Session Three: Lunch Time Dialogue: U.S.-China Relationship: Where Shall We Go?

Ezra Vogel, Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus, Harvard University

Mark Wu, Henry L. Stimson Professor, Harvard Law School

On the second day of the 2019 9th Annual US-China Health Summit, Yuanli Liu and Sally Wang Liang welcomed the leading experts, Professors Ezra Vogel and Mark Wu, to share their dialogue on the development of the U.S.-China relationship. Professors Vogel and Wu come to us with extensive backgrounds in East Asian studies. Professor Vogel is the Henry Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus at Harvard University, and the recipient of the Harvard Graduate School Centennial Medal for his contribution to society. He served as Director of Harvard’s East Asian Research Center (1972-1977) and served again when it was later known as the Fairbank Center (1995-1999); director of Undergraduate Concentration in East Asian Studies (1972-1989); and National Intelligence Officer for East Asia at the National Intelligence Council (1993-1995). Professor Wu is the Henry L. Stimson Professor at Harvard Law School and recipient of the Albert M. Sacks-Paul A. Freund Award for teaching excellence. He is a Faculty Director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society and serves on the Faculty Advisory Committees of the East Asian Legal Studies Program, as well as the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies, and the Steering Committee for Harvard’s Asia Center.

Professor Wu initiated the conversation with an introduction to U.S.-China relations by asking what developments contributed to the current climate and tension. After all, only a decade ago, most people would not have predicted that U.S.-China relations would have deteriorated to its condition today. Professor Vogel’s response involved two parts. The first pointed towards the sudden progression of China’s rise to power. China’s development has very much been in the open from the start, and while there may have been an occasional occurrence where a Chinese company took some secrets without giving proper royalties, there were minimal complaints, as the U.S. was not too concerned. However, now that China has become such a strong power, the U.S. has come to take a more serious issue. His second point addresses a similar vein regarding China’s military power as a perceived threat to the U.S. Not only has China grown to the point of being competitive in terms of size and economic power, China has now also developed considerably in terms of military strength. Furthermore, to add to the shock factor as the U.S. perceives China to be a military rival, political opportunists add oil to the fire by speaking out.

Professor Wu commented additionally that China and the U.S. have very different framings of the current situation. On the one hand, China perceives the U.S.-China trade war problem as that of an economic issue, with questions regarding how to deal with China’s rise as a trade power and what to expect as China surpasses the U.S. as both a trade power and on an economic basis. On the other hand, the U.S. seems to be more concerned about the divergence in either country’s core value systems. Particularly in recent years, as China has turned away from converging towards Western liberal values, the main question the U.S. now faces, is what change there should be with regards to attitudes toward China. While China’s framing appears to leave room for U.S.-China cooperation, on the basis of separating economic concerns from U.S.-China relations, the U.S. framing seems to suggest that distrust in areas including economy (and by extrapolation, healthcare) are derived from an underlying distrust due to differing value systems. In fact, this perspective, Professor Vogel suggested, is a reflection of a world made smaller by technological advancements and rapid communication transport. Industry has transformed into a much larger international economic structure. Consequently, the expansion in competitors for industry, whether via patents, rights, business, or job opportunities, has triggered a wave of nationalism in the U.S., particularly with a mindset of protecting itself.

However, this is not the first time the U.S. has experienced domestic difficulties and a rise of nationalism. Previously in the 1970s-80s, there were seemingly similar circumstances when Japan was experiencing its period of rapid development. Professor Wu then raised the question regarding whether the situations between the current U.S.-China relations and that of the 1970s-80s U.S.-Japan are comparable. In response, Professor Vogel expanded on his concern that the current situation is much worse, and specifically for three reasons. Firstly, after the 1980s, Japan’s economic bubble burst, therefore was no longer considered to be a threat to the U.S. Secondly, the U.S. and Japan were able to rely on previous defense relationships when Japan had been a political ally against the Soviet Union to buffer the economic condition. And thirdly, in contrast to the differences in politics in the U.S. and China, the U.S. and Japan shared a democratic system, such that there was not as much as a political reaction.

As a result, Professors Vogel and Wu conclude that U.S.-China relations do not look very optimistic going forward into the next decade. Although it will slow down, China’s modest 5-6% estimated annual growth is predicted to continue over the next ten to fifteen years, during which China is expected to surpass and continue upset the U.S. as an economic rival. Professor Vogel suggests that the U.S. consider becoming more willing to learn from, accept, and work with China in its adjustment of attitudes as opposed to the ones shared today. Additionally, he voices his concerns regarding China’s extensive international investments that could prove to be difficult to manage and maintain as the pace of the country’s growth slows. Together Professors Vogel and Wu agreed on many points throughout their discussion, and ultimately shared in the hopes that the U.S. and China can nurture a cooperative relationship to face common problems and share resources derived from differing economic and value systems. Thank you to these leading scholars for carrying the responsibility of and sharing with us an objective and thoughtful framework within which to analyze the unique U.S.-China relations as we proceed into the future.

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