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December 18, 2022

Responding To: Georgetown Students Share Thoughts on Student Dialogue Experience with Peking University

Navigating U.S.-China Competition through Dialogue

Bailey Brya

Many commentators on foreign policy begin their pieces by remarking that this is the most fraught period for U.S.-China relations since normalization. This statement casts a long shadow over the discussion, shutting down the idea that the United States and China could work together on anything. However, Xi and Biden sitting down face-to-face and agreeing to restart climate talks, and the United States agreeing in principle to a loss and damage fund to aid countries most impacted by climate change, are small signs that even big powers with tense relationships can nudge the needle forward on the existential threats of the twenty-first century.

During the fall 2022 Student-to-Student Dialogue between Georgetown University and Peking University, fellow students from the United States, China, Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, and Argentina and I drew on our diverse perspectives to reflect on the current state of the global development agenda, and U.S.-China cooperation on development and climate resilience.

Because my groups featured students from developing countries leveraging relationships with both China and the United States, we discussed another key question for the global development agenda. In a world where U.S.-China relations overshadow global cooperation on development needs, how can the international community center the voices of recipient governments and local stakeholders, rather than geopolitical interests, when crafting aid and development finance policy?

While we agreed that the UN Sustainable Development Goals provide developing states an aspirational, standardized, and equitable approach to development, the framework does not provide actual assistance, and countries in need turn to a variety of sources to secure it.

China’s approach to development policy, including through the newly announced Global Development Initiative, supports a narrative that is appealing to many developing countries because of its emphasis on non-intervention, growth, and poverty alleviation, though it may come with implicit forms of political influence. On the other hand, U.S. development policy has long had difficulty balancing the practicality of development aid and finance with its use as an ideological and political tool.

My peers and I noted that developing states navigating this landscape want to avoid securitizing development and picking sides between the United States and China, but those nations still want access to the financing expertise of the United States or the infrastructure capacity of China. Competition could actually provide benefits to recipient states, we discussed, as the United States and China increase external funding packages and invest domestically in research and development. Yet to truly solve development problems exacerbated by climate change and extreme poverty, U.S.-China cooperation is necessary. So, what is a realistic goal? My peers and I identified joint agenda setting on topics like poverty alleviation and climate change, which would ensure that even if the United States and China do not cooperate directly on delivering aid and assistance, top priorities are being met.

The most important priority, we agreed, is the needs of the recipient countries. While rising U.S.-China competition impacts cooperation, with proper management, dialogue on agenda setting, and a coordinated response to development challenges, we came away optimistic for gradual improvements.

Bailey Brya (MASIA’22) is an MA student in Asian Studies at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Her interests include human rights, gender issues, and U.S. and Chinese foreign policy towards the Indo-Pacific region.

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