Zimo: Hello everyone, welcome to our panel on the outlook for US- China Relations. My name is Zimo Yang, a member of the China Development Student Think Tank. we are a student-run organization at the George Washington University. We aim to provide a pure academic platform on college campus for students and scholars to share knowledge on the subject of International Affairs and to promote discussions on the topics of Sino-U.S. relations, Asian-Pacific economic-political reform and world sustainable development.
Today, I’m delighted to welcome professor Robert Sutter to our channel. Professor Sutter was a Ph.D. graduate from Harvard University and he is now a Professor of Practice of International Affairs at the Elliott School of George Washington University. Professor Sutter has published 22 books, over 300 articles and several hundred government reports dealing with contemporary East Asian and Pacific countries and their relations with the United States.
Professor Sutter’s government career saw service as senior specialist and director of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division of the Congressional Research Service. He was also the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia and the Pacific at the US Government’s National Intelligence Council. He also served as the China division director at the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research and professional staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Zimo: Good Afternoon Professor. Thank you so much for joining us!
1. Zimo: Professor Sutter, you are joining us today at a time of extremely turbulent in the US-China Relationship. Could you please share with us how you would characterize US-China Relations at this point? What are the core challenges and risks that you see emanating from U.S.-China tensions?
Sutter: The situation that we face today has been caused by the United States. It's been a three-year-effort to turn US policy toward China in a negative direction. This has been influenced by Chinese behavior, which the US now finds they can no longer tolerate. So they've taken a very strong negative turn against China and Chinese practices. There are many practices that the Chinese are doing that America sees as fundamentally trying to undermine the US. So this is a very serious situation. The support for this policy now has grown a lot over the last three years, and we are now at the high point of this growth in this election that we are in. The future looks like it's going to be very negative toward as far as the US approach to China. So we have a major impasse here. So I characterize this situation now as one of struggle. We are in a position where both sides' view of the other as a systematic rival. And this systematic rivalry it's across the board. In this one area or another area, it's systematic. US's approach to China has been this way. It has broad support in US Congress—it's not just the executive branch doing this. It isn't just the small group; it has enormous support in the US now. So we are in a period of struggle.
2.Zimo:What does US-China clash mean for the lived experience, for your average American person or your average Chinese person? Is there any ways to Bridge the divide at this particular time?
Sutter: What it means for ordinary people is that it means they are going to be a part of this struggle one way or the other. I don’t think either side is going to war so ordinary people won’t face “that kind of struggle”. We will have clashing interests across the board. So it won’t have huge impacts on American society to some degree. I don’t want to exaggerate this. It will lead to slower growth in the US and China. This kind of struggle is carried out by the government people. But it will have an impact on people to people exchanges between the two countries. Exchanges will be a lot restricted, but those are not necessarily ordinary people. I mean ordinary people in the US don’t go to China in general, and probably vice versa. It’s more exceptional people that go to the US, they are more wealthy and they can do this. So as far as ordinary people, I’m not sure that it will have an enormous impact.
This situation is very difficult to change. The Chinese people think their government does the right thing in foreign affairs; it's widespread in China. So they don't understand these complaints from the US, and the explanations they will receive are about something different that is causing this in the US. It's the fault of individuals in the US or some other factors, but it's never the responsibility or China's fault. And this is a remarkable attitude. I'm not sure what country in the world has this attitude to this degree, but people in China do. They think their government is always right in foreign affairs. So in the US, the people are wildly supporting the hard policy toward China now. It took them a long time, and they didn't agree with it first. They didn't understand it because before we were engaging in China. China was seen as our partner and as our friend. And that has changed completely in public opinion now. The residual wariness of the public is that I don't want to be in trouble with China. That's not all, so I don't think that gives us any basis to make sort of a breakthrough. I think we are going to be struggling and testing each other and this is going on for some time until something happens that will cause us to change. One side takes advantage of the other, and other things can happen. But at this point, the government in China is convinced that it's moving toward the China Dream. The US government is reacting to China's behavior in a way since that behavior won't change, that will remain negative. Even though Mr. Trump may not be re-elected, I think that negativity still won't change.
3. Zimo: Under the new presidential election, would Biden's China policies be more lenient compared to Trump's? If elected, how do you think Biden would handle tensions with China, such as human rights issues and trade deals left behind by the Trump administration?
Sutter: It’s a very good question. Mr. Biden was not far shunned China during the campaign in 2019. But the public opinion shifted in that period, particularly with the coronavirus’s impact in the US. And with that shift, public opinion became quite negative toward China. I was waiting for public opinion to support the hard policies toward China, but now they have. Mr. Biden and other Democrats have to move in that direction. So things became much tougher toward China. Mr. Trumps Campaign has used Biden’s past remarks on China to attack him for being too soft on China. So we have to be tough on China, and he is tough on China. So, will that continue? I think he obviously has a more nuanced position on China than Mr. Trump. In another way, that nuance is where he wants to cooperate with China on some issues. He says this directly. So it’s not all negative with Mr. Biden. But on issues like human rights, he’s been very outspoken on human rights issues with China. He hasn’t done much, and he hasn’t advocated doing much, but he’s been very critical of China on those issues. On trade issues, the Democrats are a little more flexible than Mr. Trump, but they also have been very critical of China’s trade practices. So I’m not sure how they are going to move on those issues. But moving in areas of cooperation, the democrats value climate change. Climate change is the type of issue that you need China’s cooperation. For that reason and others, Mr. Biden may be a lot more flexible when dealing with China, not wanting to alienate the Chinese government because he needs them to carry on climate change and other issues. So that’s not something that comes up in the hardline policies that are coming out of the Trump administration these days.
4. Zimo: As we all know, the president has much power when it comes to foreign policy. How do you think Biden's Taiwan policies will differ from Trump's?
Sutter: It’s a very good question because the Taiwan-US Relations has been advanced remarkably over the last 2 to 3 years. It's done mainly in small steps, nothing tremendously out of the ordinary. However, these steps have all been ways of deepening the American relationship with Taiwan on social security, economics, high technology, human rights, and the coronavirus itself. So all these areas of cooperation among the others, have been quite a remarkable change. So the question is will this continue if Mr. Biden comes into office. This is a very good question because Biden comes with a record in the Obama government that is very strict in interpreting the one china policy. Mr. Obama was very strictly enforcing that and Taiwan was not an issue with significance in the Obama government. So Mr. Biden was a part of that, and his people were the same people who worked for Obama. So I would assume that influence would have some effect. What they actually will do with Taiwan is very uncertain at this time, but I think they will be inclined not to continue the advances that have been taking place in the Trump government in dealing with Taiwan. Beijing has been very vocal and sensitive about issues with Taiwan. As we all know, anybody studying China knows how sensitive Beijing is about Taiwan. So the question for American policymakers is, "do you want more trouble with China". I think Mr. Biden probably don't want more trouble with China. He already has plenty, and he has plenty of other things to do. So he may not want to advance the relationship with Taiwan. Keep in mind that supporting Taiwan in an active way has much strong support from the Trump government and people there and has strong support in the congress, both democrats and republicans. So it's not going to be easy. If Mr. Biden does this, the critics will say, what are you getting from China? What are you getting in return? Because that's not something that would just be done and then just do it. I think that wouldn't work very well under the political atmosphere in the US.
Sutter: In the US, media is independent of the government, and so they often are critical of the government. As the negative turn took place in the US-China policy toward China in the last 2 or 3 years, the media at first was very skeptical of this move. In 2018 there was much criticism of this approach: the trade war and other controversial topics. In 2019, the media saw the wisdom and the need for this negative turn. They were more convinced that "yes, the US needs to do this." And then what they've seen in Chinese behavior has reinforced that thinking. So I think the media today basically sees that America needs a tougher approach to China. There is this struggle going on, and we need to do something about it. So I think there's a mainstream media support now. In China, the media is directed by the party-state, so on the American side, I think the media is informing people about the issues and the developments. I think US media is pretty objective if you look at it from an American perspective. But China doesn't get very good treatment. China's approach is viewed very critically, and I think it's the type of thing where, from my perspective at least, is justified. But I think someone in China would see it as unfair. So on the Chinese side, the media isn't designed to criticize the government. That's not what it's about. It's about educating the people in the way that the party-state feels is best. And I think Chinese media has done a very good job of that. So people in China all understand this issue in a way that supports the Chinese party state's position. So people think the Chinese party-state is perfectly right in all of this! So my basic point is this reinforces the gaps between the US and China's understanding of this issue. I just don't see how we can have some easing of this systematic rivalry if the Chinese side thinks they have not made any mistakes. And yet I think they will continue to think that, and the Chinese media foster that. So there we are! I think the media has done a good job in so far as what they wanted to do.
I mean, I understand why this happens. The US is attacking China, and Chinese media is responding to its attacks. As I said, the US initiated this big struggle, but they say the Chinese have been carrying out practices that undermine the US for years. It's an outburst because of what the Chinese would do.
6.Zimo: Totally. Just to connect to your point on the role of media, as an international student living and studying in both countries, everyday the first thing I do is wake up and read the news. And sometimes that can make me feel really depressed because I feel confused and sad to being caught between this US-China clash. I feel appreciative of cultures and values in both societies, but I think the general political atmosphere creates suspicion and alienation. So professor, in your opinion, what can us future generations do to succeed where presidents and diplomats have failed and bridge the gap between the two superpowers? 谢谢教授，我理解您的观点。回到您刚才提到的中美媒体的话题，我作为一个在中美两国生活和学习的国际学生，我每天起床第一件事就是看看中美媒体的当日新闻。看到中美冲突日渐激烈，我经常感到沮丧和迷茫。虽然我自己认为两国的文化和价值观各有千秋并且值得彼此相互学习借鉴，但是现在大环境的政治氛围却造成两国民众间的相互怀疑和疏离。在您看来，中美两国的年轻人怎么做才能疏解隔阂，缓解两个超级大国之间的纷争呢？
Sutter: Thank you, but I’m afraid that the students and others are the “small potatoes” in this situation. They don’t have much impact. It’s hard to be idealistic at a time of struggle. Both sides at this time are trying to defend their interests, and when they do that, you start talking in idealistic terms. I think it doesn’t work very well. It’s gonna take a while. The circumstances will have to change in some way. It will make one side or the other recognize that it does not fit their interest to continue this struggle. But for now, I think that’s where we are, and I think people like yourself and others are caught in these different opinions. The United States is a big pluralistic place, so I think people from China can be fine in doing what they are doing, but I think the current situation can make people uncomfortable. As for going to China, I’m sure some people would still want to go. But for exchanges such as academic exchanges and other exchanges, they will be restricted in many ways for all sorts of reasons. Tourism, studies, businesses will probably continue, it’s not a complete shutdown, but it will be awkward for people on both sides.