Where Next for U.S.-China Relations?

China's likely next president, Xi Jinping, recently concluded a landmark visit to the U.S. What will come of U.S.-China relations under his leadership? Here's what Howard French, Ian Bremmer, Daniel Rosen, Michael Pettis and Dr. Kerry Brown, among others, have to say.


This is the first post in a new TMP series titled “The Great Debate,” a round-up of opinions from experts, officials, professors and students on a pressing question in international affairs.

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping concluded a significant trip to the United States last week. Speaking with his counterparts in Washington, traveling to the Iowa town where he spent part of his college years, and even taking in a Lakers game in Los Angeles, Xi presented an image of a confident, self-assured China.

Xi is expected to assume the leadership of his country later this year and his tenure comes at a particularly important moment in U.S.-China relations given the breadth of economic, military, and other international issues on which the two countries may collaborate or butt heads.

In light of his visit, TMP’s new series “The Great Debate” turned to the experts to ask:

Will US-China relations improve under Xi Jinping’s leadership? Or are they likely to deteriorate under the 5th generation of party leaders?


China's vice president, Xi Jinping jokes about receiving a gift of popcorn during his first visit to Muscatine, Iowa in 1985. Xi returned to the city and was greeted at the home of Roger and Sarah Lande Wednesday February 15, 2012. (Kevin E. Schmidt/QUAD-CITY TIMES)


Howard French, Columbia University

There are simply too many variables and unknowns to confidently predict the direction of U.S.-China relations under Xi Jinping and the so-called Fifth Generation of leaders.

What stands out for me at this moment, nonetheless, are a number of signs that point more toward turbulence than to smooth sailing.

What are these signs? To begin with, leadership politics in China seem to be entering a major new phase with the prospect of increasingly open and contentious jousting between individuals and factions. There is every prospect of this extending beyond merely patronage, position and favors and extending into the realm of real contests over policy and direction. This will happen in the absence of a strong elder statesman figure to mediate and adjudicate matters.

The relevance for bilateral relations is indirect, but potentially important. A situation of such fluidity and turbulence could encourage leaders to play the nationalist card to shore up their credentials and popular appeal. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a new leadership under almost any circumstances staking its reputation and prestige on accommodation of the U.S.

This leads to a second and related consideration. There is a lot of tension inherent to a dynamic that involves the relative rise of a rising power at the expense, both real and perceived of the established superpower. This is an unavoidably awkward and potentially dangerous situation, with one side reluctant to concede and the other sometimes over-eager to assert its new prerogatives. In both countries, public opinion plays an important and sometimes capricious role, reducing the room for maneuver of leaders or pushing them toward bad decisions.

Having said all of this, ten years, which is the nominal term of the incoming Chinese leadership, is a very long time, during which much can happen, including not just unpleasant outcomes. Under the right circumstances, a successful beginning to the new leadership’s mandate could make it a much more confident and relaxed working partner over the longer term.

Howard French is an associate professor at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and author of “A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa.”

Ian Bremmer, Eurasia Group

Relations among leaders are less important than the compatibility of their countries’ national interests. U.S.-Chinese relations are likely to become more complicated—and more contentious.

In years to come, military tensions will increase. The Obama administration has made clear that no region is more important than East Asia for long-term US interests. Many of China’s neighbors, increasingly worried by China’s growing clout, have signaled a desire for closer ties with Washington, stoking Chinese anxiety over a perceived US bid to “contain” China’s expansion.

Then there is the cyber issue. To redress the imbalance in capabilities between US and Chinese forces, Beijing has invested heavily in cyber capacity. Neither side has an interest in open military conflict, but cyberattacks are becoming increasingly difficult to detect and deter.

Commercial tensions will continue to increase. China’s policy of indigenous innovation—a strategy to use access to Chinese consumers to persuade foreign firms to share technology that helps Beijing cultivate a home-grown high-tech sector—deprives American companies of lucrative investment opportunities. These firms then complain to the US government, which lacks the leverage to do much about it.

But the greatest source of tension comes from differences in the two countries’ foreign policy decision-making processes. In Washington, the Pentagon remains by far the best funded and most politically influential constituency within the security bureaucracy. In Beijing, policymaking remains an exercise in lowest-common-denominator consensus-building among a wide range of influential players with disparate interests. On all but the most strategic of foreign-policy questions, the military, various ministries, and a number of state-owned enterprises will each have their say. That makes Chinese foreign policy less coherent and less predictable than many in Washington would like.

Barack Obama and Xi Jinping may become fast friends, but that’s not nearly enough to ensure that U.S.-Chinese relations will improve.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of the forthcoming book, “Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World.”


Michael Pettis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

It is always difficult to say much about what a new leader in China will be like until well after he takes office, and of course the United States has its own elections to add to the uncertainty.  Given my very pessimistic expectations for Europe, however, and the impact European deterioration will have on global trade, I would be surprised if trade tensions did not continue to rise between China and many of its trading partners, most importantly the United States.

Over the next few years, Beijing hopes to engineer an economic rebalancing that will wean the economy off its over-reliance on investment and the external sector for growth. But given how contentious the leadership transition process has already been, it may take time to put together the needed consensus.  What’s more, I am skeptical about Beijing’s ability to raise the consumption share of GDP quickly except with a sharp drop in investment-driven growth, which means that the external account will continue to be very important.

I think Washington will fail to appreciate how difficult rebalancing is going to be for China, and Beijing will fail to understand that the US cannot absorb the full impact of the European crisis without a more rapid Chinese adjustment.  This is not a formula for excessive cooperation.  I would expect good intentions on both sides but nonetheless a very testy relationship.

Michael Pettis is a senior associate in the Carnegie Asia Program and professor of finance at Peking University’s Guanghua School of Management.

Daniel H. Rosen, Columbia University

Xi Jinping’s tenure could very well coincide with a period of better relations with the United States. The reason has less to do with him personally than with the historical circumstances (although he does seem temperamentally easier to work with than his predecessor). The overarching factor is that China is entering a period of domestic economic preoccupation and adjustment. This will incline China to seek milder external relations than we saw during the just passed five years of relative strength as the United States was on its heels.

Daniel Rosen is an adjunct professor at Columbia University and partner of Rhodium Group.

Orville Schell, Asia Society

The most distinguishing characteristic of the Chinese leadership is its opaqueness. And, the degree of opaqueness is always compounded in the person of the heir apparent as he waits to ascend the throne. The worry, of course, is that any expression of individual opinion may appear to be a violation of both Party discipline and also become a form of lèse-majesté in regard to the current Party General Secretary. So, even while on tour, Xi Jinping’s willingness to be demonstrative was very much under control. (In short, one suspects there is much more there than he was able, or willing, to express.)

However, I just spent three days on the road with Xi in DC and Los Angeles and was impressed with his calmness and sense of personal sovereignty. Moreover, his newly forged quite personal relationship with Joe Biden bodes well for keeping US-China relations on a more even keel. One new feature of “the relationship” that one hopes will prove real is an ability to agree to disagree without throwing the whole relationship off the tracks when there is a crisis. Such an attitude would represent a giant step forward, because the relationship as a whole would not be held hostage to any one difficult political issue.

Orville Schell is the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations and former Dean and Professor at the University of California, Berkeley.


Angela Beibei Bao, Columbia University

Xi Jinping made an unprecedented move during his recent U.S. trip: he went to a Lakers game in Los Angeles. Much like Deng Xiaoping donning a cowboy hat at a Texas rodeo during his first U.S. trip in 1979, Xi seems keen to send a friendly signal.

Xi, 58, is likely to be more progressive and open to the West than his predecessors. From 1985 to 2007, Xi accumulated his political capital in the three most liberalized coastal provinces and cities in China: Fujian, Zhejiang and Shanghai. He is well traveled, according to The New York Times, and speaks English well. One photographer friend of mine who saw Xi during Joe Biden’s trip to China in 2011 said they spoke to each other “like friends.” This time, Biden accompanied Xi for almost the entirety of his trip, from Washington to Los Angeles, in an unusually welcome manner.

At the elite level, I believe China and the U.S. both understand that there is enormous mutual benefit in maintaining smooth bilateral relations. True, from a realist point of view there are inevitable national security issues such as Taiwan. But this past January, Taiwan re-elected Ma Ying-jeou as their President, a politician who has pushed for warmer relations with the mainland since he first took the office in 2008.

Xi is unlikely to be the typical, colorless Chinese cadre so often seen in formal political situations. Born to an aristocratic family, he has wider military connections within the Party than Hu, and he is known for bold public speeches. During Xi’s trip to Mexico in 2009, he referred to Westerners pointing fingers at China as those “with full bellies and nothing better to do.”

Despite occasional outbursts such as these, I remain optimistic about the U.S.-China relationship during Xi’s first tenure. After all, Xi’s daughter goes to school at Harvard, as do the offspring of many other Chinese cadres, and Xi himself once admitted that he likes Hollywood movies.

Angela Beibei Bao is a dual-degree graduate student at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the School of International and Public Affairs.


Dr. Kerry Brown, Chatham House

Xi Jinping’s greatest attribute as far as his communication and public face goes is that he is not Hu Jintao. Hu’s political skills evidently lay in the area of building consensus in the Communist Party of China (CPC) through uniting the various and sometimes conflicting parts of the CPC around core political strategies which prevented them going against each other in damaging factional battles. For the outside world, Hu remained as much a mystery in year ten of his tenure as in year one, smiling enigmatically while China was accused externally of being over assertive and internally of entering a new era of repressiveness.

Xi’s demonstration in the United States of a more diplomatic populist touch, even in the somewhat restrained circumstances that he now needs to operate in, could be a double-edged sword, at least for the U.S. The silence and stiffness of Hu was starting to grate on the Obama administration. A more human figure would at least provide some traction. But Xi may well start pointing back at the U.S. and the outside world with some harder language, about the need to accommodate the world’s second largest economy more, and allow China more diplomatic and political space.

Perhaps, for all the frustration, we have grown comfortable with dealing with the sphinx-like Mr. Hu. He made no comments, one way or the other, about China’s various dust-ups in the South and East China Sea, but left it to others to speak. A more vociferous, hands-on communicator, which Xi looks set to be, might present some difficult moments, as he answers back to the West’s various, sometimes conflicting demands.

In two or three years time, odd as it seems from where we stand now, we may well find, after all, we end up missing the reticent Mr. Hu.

Dr. Kerry Brown is the head of the Asia Programme at Chatham House and author of “Ballot Box China: Grassroots Democracy in the Final Major One Party State.”


Matthew Goodman, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Xi Jinping’s leadership will be only one of a number of factors influencing the trajectory of U.S.-China relations over the next decade.  Many of the forces shaping the relationship—domestic politics in both countries, shifting economic trends, global events such as Syria and Iran—have their own dynamics that political leaders have limited ability to control.

The measure of Xi’s impact on the bilateral relationship will be the kind of broad policy course he sets within China: toward reform or retrenchment; the skill with which he reacts to unfolding events; and the extent to which he is able to establish lines of communication between his government and U.S. counterparts at all levels, which will be essential to maximizing the opportunities for cooperation and managing areas of competition in the relationship.

It is far too early to tell how Xi will measure up on all these fronts.  During his trip to the United States, he demonstrated a common touch that bodes well for his ability to engage constructively with U.S. leaders, but what this says about his preferred policy course or skills at responding to fast-moving events remains to be seen.

Matthew Goodman holds the William E. Simon Chair in Political Economy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.


Matt Schiavenza, Columbia University

The U.S. visit of Xi Jinping—a process inelegantly referred to as “gilding” in English—has spawned a flurry of speculation that the course of U.S.-China relations will change. Sorry to spoil the party, but nothing much is going to happen.

For all the press ink spilled on Xi’s personal characteristics—his love of basketball, his nostalgic affection for rural Iowa, his American-educated daughter—he will not have nearly enough personal clout to alter the structural factors that guide U.S.-China ties.

These structural factors are unlikely to change much during the ten years of Xi’s presidency, if only because both sides are broadly satisfied with the status quo. A Chinese economic collapse—though regularly predicted by excitable pundits on the U.S. side—would be unwelcome in both Beijing and Washington. American criticism of China’s human rights regime will remain understated. China will continue to push its interests in the South China Sea but will be careful of provoking an increasingly attentive U.S. naval presence in the region.

One issue that may throw a wrench in the U.S.-China relationship is North Korea, a country which faces an uncertain future following the death of longtime dictator Kim Jong Il. Both China and the United States will attempt to leverage the leadership change for their own purpose, a process which may pit the two sides against one another in the coming years.

Barring an unexpected collapse, China’s economic and military power in respect to the United States will only continue to grow. While such a dynamic may presage eventual conflict between the two countries, relations in the short-term are unlikely to change very much.

Matt Schiavenza is a graduate student at Columbia University School of International and Public Affairs and senior editor of The Morningside Post.


Dr. Banning Garrett, Atlantic Council

The change in leaders in China is perhaps less significant than a new administration taking power in the United States, especially if the new U.S. administration is from the party previously out of power.  Xi Jinping has been part of the ruling administration for years.  There will be new faces taking Politburo and Standing Committee jobs, but they will also have been part of the same “administration.”  So there are not likely to be any sweeping changes in Chinese strategy or major foreign and domestic policies as a result simply of leadership change.

Xi’s personality and background may lead him to gently move policy, when possible, toward greater reform and openness and a more cooperative foreign policy-at least that is the hope of many Chinese intellectuals.  If Xi and the Fifth Generation do move policy in this direction—and if the U.S. understands and responds to reinforce such moves—then presumably this will be positive for U.S.-China relations.  Some Chinese fear Xi and his cohorts may rely more on the military and hardline nationalists in foreign policy and further strengthen state capitalism and protections, which would presumably lead to more tension in China’s relations with the U.S. and its neighbors.

In my view, however, the future of the U.S.-China relationship is likely to be less determined by leadership changes and more by the larger context of the relationship and the response of Chinese and American leaders to that context in their global, domestic and bilateral policies.  Over the next ten years that Xi may be in power, the changing global context will include many great challenges and threats that require global and bilateral cooperation, including the impact of climate change; food, water and other resource scarcities; continued upheaval in weak and failing states; the great disruptive challenges posed by demographic changes, including population growth, aging societies and youth bulges, and rapid urbanization; and the usual list of terrorism, proliferation, international crime, and potential pandemics.

Affected by and affecting all of the above will be the future of the global economy and the need for the U.S. and China to cooperate to maintain and rebalance economic growth, as well as to prevent or minimize future destabilizing events like the 2008 financial crisis.

Top Chinese and American leaders recognize that they are in the same “strategic boat” and that if they do not cooperate on these issues, both countries and the rest of the world will suffer severe economic, political, environmental and security consequences.  The question is whether leaders of the two countries can overcome domestic politics, special interests, and the pressure of near-term decision making focused on “tactical” differences and disputes rather than on common strategic challenges.

That is an open question on both sides of the Pacific.  There is no reason to believe that Xi Jinping will be less capable of meeting this challenge than his predecessors. Will the U.S. leadership, hobbled by a dysfunctional political system, be able to rise to the challenge even if the Chinese “get it”?

Dr. Banning Garrett is director of both the Asia Program and the Strategic Foresight Initiative at the Atlantic Council.


Daniel J. Ikenson, Cato Institute

The most significant determinant of the quality and direction of the U.S.-China relationship is American self-confidence.  If the US economy starts to grow at a stronger pace and businesses begin to invest and hire more rigorously, the temptation of US politicians and their supplicants in the media to scapegoat China for self-induced, domestic woes will diminish.

To ensure a more enduring period of harmony, US policymakers must get the US fiscal house in order, reduce long-term debt, reduce artificially high levels of uncertainty in the business environment, make the regulatory climate less stifling and compliance less costly, and adopt policies that encourage innovation and immigration.  In other words, U.S.-China relations will be driven more by actions in Washington than by actions in Beijing.

The diminution of strident rhetoric and recriminations alone will lead to improved relations.  Still, it should not be surprising that entities within the world’s largest and second largest economies will have disputes that create economic and geopolitical frictions. Despite occasional theatrics and fireworks, both governments have a mutual interest in harmonious economic relations. Our economies are extremely interdependent, and, barring destructive policies, the pie should continue to grow larger.

Realists understand that the objectives of the U.S. and Chinese governments will not always be the same, thus U.S. and Chinese policies will not always be congruous. Accentuating and cultivating the areas of agreement, while resolving or minimizing the differences, is the essence of diplomacy and statecraft, which should be easier to conduct with Chinese leadership changes and U.S. elections in the past.

Finally, each successive generation of Chinese leadership has included—and will continue to include—a greater number of people who have lived or been educated in the West, who bring back to China conceptions of political and civil liberties that are more permissive and more in sync with human dignity.  And that is progress.

For those reasons, U.S.-China relations should improve under Xi Jinping’s leadership and beyond.

Daniel Ikenson is director of Cato’s Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies and coauthor of “Antidumping Exposed: The Devilish Details of Unfair Trade Law.”


Graham Webster, East West Institute

International affairs experts, journalists, and campaigning politicians have a tendency to focus on points of conflict, real or potential, between countries. Equally important, however, are areas of integration, common experience, and common interest.

In the future of U.S.–China relations, we can expect continued rhetorical chest-beating amid unavoidable accommodation, and we can only hope cooperation wins out.

Some cooperation is inevitable in the context of the global economy. The U.S. financial crisis, the Eurozone crisis, and potential instability in Chinese markets have stubbornly refused to stay within international borders. Leaders are charged with the interests of their citizens and the wider stability of the world economy. No matter one’s preferred economic ideology, much of economic reality is global and finance-driven.

Cooperation can be tempered by national interests, real or perceived. One potential catalyst for confrontation is the strength of each country’s defense establishment. Though the two countries share significant strategic objectives, including secure sea lanes and stability on the Korean Peninsula, there are disagreements over cybersecurity and the South China Sea. Even when leaders act diplomatically, domestic pressure can make compromise difficult.

If Xi Jinping indeed takes power and serves for ten years—like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao—the recent visit would suggest a continuation measured interaction we see today between U.S. and Chinese leaders. But anything can happen. If Xi or a U.S. leader decides to take a more aggressive stance, politicians on both sides may face pressure toward escalating confrontation.

The United States and China share critical economic ties that discourage conflict, but leaders on both sides balance diverse pressures. Leaders can rarely change these pressures significantly, but how they manage them is of great importance. If the political communities on both sides can acknowledge there is no neat divide between the prosperity of each population, they can confront challenges together.

Graham Webster is an analyst and journalist on East Asian politics and a public policy & communications officer at the EastWest Institute.


Debra Liang-Fenton, U.S. Institute of Peace

The U.S.-China relationship continues to be one of utmost importance to both countries on a range of globally relevant issues. As the two largest economies in the world, enhanced cooperation between the U.S. and China will only serve to stabilize the wider global economy, especially in this uncertain time. But economic leadership does not equal global leadership, which is something that encompasses more than economic dominance in the world market.

While there are differences between the two countries concerning trade, currency manipulation, and intellectual property arrangements—to name just a few—there also remain ideological differences on issues of human rights and the treatment of dissidents, and freedoms of speech and information, all principles that the United States holds important. There are also global strategic differences concerning most recently the Security Council resolution on Syria that was vetoed by both China and Russia.

As China undergoes a leadership transition this year, it is unlikely that a dramatic change in course will be adopted by the new Chinese president. While Vice President Xi seemed to have an easy manner during his recent visit to the United States, and he exhibits a more populist style of interaction than current President Hu Jintao, those attributes do not necessarily portend a shift in how Chinese leadership will approach any of the economic, political, legal, geostrategic, or human rights differences over which the two countries currently tussle.

Debra Liang-Fenton is a faculty member at USIP’s Academy for International Conflict Management and Peacebuilding and was the founding executive director of the U.S. Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.


This post of The Great Debate was compiled by Ethan Wilkes, Aarti Ramachandran, Krisztian Simon and Ethan Wagner.


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