On January 31st the State Department’s Foreign Policy Classroom held an event entitled, “Current Foreign Policy Challenges and Opportunities in U.S.-China Relations.” The Foreign Policy Classroom is a recurring program intended for students and faculty members interested participating in dialogue with senior officials from across the Department regarding the country’s top foreign policy priorities. This particular panel included Julie Petruzzi, Senior Coordinator, Strategic & Economic Dialogue, and Deji Okediji, Bilateral Political Affairs Unit Chief, Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs.
With years of experience working in China, Okediji initiated the discussion by addressing the implications of China’s rise, as well as how the U.S. is working to improve bilateral relations with the Chinese. As he explained, the State Department is constantly working towards improved engagement with both the central government, as well as with the citizens of China. Regional disputes, intellectual property issues, and human rights concerns are just a few of the challenges that complicate the relationship between China and the U.S., and make the State Department’s goal of transparent engagement even more daunting.
Petruzzi echoed many of her colleague’s assertions, explaining that the U.S. position towards China encourages building a cooperative partnership, focusing on common interests rather than points of contention. As Petruzzi’s role in the Department concentrates mainly on the economic ties and opportunities involved in this relationship, she argued that as the investments and trade opportunities between China and the U.S. have increased exponentially, so too has the potential for political friction.
One question from the audience concerned the recent hacking incidents in various U.S. media outlets committed by unknown Chinese actors. Both Okediji and Petruzzi acknowledged the concern that such incidents have raised among U.S. leaders. The official stance of the State Department is that the U.S. is committed to working towards the goal of increased transparency with the Chinese government, as well as increased freedom of expression for Chinese citizens.
Nevertheless, hacking and cybersecurity issues are on the rise, and the U.S. must identify the best way to protect the country’s national security, whether that is through bilateral relations with the PRC, or by bringing these concerns to larger, international governing bodies.
Another student raised a question about the rise in China’s development projects in many regions of Africa, and how these projects have attracted significant criticism over human rights and environmental violations being committed under the guise of beneficial development. The panelists again expressed the Department’s stance on this issue, which holds that the U.S. welcomes China’s growing economic endeavors, though it is also dedicated to encouraging China to address and comply with important international standards related to this development. One problem, as Petruzzi explained, is that there is not much data coming from China about its African projects, and therefore the U.S. will continue to request increased transparency in this regard.
One main takeaway from this panel discussion seemed to be that China and the U.S. are reaching a new stage in their relationship, one that is characterized by increased interdependence and cooperation. The economies and societies of the two powerful nations have become intrinsically tied to one another, and in the coming years both sides must be committed to promoting mutual understanding and transparent engagement. The inherent differences between Eastern and Western philosophies about statecraft and society makes this an extremely challenging mission. Both Okediji and Petruzzi emphasized the need for programs and exchange events that bring together Chinese and American leaders, artists, students, and scientists with the goal of diminishing uncertainty and mistrust and ushering in new opportunities for collaboration and mutual growth. Current Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell recently described these efforts:
“Having marked the 40th anniversary of government-to-government ties between the U.S. and China, we both need to deepen and broaden our people’s understanding of each other. Classrooms and commerce — not conflict and confrontation — should define the future relationship between our two great nations.”
Such programs as the 100,000 Initiative, which creates opportunities for Americans to study in and about China, may prove to be integral in the future efforts between the U.S. and China. Time will tell whether future U.S.-China relations will be characterized by such mutual understanding, or if contention from cybersecurity and trade concerns will overshadow such positive efforts.