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Professor deLisle discusses the past, present, and future of the U.S.-China relationship

May 13, 2019

Penn Law’s Jacques deLisle, Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Center for East Asian Studies is an expert on Chinese law and politics, and China’s engagement with the international order. Penn Law’s Office of Communications spoke with Professor deLisle about the current status and challenges of the relationship between the U.S. and China.

Penn Law: How would you describe the relationship between the United States and China today? Would you call the two countries allies, rivals, or something else?

Jacques deLisle: Powerful countries expect to influence the rules of the international system. China is becoming more assertive in doing so. As is typical, this rising power’s push for a bigger role and revised rules is leading to friction with the hitherto dominant power, which has been the United States in the post-World War II and Post-Cold War period. The U.S. was a principal architect and beneficiary of the institutions of the current international order, including the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. To be sure, the U.S. has not joined some major international agreements, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea or the International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights, of the International Criminal Court, but, by and large, the U.S. has supported, and underwritten, the status quo international legal and institutional order.

China has become, and increasingly presents itself as, a power second only to the United States. It is home to the world’s second-largest economy and, soon, the largest. It is the most formidable regional power in East Asia, which is the most dynamic region in the world. As a military power, it is not yet a peer competitor of the U.S., but it has the capacity to make it costly for the U.S. to intervene in the regions adjacent to China. China has been accumulating the trappings of top-tier power status, holding one of the permanent veto-wielding seats on the UN Security Council, being a leading member of the G-20 group of large economies that superseded the G-8 as a key structure for international economic cooperation amid the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. Increasingly, China has been developing regional organizations and arrangements, including the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (as something of an answer to the Trans-Pacific Partnership that the U.S. championed under Obama and abandoned under Trump), the Belt and Road Initiative (for infrastructure and other investment across Asia and into Europe and Africa), the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the BRICS group, and the ASEAN-China Free Trade Area.

The heated bilateral trade conflict and the characterization of China, in the recent U.S. National Security Strategy, as a rival and revisionist power across nearly all issue areas and regions looks like rivalry. The foundations for rivalry are there: the dominant power / rising power dynamic I noted earlier, and profound differences in political systems, conceptions of human rights, proper roles for the state in the economy, and so on. China’s challenges to status quo norms and institutions have become more apparent under Xi Jinping. The earlier dictum of taoguang yanghui—playing a modest role and not drawing attention to China’s growing power—has been abandoned. China was contemptuous in dismissing the arbitration decision—rejecting overreaching Chinese law claims—issued in the case brought by the Philippines over maritime rights in the South China Sea. China increasingly has sought to stifle criticism, and even participation, by NGOs in the UN process for periodic review of China’s human rights record. There are many other examples.

Do these developments make the U.S. and China rivals? They might lead to clear rivalry under normal circumstances. But the United States today—especially under Trump but with roots in longer-standing trends—is less interested in defending and extending established norms and the agreements and institutions that embody them, including the WTO, the TPP, the Paris Climate Accords, and so on. On many fronts, from human rights to a liberal international economic order, the U.S. is no longer fully at the table, calling out Chinese moves that violate norms or rules that the U.S. has long supported. This as unfortunate and potentially dangerous. 

PL: One argument for increased U.S. and international engagement with China has been that it might positively influence the way the country behaves domestically, in terms of human rights or increased liberalism. Has the reverse happened, where increased engagement with China has influenced or changed the U.S. domestically?

JdL: Engagement has done less to change China than many had hoped, and has done very little to change the United States. The U.S.-China relationship is strangely symmetrical. Both countries see themselves as great powers that are not willing to subject themselves fully to the rules of international law, and both see themselves as exceptional countries. A difference is that American exceptionalism is evangelical: the U.S. often sees itself as a special and different country but one that provides a model that other countries can, and should, emulate. Chinese exceptionalism has tended to emphasize China’s unique history and culture. China has argued that all countries, including China, needed laws and institutions suited to their own circumstances. That argument has been central to the Chinese regime’s rejection of U.S. critiques of China’s human rights record, legal order, and political system. But, recently, there are signs that China’s leaders are warming to the idea of a Chinese model that developing countries might emulate, and one that differs from the neoliberal economic, democratic political, and rule-of-law model that the U.S. has favored. So far, the Chinese model is still inchoate, largely defensive, and mostly destabilizing — rather than constructive — of international norms. China has been ambivalent about promoting it, and the Chinese example, especially its political aspects, may hold little appeal.

Although we have not seem much propagation of a Chinese model, China’s expanding international presence has given it far-flung economic and security interests that are leading to a shift away from China’s once-strident rejection of interference in other countries’ internal affairs.

Engagement with China has not had much direct impact in the United States. But China’s rise and its behavior at home and abroad have changed U.S. foreign policy and may be causing a rethink of some domestic policies. The most optimistic expectations of the era that began in the 1970s — that engagement would make China a relatively reliable supporter of the established international order, and, more ambitiously, that it would make China much more liberal, economically and politically — have been disappointed. The predominant view in policy-relevant circles in the U.S. now is that China is a rival, that it is not in the U.S.’s interest to cooperate in ways that strengthen China, and that the U.S. needs to do more to push back against China’s actions that harm U.S. strategic and economic interests. 

Many of the concerns are well-founded, but the current response is flawed. It understates the profound economic and social, and lesser political, changes that have occurred in China during the last forty years.  It omits support for — and has included attacks on — international laws and institutions that have long served U.S. interests, and it has been accompanied by moves that have alienated the U.S.’s closest allies, who share many of the same concerns about China, rather than seeking their cooperation to advance a shared agenda. 

One modestly hopeful sign is that the growing sense of rivalry with China has led to more serious discussion in the U.S. of the need to increase investment in research, education, and other essential foundations for economic dynamism.

PL: What would you say is the biggest point of contention in the U.S.-China relationship during the Trump era?

JdL: The principal focus now is the economic relationship. The U.S. is pressing a long list of long-standing complaints: the lack of protection, coerced transfer, or outright theft of intellectual property; the Made in China 2025 program to make China a leader in key emerging tech sectors; slowness in opening markets to U.S. firms, especially in service sectors; pretextual use of national security arguments to limit trade and investment (a complaint one hears from both sides); selective enforcement of laws against foreign firms; and a large bilateral trade imbalance. Many, although not all, of these issues are possible violations of WTO legal obligations. But prospects for remedy through the WTO are limited, and the Trump administration loathes the WTO, so bilateral negotiations and a threatened trade war have been the modes for addressing them.

The broader sense of strategic rivalry, and an accompanying ideological clash, underlie the mounting friction. Although this conflict is serious, it is not—at least not yet—analogous to the Cold War. Despite the current troubles, economic ties still provide ballast to the relationship, and forty years of engagement has created a social and human dimension. Many once-foreign ideas, congenial to many Americans, have gained a foothold in China. Although currently besieged, Chinese advocates — some impressively brave — continue to push for those values.