Susan A. Thornton on U.S.-China Relations Under Biden

Susan A. Thornton is a retired senior U.S. diplomat with almost 30 years of experience with the U.S. State Department in Eurasia and East Asia.  She is currently a Senior Fellow and Research Scholar at the Yale University Law School Paul Tsai China Center, Director of the Forum on Asia-Pacific Security at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution. Until July 2018, Thornton was Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Department of State and led East Asia policy making amid crises with North Korea, escalating trade tensions with China, and a fast-changing international environment.  In previous State Department roles, she worked on U.S. policy toward China, Korea and the former Soviet Union and served in leadership positions at U.S. embassies in Central Asia, Russia, the Caucasus and China. Thornton received her MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins SAIS and her BA from Bowdoin College in Economics and Russian. She serves on several non-profit boards, speaks Mandarin and Russian, and lives on an organic farm in Lisbon, Maine.
Qingyang (Grace) Wang CMC '21 interviewed Ambassador Susan A. Thornton on February 18, 2021.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Ambassador Susan A. Thornton.

How would you characterize the overall relationship between the US and China now? What are the main challenges in US-China relations that President Biden faces currently?

The US-China relationship is facing some of its biggest challenges since the normalization of relations in 1979. This is due to a variety of factors. First, there is a structural element. China is a rising power. The US, having been the dominant power in the world, feels threatened by China nipping at its heels and the US is trying to defend its place in the international system. The US is feeling insecure, even apart from the structural factor of Chinas rising power. There are a lot of issues that are coming to the fore that haven't been adequately grappled with and are eroding the basis for a more positive relationship. China's increasing military might is pressuring countries in the region and the US has seen itself as the security provider in that region. Second, new technologies are moving ahead by leaps and bounds and the US and other actors haven't yet figured out how to regulate and control them. Third, China's newfound wealth and outward investment in the world have made a big splash and have caused a lot of change in the current landscape. At the same time, the US is retreating in infrastructure and development assistance programs. 

Moreover, it is very hard for the two countries to grapple with the structural problems and domestic political transitions in their own relationship and in their relationship to the international system. Therefore, Biden's central challenge is to fashion a new purpose for American power in the world. It is a daunting challenge to forge a consensus in the US body politic around that new purpose. This new purpose needs to be centered around strengthening the international system in terms of various international institutions and plugging the holes in the international system. Ultimately the international system is going to be what constrains the naked use of national power that all the countries in the system fear, especially with respect to China's rise. The other part of that challenge is getting China to buy into the international system. The Chinese need to convince other countries, and the United States in particular, that the use of their newfound power is subject to constraints in the international system. 

Bidens administration has already declared that they do not have plans currently to lift the tariffs on China that were imposed by the Trump Administration. What are the reasons? How will Biden deal with trade relations with China?

This gets back to some issues in our domestic politics. Structural changes in the U.S. economy haven't been dealt with in a forthright way. Populations of countries in Asia look at trade as a net positive because, over the last 30 or 40 years, these countries have grown very wealthy through export-oriented economies and integration of supply chains which fuels this dramatic positive change. But over that same time period, US workers have not experienced that same positive change. Americans are not convinced that the trade benefits are accruing to the vast majority of American workers. This is the fundamental problem that Biden has to deal with. No one has really made the case that foreign trade and foreign investment are benefiting the vast majority of Americans who are working in the economy at home. So the tariffs are a reflection of that. All the experts agree that the tariffs haven't worked and that they have only damaged US businesses and the US economy. At the same time though, there's a feeling that trade has been unfair to America and that American workers have been disadvantaged. One of the only tools in response is to levy tariffs. Even though the tariffs aren't working, people feel like the US government has to do something to level the playing field and try to get the Chinese government to pay attention to our concerns. That is why Biden is saying he's not going to lift the tariffs. I do think that there will be discussions between the US and China about how to fix a lot of the trade problems that have surfaced. The Chinese government realizes that these problems are real and they need to work with other countries seriously to address them and need to show more progress. That's the direction trade relations will head. Tariffs will eventually be addressed in that process, but certainly not at the beginning. 

What is Bidens plan for Taiwan? How can Biden balance American support for Taiwan with his needs for working with China on vital global issues such as climate change and nonproliferation? 

Because there has been a lot of attention paid to the Taiwan Cross-Strait issue recently, there have been a lot of news articles and a lot of rhetoric from governments on all sides. But if you look at what the Biden administration needs to do, what the Chinese government is interested in recently, and what the authorities in Taipei are trying to do, the movement is towards stabilization. All of the actors may not have come to this conclusion yet, but all three governments are going to find that they don't want to have a crisis over Taiwan in the coming period, if ever. It will be good for all three governments to move cross-Strait tensions into a more stable period. Certainly, US support for Taiwan was ramped up under the Trump administration in the military, diplomatic and political realms. There should be a temporary leveling off, not in support for Taiwan, but in dramatic demonstrations of political and military support that go beyond things done in the past. The Biden administration is not going to be that interested in pushing the envelope there. Hopefully we'll see a diminution of military activity around the Strait, which causes tensions to be elevated. What the US government is most interested in is maintaining the status quo, namely maintaining Taiwan as a separate functioning democracy and polity with a vibrant economy, and not pushing for de jure independence. The US needs to persuade Beijing that it is not interested in supporting any kind of move toward Taiwan independence. Hopefully, they will find an equilibrium that can work for both China and the US that would allow this current status quo to go forward indefinitely without a crisis, which is not in the interests of any parties but could happen at any time. 

In the recent call with President Xi, President Biden mentioned his concerns over various human rights issues such as Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Can we expect the US to take further actions on these issues?

It's important to recognize that the problems in Xinjiang and the encroachment on Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" are both issues that cannot be solved by the United States. These are issues that China itself will have to resolve.  Although they're not being handled well now, it will be in China’s interest to improve its approach. Certainly, the US has strong views and is trying to find ways to respond to what it sees as the inadequate response of Beijing. The US, as we know, has already issued sanctions and all kinds of other policies that are attempts to show that the US is doing something about this in response to people's unhappiness. However, these responses are not going to help move the policy in a direction that's going to be better. Instead, they serve the function of symbolically showing dissatisfaction or pointing out and highlighting that Beijing is not measuring up to the standards that it's committed to in various international conventions.  I hope that the Chinese government will alter these policies, but it might not happen soon, and we have to recognize that. In the meantime, the international community will keep up the pressure that will hopefully move Beijing in a direction of addressing these problems. 

What kind of cooperation can we expect between China and the US under the Biden Presidency?  Where do you see tensions potentially rising even further?

First of all, we have to recognize that the Biden administration is going to have to spend an enormous amount of energy and focus on domestic issues. Especially in the beginning of the administration, Biden must address the fallout from the COVID pandemic, which is an urgent crisis. The US can cooperate, and should cooperate, with China on a COVID-19 response. China, the US, and many other countries have developed vaccines. While we are all working through the WHO and the Gavi COVAX facility to make sure there are vaccines available for other countries in the world, that cooperation hasn't been very smooth and the entire pandemic has been politicized. It is going to be a black mark on humanity that we allowed that to happen when we look back on this. I hope we can overcome political differences and start working diligently in the international system through the WHO to de-politicize the pandemic, and join forces to make sure people get vaccinated, end lockdowns, and restore international travel. There are so many things that need to be done. The second area that is ripe for cooperation with China in the Biden administration is on climate change mitigation. There is going to be a meeting or a summit held by the Biden administration in April regarding climate change on Earth Day. That goes to show even amid COVID and an economic fallout, Biden is not going to neglect the most glaring challenge that we all face-- climate change.  In Biden's phone calls with foreign leaders, climate change has been at the top of his list of things to discuss in almost all calls. And I'm sure he spoke about it with President Xi on their long phone call as well. 

In terms of tensions, we will always have tensions over the economic competition between the two largest economies in the world. Inevitably, there will always be a lot of problems. The two countries have two different legal systems, economic systems, and governing systems resulting in a lot of problems that will crop up. These problems need to be worked on without blaming each other and without politicization. The issue of technology causes populations to feel apprehension or insecurity. A lot of people don't know what the future of work looks like, how to regulate technology, and how to manage it in their lives. So, to some extent we're blaming other countries for this, but the issue is really about the technology itself. I can see managing technology and technological change to be an area of cooperation for the two countries, but at the same time it can be an area of tension. Right now it seems like it's going to be an area of tension, but I hope that we could turn it around because technology is being misunderstood at the moment. 

With regards to North Korea, there should be some level of coordination, but not really cooperation. The Biden administration hasn't had a chance to settle on what kind of steps it will take with respect to North Korea. This is obviously a long-term problem. It's not something that a four-year administration in the United States is going to resolve completely. It is necessary to change the lens of time with respect to the North Korea issue and work out a process that can be durable. Trying to open up channels of communication that aren't constantly being cut with North Korea is an important goal in the near to medium term. Certainly, China would be a part of that. China itself has had ups and downs with North Korea, but it is an incredibly important regional country for North Korea. China shares a long border and has a major effect on North Korea's economy. To the extent that North Korea is isolated in the international system, China is its lifeline. Including China in the discussions and deliberations and thinking about how to handle the issue will be a feature of the Biden administrations approach. But again, this isn't the issue that the Biden Administration wants to be dealing with in the near term because there are many other problems. Whether Kim Jong-un will let the US take the time in coming up with an approach is another question. He tends to have his own timetable and his own way of getting attention.

Qingyang (Grace) Wang CMC '21Student Journalist

David Lienemann, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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