allies because we are going to be asking them to make costly, risky, and difficult tradeoffs, so are they going to be prepared to do that? And so I think we just need to think about what competitive coexistence means to us, how it’s going to change over time, and how best to pursue it.