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With his inaugural visit to the Asia-Pacific region taking place just two weeks after President Xi Jinping’s elevation at the 19th Party Congress, President Donald Trump’s stop in China was among the most consequential. The United States would like to partner more closely with China on pressing issues like addressing the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. At the same time, the Trump administration has expressed concerns about China’s respect for the international rules-based order and discriminatory Chinese trade and economic policies.

Trump’s visit presented an opportunity for both sides to resolve outstanding issues and to work to position the bilateral relationship on a more sustainable footing. Carnegie–Tsinghua Center Director Paul Haenle moderated a discussion with international and Chinese scholars on the state of the U.S.-China relationship and how Washington and Beijing can continue to advance positive and constructive ties.

This panel was the first of the Carnegie Global Dialogue Series 2017-2018 and cosponsored by the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations. This event was off the record.

Discussion Highlights

  • Perceptions of Trump’s Visit to China: Panelists agreed that Trump’s visit, coming on the heels of the 19th Party Congress, afforded the U.S. administration an opportune moment to shape bilateral cooperation between the Washington and Beijing on several issues of mutual interest. However, panelists disagreed on the success of the visit. Some discussants said the state visit reflected the good will between Trump and Xi, but that little progress had been made on specific policies. One discussant argued the administration failed to capitalize on driving the relationship forward by proposing new ideas and making more requests. Another panelist specifically pointed to the lack of concrete actions taken to mitigate rising tensions with North Korea, despite the issue being a primary goal of the state visit. However, one scholar highlighted the importance of head-of-state diplomacy in the U.S.-China relationship and expressed optimism that agreements, such as the $250 billion in trade deals, reflect a promising collaboration.
  • U.S.-China Trade Relations: The trade deficit between China and the United States has been a primary focus for the Trump administration, but one discussant argued that the U.S. leadership’s concentration on trade deficits is wrong economically and self-defeating. Instead, the panelist contended that a more productive approach would be to focus on addressing the U.S. business community’s concerns over market access and technology transfer. The panelist emphasized that the administration should concentrate on reexamining and reinforcing the Bretton Woods system, with the U.S. leading the changes in the Asia-Pacific region. Another scholar suggested that the current leadership’s spotlight on the trade imbalance reflects U.S. domestic anxiety over China’s rapid rise and U.S. decline in economic growth and confidence.
  • Rising Tensions With North Korea: A majority of the conversation focused on rising tensions on the Korean peninsula, with one discussant arguing that North Korea’s nuclear program is among the most important foreign policy issues currently facing the administration. Given the potential for crisis, the scholar expressed surprise at how little progress was made during the state visit, saying the trip may have resulted in less clarity over U.S. policy toward North Korea. While the ultimate goal is denuclearization, the panelist said that the lack of a substantive roadmap, combined with mixed messages surrounding the administration’s requirements to begin diplomatic negotiations with Pyongyang, indicates the administration lacks a unified strategy. As a solution, the discussant proposed a “less for less” strategy to initiate diplomatic relations, in which the United States would agree to limit bomber test flights in exchange for North Korea ceasing missile tests over Japan and Korea.
  • China’s Red Line: Panelists also examined the potential for armed conflict as relations between the United States and North Korea continue to deteriorate. While one panelist noted that previous U.S. administrations had considered and rejected any proposals for military action, another suggested that a number of statements from current high-ranking officials could indicate a genuine belief in a credible military response. The panelists debated whether or not North Korea’s continued weapons development would lead to stronger actions from China. One panelist noted that although there is still debate between those who argue for greater cooperation with the United States and those who see North Korea as a necessary strategic buffer, there is also a growing fear within China of a potential reactor meltdown near the North Korean-Chinese border. Another panelist expressed uncertainty as to whether the Chinese government maintains a specific internal redline, but said they believed that additional missile launches in the direction of Guam would facilitate greater cooperation between China and the United States.
  • The Indo-Pacific Strategy: Panelists said assessing the Trump administration’s new Indo-Pacific strategy is difficult, due to a lack of details surrounding it. One discussant said the apparent strategy is inadequate, claiming that it was based on a need to appear as though the administration is asserting leadership in the region. The panelist also criticized the administration’s failure to fully brief members of the U.S. alliance system on a more thorough policy proposal and long-term vision. When discussing the strategy’s reception in China, one discussant noted that although the Indo-Pacific strategy is oriented toward the maritime domain, a sensitive issue for China, they do not believe that the Chinese government currently views the initiative as a containment strategy.

Douglas H. Paal

Douglas H. Paal is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He previously served as vice chairman of JPMorgan Chase International (2006-2008) and was an unofficial U.S. representative to Taiwan as director of the American Institute in Taiwan (2002-2006).

Qian Liwei

Qian Liwei is deputy director and research professor at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). His research focuses on U.S.-China Relations.

James M. Acton

James M. Action is co-director of the Nuclear Policy Program and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Yang Wenjing

Yang Wenjing is a research professor and chief of U.S. foreign policy at the CICIR. Her research focuses on U.S. foreign policy, security in the Asia-Pacific, and U.S. policy toward North Korea.

Paul Haenle

Paul Haenle is the director of the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy based at Tsinghua University in Beijing. Haenle’s research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations.