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Miller Center webinar highlights current realities, future developments to US-China relations

Scholars from the University and Fudan University in Shanghai discuss the effects of the Trump administration and make predictions about President-elect Biden’s upcoming term

The Miller Center hosted scholars from both the University and Fudan University in Shanghai, China for a two-hour long webinar on U.S.-China relations.
The Miller Center hosted scholars from both the University and Fudan University in Shanghai, China for a two-hour long webinar on U.S.-China relations.

The University’s Miller Center of Public Affairs hosted a webinar Monday night about the future of relations between the U.S. and China, arguing that the Trump administration was responsible for worsening tensions between the two countries. The webinar consisted of a panel of eight scholars and politicians. Five panelists from the Miller Center and Center for Politics at the University were joined by three panelists from the Center for American Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, China, a partner institution of the University.

U.Va. and Fudan University maintain a strong partnership that has continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Last semester, due to international travel restrictions, about 80 first-year students from China were given the opportunity to take courses at Fudan University while receiving credit at the University. The University’s “Global First” initiative, which allows first-year students to study abroad during their first semester at the University, had Fudan University as one of the exchange program sites. The “Shanghai First” program was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The event had a live audience at Fudan University but was also streamed live to a virtual audience. 

In the first of the webinar’s two panels, panelists discussed domestic politics in both countries, while the second panel discussed the future of U.S.-China relations. Syaru Shirley Lin, Compton Visiting Professor in World Politics at the Miller Center, was the moderator for the first panel while Stephen Mull, vice provost of global affairs, was the moderator for the second panel. 

During the first panel, the 2020 presidential election was a central topic of conversation, with panelists discussing election security, the transition between administrations and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol building. 

Larry Sabato, the founder and director of the University’s Center for Politics, focused on the 2020 Presidential election, discussing election security and President-elect Joe Biden’s win. He said that Trump would likely be impeached by the House, although he would not be removed from office because Republicans will likely block conviction in the Senate.

“This has been a chaotic, very disturbing, autocratic and un-American presidency,” Sabato said. “I think [President-elect] Biden is more predictable, and he is certainly more cautious.”

Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a scholar in presidential transitions, gave an overview of presidential transition proceedings. During the 11-week period between the presidential election and inauguration, the President-elect and his staff select political appointments and begin to receive daily briefings and security clearances so that the transition is as smooth as possible. 

Tenpas explained that the official in charge of funding the presidential transition between the Trump and Biden administrations did not certify the election results until Nov. 23, cutting the Biden administration’s effective transition time significantly. Despite early setbacks, Tenpas said that the Biden administration was ahead of schedule compared to previous presidential transition teams.

“I think that the United States has benefited immensely by the extensive experience that both the President-elect and his transition team have,” Tenpas said. 

Tenpas argued that because of previous experience in the White House, the Biden administration would establish more specific policy goals in relation to China. She also outlined the historically diverse political appointments of the Biden administration.

In regards to international relations, Chris Lu, Miller Center senior fellow, said that he expects the Biden administration to be more engaged with multilateralism than the Trump administration. This would include rejoining international organizations and strengthening relationships with allies. 

Lu said that a strong sense of nationalism permeates both Democratic and Republican economic policy. Lu cited promises to favor American products and bring jobs back to the United States as examples of how nationalism has dominated Biden’s platform. Because of this, it is unlikely that a free trade agreement could be reached between the U.S. and China. 

“Again, [Biden] is not using the nationalistic rhetoric of Donald Trump, but underlying all of that is many of the same themes,” Lu said. “I do think that the domestic politics within the United States make it very challenging to engage economically with many countries in that kind of free trade world that has existed in previous presidencies.”

On top of domestic politics favoring a nationalist economic policy, Lu argued that there is strong anti-Chinese sentiment in the United States that could impact Biden’s stance towards China.

The second panel focused on the future of U.S.-China relations, with scholars from both the University and Fudan University weighing in with their predictions.

Miller Center Senior Fellow Evan Feigenbaum said that under previous administrations, American security and military concerns — Taiwan, the South China Sea and military competition — did not dominate the United States’ economic relationship with China. He outlined the economic relationship as based on the flow of goods, capital, people, technology and data.  

Under the Trump administration, economic concerns have converged with security concerns which worsened relations. Feigenbaum predicted that a “tough on China” policy would continue into the Biden administration because the Democratic administration does not want to appear “weak” in front of the Republican party in regards to international relations. 

“I am deeply pessimistic about the future of U.S.- China relations,” Feigenbaum said.

Wu Xinbo, a professor at Fudan University, responded to Feigenbaum’s pessimism with a prediction that if the United States continues a “tough” policy towards China, China will in response institute a “tough” policy towards the United States by trying to reduce dependence on U.S. economic markets.

“Over reliance on the United States is a big risk that has generated a big vulnerability for China,” Xinbo said. “What China has been doing is to rely more on its domestic markets and to promote technological innovation and the internationalization of the Chinese currency.”

Xinbo said that the most important feature of the next administration would be to rebuild trust between U.S. and Chinese leaders in the next administration, so that both countries could work together to combat global climate change, the Iran Nuclear Deal and other issues. While Feigenbaum described his prediction about future relations as pessimistic, Xinbo said he was not pessimistic, but cautious.

Song Guoyou, another professor at Fudan University, said that he was hopeful that the Biden administration would improve relations with China, so that the two countries could work together on issues such as climate change. He blamed worsening relations between the two countries on the Trump administration. 

“This is the Trump administration's mistake in destroying the balance [of U.S.-China relations],” Guoyou said. “This is not Beijing’s fault.”

Feigenbaum, Xinbo and Harry Harding — another Miller Center senior fellow — all agreed that Taiwan’s sovereignty will be a central issue for the future of the U.S.-China relationship. On Jan. 9, only days before Biden is scheduled to take office, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lifted restrictions on Executive Branch travel to the island of Taiwan, a move that asserts Taiwan’s sovereignty and angered Chinese officials.  

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