How the U.S. Can Address Its Complex Relationship With China in 2021

Addressing the complex relationship between the U.S. and China will require a concerted effort to both compete and cooperate for mutually beneficial outcomes.


Air Date: May 19, 2021

Moderator: Kewsong Lee, Chief Executive Officer, The Carlyle Group

Featured Guests: Charlene Barshefsky, Chair, Parkside Global Advisors, Stephen Hadley, Principal, Hadley, Gates & Manuel, LLC

Relations between the United States and China have been tumultuous over the last decade, especially in recent years. Addressing this complex relationship will require a concerted international effort to cooperate and achieve mutually beneficial outcomes for both countries.

During the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Global Forum on Economic Recovery,Kewsong Lee, CEO of The Carlyle Group, spoke with experts about America’s current relationship with China and how it will impact the U.S. going forward.

The Current State of the U.S. Relationship with China Is Complex

“I think it's very difficult to pin one word on the nature of the [U.S and China] relationship,” said Ambassador Charlene Barshefsky, senior international partner at WilmerHale. “China has been described as a strategic rival, a competitive threat, an enemy.”

“China presents myriad challenges to the United States, to Western democracies and, generally and economically, many countries in the world … [but] zero-sum mindsets are highly disruptive,” Barshefsky continued. “Both countries need time. China needs time to further strengthen itself; it needs time toward its goal of self-sufficiency. The U.S. needs time to strengthen its economy … [and] its social fabric.”

Moving Forward With China Will Require Both Strategic Competition and Cooperative Action

Stephen Hadley, principal at Rice, Hadley, Gates & Manuel LLC, noted that a mix of competition and cooperation will be the key to moving America forward in its relationship with China. He reiterated points made by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, stating that the U.S. will compete where it should and cooperate where it can with China in the years ahead.

“In the area of competition, the trick is going to be to separate our economies in the high-tech areas where we need to, and where China has said that it wants to in order to be [more] self-sufficient, but not let that decoupling go across the board — so there still is cross investment and trade where it makes sense for the two countries,” said Hadley.

“[In] areas of cooperation they've talked about, they want to do it,” Hadley continued. “Everybody knows the list — pandemics, climate change, macroeconomic issues [and] the like. The real challenge there is to stop talking about cooperation and start doing … concrete cooperation on things that are important, that send a message … that there's actually something in it for both peoples.”

U.S.-China Relations Isn’t Contingent On Europe’s Involvement

“The United States may find, even with the best of intention on the part of all parties, that cooperation falls short of achieving particular goals,” Barshefsky said.

She explained five reasons why Europe might think of China differently from the United States or be less capable of joining the United States’ effort against China.

“First, Europe has a degree of export dependency on China,” Barshefsky stated. “Second, [there are] disagreements within the EU itself.”

Third, she said, “threat perceptions differ.” While the U.S. might feel at security risk from China, Europe does not feel that same imminent threat, as they’re not positioned in the Pacific.

“Fourth … Europe wants to embrace strategic autonomy,” she continued. And last, “The U.S. may want to retain its status as the sole superpower … [but] Europe is not going to fight with China to preserve America’s unique role in the world.”


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