Looking for Directions in U.S.-China Relations – Under the New Biden Administration

Many of the critical differences between China and the U.S. were reaffirmed at their recent Alaska Summit and the signs for an easing in tensions are not good, according to two political science professors at NYU Shanghai.

The Biden administration approached the March 18 talks aiming to “work with Beijing when it’s in America’s interest to do so.”

China’s foreign minister Wang Yi said China hoped to rebuild relationships with the U.S. under Biden. “We stand ready to have candid communication with the U.S. side, and engage in dialogue aimed at solving problems,” Wang said.

But these aims soon devolved into strained and argumentative talks in which U.S. and Chinese officials clashed over a multitude of issues.

The U.S. accused China of unethical trade practices, such as subsidizing industries and fixing its currency rate low. China retaliated by expressing grievances over sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, as well as restriction on Huawei within the U.S.

Professor Eric Hundman, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at NYU Shanghai, and Global Network Professor at NYU, said in the aftermath of the summit that it seemed there will now be no reset to the pre-Trump era of politics with regards to China.  

Professor Ivan Rasmussen, an Assistant Professor of Practice in Political Science at NYU Shanghai, believed the Alaska meeting could be best characterized as tense.

Hundman sees the Biden administration remaining firm on China on several topics where the two countries disagree. He believes it is partly due to a rising consensus between American politicians that being harsh on China is “desirable.”

Biden has fundamental differences with China, but both Rasmussen and Hundman believe that, on some level, there will be more cooperation between them under his administration as compared to Trump’s.

Hundman notes the Biden administration is more equipped to deal with China diplomatically. He said the countries may begin to work “on issues where the interests of the U.S. and China overlap – climate change, most notably. That kind of cooperation was never really on the table under Trump, for a variety of reasons.”

Rasmussen believes President Trump’s approach was tough and assertive in tone, but had moments where he maintained a mercurial relationship with China. Alternatively, he believes Biden will be more consistent and less harsh. 

However, he says there are still fundamental differences between China and the U.S. He notes a public discourse in the U.S. that favors being harsh on China, and in many ways, Biden’s public policy seems to be aligned with that.

In Biden’s foreign policy plan, all references to China include words like “pressuring,” “to win,” and “facilitating repression in China.” The only time China is mentioned as an ally in Biden’s foreign policy is in the denuclearization of North Korea.

For Rasmussen, Biden’s acceptance of globalization as a contrast to Trump’s declinist politics will encourage more exchanges of people and ideas between the countries. This might make visas or even travel between them more accepted and easier after it reopens globally, he said.

Additionally, Rasmussen said, Trump used a lot of “back and forth” in dealing with China and “after one tweet” his approach would change. With a career politician such as Biden, Rasmussen expects to see more consistency, meaning less uncertainty for the NYU Shanghai community and what we can expect from living in China.

This may also change what Chinese students studying in the U.S. can expect, he said.

Hundman believes that our school can also play a role in clarifying some of the uncertainty.

“NYU Shanghai students should probably expect a lot more questions about China from friends and family,” he said, as the U.S.-China relationship increases in prominence. “Now more than ever, I think our school has an important and exciting role to play in supporting that effort.”

But the early signs indicate a continuation of turbulent relations and, if they get worse, student’s plans to stay in China, study away or come back may have to change.

Students at NYU have already been seeing the effects of these political tensions on their cost of living in China.

After Trump’s sanctions on China in the form of embargos, the cost of certain products rose in both countries. In China, inflation hit a 7-year high of 2.9% and the sanctions are still in place.

Students may have also seen a reduction in their scholarship values due to the change in exchange rates. The rate of the U.S. dollar to the RMB fell to 6.5 on January 4, 2021, for the first time since 2018.

The strengthening of the RMB to the dollar directly impacts the scholarship amounts NYU Shanghai students receive. A $15,000 scholarship in 2019 would currently be worth over 106,000 RMB under the original exchange rate. Now, it would be worth less than 98,000 RMB.

NYU Shanghai, however, fixed the exchange rate to 7.1 for this academic year so students, at least for now, did not have to experience a reduction in purchasing power. Unless this exchange rate improves, this may become a future issue.

The visas of Chinese students from the New York campus have also been adversely affected due to political tensions.

NYU recently had to introduce a Go Local program to provide an option for students who could not go back to their enrolled campus, but were able to go to other sites without a visa.

Yi Ding Lyu, a junior at NYU New York who is doing the Go Local program in Shanghai, felt hopeful to return to New York next semester for her senior year. However, with her visa expiring this June and her inability to renew it, she is unsure of her chances to go back to the U.S.

Sino-American relations are impacting various aspects of the NYU Shanghai community and it will be important to monitor how the two governments aim to ease tensions.

This article was written by Ninad Mukherjee currently based in Shanghai, China. Please send an email to nm3288@nyu.edu to get in touch.

Photo Credit: https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/world/2021-03-30-china-us-tensions-are-boosting-indias-tech-dreams/

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