Skip to Main Content
Maxwell School
Maxwell / News & Events / Maxwell Perspective Current Issue

From Maxwell Perspective...

 Making Sense of a Crazy Mixed Up World

China: It’s Complicated

The web of relationships and mutual benefits between America and China is too complex to dismiss with campaign rhetoric.

By Renee Gearhart Levy

Poster of Trump

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump took a hard line on China, but he has since taken a less confrontational approach. It remains to be seen whether the U.S.-China relationship will continue to focus on constructive engagement and managing differences, or reroute toward rivalry and conflict.

According to University Professor of Social Science, International Affairs, and Law James Steinberg, structural problems in U.S.-Sino relations would be a challenge regardless of who is president. “Both sides are suspicious of the other’s long term intentions. The United States worries that China’s goal is to push the U.S. out of East Asia and become the dominant power, while many in China fear the U.S. is trying to contain China. It’s a pattern that often emerges in the relationship between dominant and rising states,” he says.

Steinberg was head of the policy planning staff at the State Department during the Clinton Administration, leading a team tasked with recalibrating policy toward China. He’s visited China each year since 1994, including during his time as Deputy Secretary of State.

In the recently published A Glass Half Full? Rebalance, Reassurance, and Resolve in the U.S.-China Strategic Relationship, a follow-up to their 2014 book, Strategic Reassurance and Resolve, Steinberg and co-author Michael O'Hanlon examine the steps each side has taken to mitigate the rivalry and competition. “There have been some steps that each side has taken,” he says. “But there is a lot that hasn’t occurred, and there are many areas where we continue to be concerned. While it’s not as dire as some have predicted, it’s not good enough to feel the relationship is on an even keel.”

"Too many people want to tell the glass-half-empty story."
JAMES STEINBERG

That doesn’t mean the focus should be on the negative. Steinberg says the average American’s focus on China’s economic impact is not fully informed. Data shows that American jobs did suffer at the hands of Chinese trade between 2000 and 2012. But changes in China and the global economy mean that — in terms of the impact of China’s growth on U.S. employment — the worst is over. Everyone, including national leadership, should be telling that story. “Our concern is that too many people want to tell the glass-half-empty story and not enough people are prepared to see the factors that make the glass half-full,” Steinberg says.

Maxwell economist Mary Lovely says both sides have benefitted from China’s entry into global markets. “From an economics standpoint, U.S. consumers have experienced low inflation and low prices on clothing, electronics, toys and games, and millions of other products made in China,” says the former co-editor of the China Economic Review. “U.S. corporations have benefitted from a greater variety and lower prices for intermediate inputs and this has helped fuel our export competitiveness.”

Special Series: International Issues
>>Crossing Borders
>>Partners No More
>>China: It's Complicated
>>Fragile States
>>The Enemy Online
>>Putin the Meddler
>>Beyond Anyone's Control
>> Helping Hand

Lovely, an Eggers Faculty Scholar in Economics, has written extensively on economic issues related to China. She’s currently investigating the pollution content of Chinese exports, the effect of tariff reductions on labor value in Chinese manufacturing firms, and the Chinese trade flows.

She says it’s important for the two countries to cooperate, for reasons that go beyond economics. “From an international relations standpoint, the growing integration of the two economies raises the benefits of peaceful resolution of bilateral political and security conflicts that may arise,” she says.

Ongoing success lies in figuring out how to address each other’s concerns, says Steinberg. “Is China trying to build a system that contributes to everyone’s success or is China building a system where China succeeds at the expense of others?” he asks.

More than trade conflicts, the most pressing issue facing Presidents Xi and Trump is the growing North Korean nuclear capability. “North Korea is driving a dynamic that can have a serious negative effect on U.S.–China relations,” says Steinberg. “On the one hand, if the U.S. and China can figure out a way to deal with it cooperatively, it would be a tremendous breakthrough. But if we can’t, it’s going to cause tension.”

How effective President Trump’s transactional deal-making style will be in negotiating with the Chinese remains to be seen, he says.

“The long-term relationship will work only if China can grow in a way that doesn’t threaten its neighbors, and we can stay involved in the region in a way that doesn’t threaten China,” says Steinberg. “Neither side is going to tolerate a win-lose, and both sides are capable of resisting. China is too strong for us to dictate to, but we’re too strong for China to dictate to us as well.”

Insight into China’s top priorities can be found by reviewing the China Policy Barometer (CPB), a national opinion poll co-created by Dimitar Gueorguiev, assistant professor of political science. Since January 2016, the CPB has surveyed roughly 4,000 Chinese respondents regarding their views on ongoing policy debates.

Gueorguiev is co-author of the recent book, China’s Governance Puzzle (Cambridge University Press), which examines Chinese governance institutions. His current research on China revolves mainly around regime strategies and institutions that harness public participation with the goal of staying in power through improved governance.

Gueorguiev says Chinese leaders regularly solicit public opinion before major decisions, via town hall meetings, calls, letters, and online surveys. China’s national legislature has consulted the public on more than 100 national policy items since 2005.

Gueorguiev says studies suggest this consultation bolsters public satisfaction and trust in government. “According to Mao Zedong thought, the essence of governance comes ‘from the masses’ before it is directed ‘to the masses,’” he says.

According to Gueorguiev’s recent op-ed in the Washington Post, the CPB shows that leaders do listen to the people. While many analysts expected national defense to be the center of this year’s National People’s Congress, China’s leaders instead focused on the economy and rule of law, priorities Gueorguiev says were in line with public sentiment — although not all policies are open to consultation. “Matters of national economic or foreign policy are almost always determined behind the Chinese Communist Party’s closed doors, and congruence is far weaker,” Gueorguiev wrote.

Given China’s newfound power and assertiveness on the regional stage, Steinberg believes President Trump faces a greater challenge than his predecessors. “It takes more than avoiding confrontation,” he says of stabilizing U.S.-China relations. “You don’t need to look for a fight to get one.”

Steinberg suggests the way to start allaying each other’s suspicions and build a virtuous dynamic would be to begin taking reciprocal unilateral steps. For example, China could agree to stop drilling on the disputed islands as a good faith measure, and, in return, could ask the U.S. to stop flying reconnaissance flights along their coast. “Right now, neither side is doing this,” he says. “This process could build confidence in each other’s long term goals, without the complexities involved in negotiating formal agreements.”

Photo Credit: Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo

This article appeared in the spring 2017 print edition of Maxwell Perspective; © 2017 Maxwell School of Syracuse University. To request a copy, e-mail dlcooke@maxwell.syr.edu.