Understanding Trump and U.S.-China Policy: A Critical Moment

Asia Society’s Orville Schell discusses the tensions and six high-priority issues.

A task force of China experts convened by the Asia Society in New York had been working on a report of recommendations for U.S.-China policy for more than a year when Donald Trump was elected president. All the scholars’ work had to be re-written, said Orville Schell, who co-chaired the report, at a Feb. 15 talk at Columbia Law School. 

“We had looked at American policy as being relatively static but needing some changes, while it was China that had taken a much more stark evolution,” said Schell, the Arthur Ross Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. “But suddenly, with Trump’s election, everything got thrown out of balance because both sides of this equation now were in a state of uncertainty.”  

This idea of the two countries being “out of balance” is at the core of the newly-published report, U.S. Policy Toward China: Recommendations for a New Administration, which emphasizes the importance of engagement and collaboration between the two countries, despite their substantial differences. The U.S.-China relationship has reached a fork in the road where instead of their interests slowly converging, they’re beginning to diverge, said Schell, the author of ten books on China and a Fellow at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University. The relationship is being further strained by a White House that is generally antagonistic toward their engagement, he noted at the event just a few days after President Trump told President of China Xi Jinping that the U.S. would honor the “One China” policy, easing a major source of tension.

The report offers six “high priority” issues to focus on in Trump’s first year (as published in the executive summary):

  • Work with China to halt North Korea’s nuclear and missile program 

  • Reaffirm U.S. commitments to Asia 

  • Deploy effective tools to address the lack of reciprocity in U.S. trade and investment relations with China 

  • Intensify efforts to encourage a principled, rules-based approach to the management and settlement of Asia-Pacific maritime disputes 

  • Respond to Chinese civil society policies that harm US organizations, companies, individuals, and the broader relationship 

  • Sustain and broaden US-China collaboration on global climate change

In order to address these issues, the U.S.-China relationship must have a foundation of equality, reciprocity, and equity, Schell said, “which is the aspiration of every country in its relations with every other country and should be an aspiration between our two countries. Because if we don’t have [those three elements], we’re not going to get along on other things like North Korea, climate change, Iran, pandemics – critical global issues that only the U.S. and China can really resolve.” 

The next few months will be very telling, Schell said. The U.S.-China relationship needs “a kind of containment vessel—it’s radioactive, it’s leaking, it’s dangerous, it could blow up,” he noted.

“This is a moment. The relationship will be recast. How will it be recast, that’s the question.”

The event was sponsored by the Law School’s Center for Chinese Legal Studies (CCLS) and the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. Schell was joined by Columbia professor and task force member Andrew Nathan. Columbia Law School Professor Ben Liebman, director of CCLS, introduced the speakers and moderated questions from students. 

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Posted on February 21, 2017

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