On Feb. 24, 2017, 18 students from NYU Shanghai attended a Duke Kunshan University symposium, “U.S.-China Relations in the Age of Trump.” The symposium hosted seven speakers including NYU Shanghai’s own Daniel Guttmann, who was invited to speak on “the world’s most important relationship” from the perspective of environmental collaboration.
The cooperation on environmental issues was highlighted as one of the key areas where the U.S. and China have been able to maintain a dialogue and agree on the way forward. The panelists expressed concern with President Trump’s apparent disbelief in climate change, as it could cause the two nations to lose crucial common ground – the foundation of any good relationship.
On the topic of global leadership, the Chinese panelists agreed that China is working to be the most influential, powerful country in the world. The talk of a potential clash as a result of China overtaking the US economy should, argued the panel, be understood as its leadership running too fast. The CCP knows they cannot – and should not – surpass the United States overnight and that their road to power is a marathon, not a sprint. As such, it was argued, the slowing economy is China’s leadership adjusting accordingly. An important point, emphasized by the panel, is that the “Chinese Dream” is not the ambition of a single person. Rather, it is an unstoppable path for the country.
The greatest challenge for both countries, however, lies in the traditional challenge of balancing international commitments with domestic realities. Unlike any of the most recent presidents, Donald Trump through his “Make America Great” slogan, decisions to step out of TPP and backtrack on the U.S.-China Bilateral Investment Treaty has signaled an isolationist approach to foreign policy. The panelists identified the notion of a “USA in decline” as a key to the future dynamics between the two countries because it could play a crucial role in President Trump’s interaction with the world.
Finally, prompted by a question of a student from Duke University watching on a live stream, the panelists spoke on the South China Sea issue. According to one of the panelists, Sun Zhe, co-director of the China Initiative of Columbia University, there are up to 12,000 incidents a year where U.S. and Chinese military airplanes have close encounters.
He referenced as an example the “Hainan Island Incident” in 2001 where a US air force reconnaissance plane and a Chinese fighter jet sent up to intercept the U.S. plane collided, and the PRC pilot died. The situation was “saved” by a statement from the U.S. government that allowed both countries to save face. However, historically, Sun Zhe noted, whenever the U.S. has incurred casualties, it has always “retaliated until the very end.”
As such, although the two governments might understand the importance of a good relationship, the two militaries consider each other as enemies. As Zhang Zhexin of the Center for Asia-Pacific Studies at Shanghai International Strategic Studies noted, why else would China’s military budget almost match that of the U.S.’s when the U.S. has a global strategy and these Chinese do not? “Inevitably, much of that goes to the South China Sea,” Zhang concluded. However, with both nations being a nuclear power, while a Cold War-like situation with skirmishes around the world might be highly plausible, a full-fleshed war does not seem to be imminent.
But then again, neither was it written that China would enter the Korean War against the U.S. in 1950, just one year after Chairman Mao won the civil war between the Communist Party and the Nationalist. It nevertheless happened, and as such it serves as the perfect reason of why all the panelists ultimately agreed that “we have no idea about what is going to happen.”
The trip to Duke Kunshan University was a collaboration between NYUSH’s International Politics Chapter and Green Shanghai. If you would like to participate in similar activities or related events in the future, please feel free to reach out to Nofar Hamrany (Green Shanghai) at email@example.com or Andreas M. Strandgaard (International Politics Chapter) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article was written by Andreas M. Strandgaard. Please send an email to email@example.com to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Duke Kunshan University