U.S. – China Relations: Can We Avoid Calamity?

Each year, the National Council on U.S. – China Relations (NCUSCR) hosts a yearly U.S. – China Town Hall, with special guest former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice as the 2018 speaker. Following her webcast, CSCC was privileged to have an esteemed former diplomat share his own take on the state and future of Sino-American relations.

Douglas Spelman, Senior Advisor at the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States housed at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC, is a seasoned Foreign Service Officer with postings to Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Taipei, and Shanghai among other cities and was the interpreter for the Chinese ping-pong team in 1972 that created the theme of “ping pong diplomacy.” Spelman came to Penn and discussed a difficult time in China – U.S. relations, noting topics like current trade “tensions,” flashpoints such as the South China Sea, East China Sea, and Taiwan, as well as China’s growing influence inside the United States.

Most notably, Spelman discouraged the current American administration’s use of tariffs to negotiate with the Chinese, writing them off as a “blunt instrument” that has not been effective in advancing a constructive relationship. In his words, tariffs do not “itch where it scratches,” causing collateral damage to American allies also affected by trade barriers, as well as Americans at home who suffer by paying higher prices for goods. 

How then, should we deal with China’s growing international power? Spelman highlighted the canonical clash between powers that are rising or have “risen” (China) and established power (the United States); he suggests that the United States should embrace the rules of the World Trade Organization and band together with its allies rather than alienate them to create a united front that would effectively engage Chinese interests.

The seasoned statesman concluded his remarks claiming that the question is not whether there are problems between the United States and China, but how to deal with them. He stressed the importance of preserving the relationship that has been established in the past 30 to 35 years, claiming that both the United States and China are too big and too powerful to entrench themselves in conflict.

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