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Topics / Emerging Global Order

Xi and Trump: What's the Big Deal?

As China’s role in the world continues to grow, how should the U.S.-China relationship be managed?

Host Sarwar Kashmeri speaks with Orville Schell, Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, and Susan Shirk, Chair of the 21st Century China Center and Research Professor at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, as President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping prepare to meet at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. 

KASHMERI:  So Susan and Orville, you were both co-chairs of this report, which came out not too long ago under the auspices of Asia Society and the University of California San Diego, that laid out suggestions of your policy towards China for the new administration.  And it had a very succinct beginning where you laid some of the ideas on what you thought should be the work plan to be executed during the new administrations first year.  I wonder if you could each come up with a couple of the item on this work plan that you think are the most important.  Shall I start with you, Orville—no, let me start with Susan.

SHIRK:  Okay, well, first of all, let me say that this task force consisted of 20 veteran China experts, many of whom have served in policy roles in government in Republican and Democratic administrations ever since the Nixon administration.  So there was a lot of experience and maybe even a little wisdom—and certainly a lot of wisdom in this group, which is why we picked the people. Orville and I were confused on our minds about how we thought we ought to address China, which had changed and was impacting US interests in some negative ways. So the report is distinctive, I think in that it first of all makes really clear what US interests are. 'Cause too often, China is very explicit about its interests, and we end of being reactive in a way that is not working very well for us. Secondly, we, especially seeing the Trump administration come into office, we emphasize that we need to maintain the fundamental foundation of US-China relations and not trash it to the extent that there will be no prospect of having a constructive, non-hostile relationship with China. So don't give up on the relationship entirely and turn China into an enemy.  And then third, however, but in some very specific areas, China's actions in recent years have been detrimental to US interests. So we need to take a firmer stand.  We need to find smart ways to respond, to push back, in order to better protect US interests. So those are sort of the three main characteristics of our recommendations. And then we go on to talk specifically about particular issue areas and what we think should be done.  And I think some of those concrete recommendations could be useful to President Trump were he to choose to use it in his first encounter with President Xi.

KASHMERI: So Orville, let's take, let's say, three of these that you both hit very highly on during the launch of this report. And let's start with the first one. And again, you've been traveling to China for decades. And obviously, this idea that North Korea, for two decades now, has just been increasing its nuclear capability, and it—the kind of missiles that it's developing. So that's a hugely important issue. So what's going wrong here? What would you advise Mr.Trump's administration to do?

SCHELL: Well, I think, if you look at the concrete issues that President Trump and President Xi will have to tackle, certainly, at the top of the list is what to do about the nuclearization of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.  And here, paradoxically, the US and China do have quite a quotient of common interests because China doesn't want to see a kind of a nuclearized, crazy North Korea right across the Yalu River any more than the US does.  But the problem is that they're weary about the status quo being altered.  But that notwithstanding, I think, actually, there is a big opportunity in the meeting at Mar-a-Lago for Trump and Xi to try to hammer out some kind of a deal, which would bring actually the US and China closer together and also put maximal pressure on Korea to mend its ways, as we saw happened in Iran.  Now maybe that won't work.  But if it doesn't work and if the US and China did succeed in coming together and trying to create this maximal pressured situation, then we would know there is really probably no other alternative than some sort of a military one.  But I think we're not there yet.  But we're very close to having to do something.  And this step should be taken.  A second area we think is important is, of course, the very unlevel playing field for US trade and investment in China, the protectionism that's grown rather than diminished.  And this really does have to be set right or the US and China are going to be at loggerheads at one of the areas where they had most common cause in the past.  And then third, I think this whole area of reciprocity, whether it's in terms of media, you know, the harassment of reporters, the squeezing of civil society in China, where at the same time Chinese reporters and civil society organizations have the run of the pen in America, visa situation is very imbalanced too. That needs to be set right.  And I think this is something that Trump could come right out and say.  Listen, we either get this and get it right, or we're going to have a relationship that's distorted and poisoned by this lack of reciprocity.  

KASHMERI: Susan, you've—excuse me—you've served in the State Department, and I think the suggestion that we need to be very clear to the president of China, when you hear he's going into a possible leadership review changed this autumn, it's probably a very sensitive issue for him. And, how would you, if you were Mr. Trump, pose this tough line to him? How would you structure that?

SHIRK: Well, I think it's important that the objective of wanting to have a decent relationship with China and recognizing the cost to both countries of a hostile relationship has to be the framework.  And we recommend that the two presidents communicate closely, as we start pushing back in some areas.  So in other words, you don't just come in there with a whole list of ultimata about, you must do X, Y, and Z.  I hope that President Trump will first of all talk a bit about what his overall goal is in diplomacy with China and make clear that he understands the importance of a decent relationship with China.  Then the other thing we recommend is that they should each appoint a very trusted advisor to serve as the channel for ongoing communication because the presidents can pick up the phone and talk to one another, but it's also good to have someone close to them, who carries out this continuous communication.  Because if we are going to take a firmer approach, we don't want it to be misunderstood about what the objective is.  

KASHMERI:  Right, I'm very interested—I mean, you both have so much experience in dealing with China and US-China relationships.  I'm really interested in understanding how you would take these—what I think are first-rate—is a first-rate work plan for the first year and think it can be implemented, given what we know now or don't know now about Mr. Trump's first half of the hundred days.  I mean, for example, if you take the sustain and broaden US-China collaboration on climate change, right, the Chinese are now saying that they—they are positioning themselves to take leadership in that. This is something that the administration wants to downplay with the US or appears to want to downplay with the US First Policy. So how would you think that this can be implemented, given that perspective?

SCHELL: Well, alas, climate change, after a lot of effort on both sides, came to be the keystone of the arch of US-China collaboration under Obama.  Now that keystone has been pulled out, in effect, by Trump.  So not only do we have no plausible remedy between the two greatest emitters of greenhouse gases, the US and China, for climate change, but we've also lost the key piece of the US-China kind of collaboration plan.


SCHELL: So the question is—and I don't think it's coming back.  I think that's—it would be a hot day in hell, and it will be, before we get that piece back in Washington.  But that's why I think something like Korea, it's a long shot.  But if the US and China could get together on some large, significant issue, it would have a very salutary effect, not only on the issue, but on the relationship, which now is teetering, because it doesn't have the stabilizing forces it used to have.  It doesn't have climate change.  The US business community is increasingly sort of negative about China.  And they used to be one of the biggest boosters for getting along.  So we're in a very stressed situation right now. 

KASHMERI: And I do want to ask, and perhaps, Susan, you might want to tackle this as we wind up this interview, is that the last couple of administrations, the US has made it a point to talk about non-kinetic issues, if you will, the human rights issues, the women's rights issues, and so on. Do you think that climate is now not there to talk about those and that Mr. Trump's administration needs to make some breakthroughs in areas like - - and reciprocity before we go back to talking openly about those and pinning them to the wall to make that happen?

SHIRK:  Your question is about human rights issues?

KASHMERI: Yes, yes.

SHIRK: I don't see any sign at all that President Trump cares about human rights anywhere around the world.  So obviously, the human rights situation in China has worsened significantly.  And what we highlight in our report is that it's impacting foreigners.  And not just—of course, we always are very concerned about the restrictions on free speech and religion and everything else of Chinese people, including torture.  But we know, and in the report, we highlight, the impact, direct impact, not just spillovers, but direct impact, on American organization, American universities, American journalists, academics.  And that's where we suggest we should really be quite firm and use visa policies, among others, to push back and to suggest to Chinese side that, you know, we need to have greater reciprocity in this area.  Because if we put barriers between our two peoples, our two societies, in the way the current Chinese leadership is doing, that's going to make it very, very difficult to maintain a foundation for a decent relationship between the two countries.

KASHMERI: You've been listening to a conversation with Miss Susan Shirk, chair, 21st Century China Center, Research Professor at the University of California San Diego, School of Public Policy and Strategy, and Mr. Orville Schell, authorized director of the Center on US China Relations and Asia Society. Thank you both. This is Sarwar Kashmeri, on behalf of Carnegie Corporations of New York, thank you for listening.           

Diffusion is the podcast of Carnegie Corporation of New York, promoting the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding around issues of peace, education and democracy.