- Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center Newsletter

U.S., China Experts Confront New Challenges Amid Uncertainties

| Summer 2016

For nearly a decade, Harvard Kennedy School has contributed to mutual understanding between China and the United States through an annual series of dialogues between Harvard scholars and top Chinese academics. The latest collaboration in this series on U.S.-China Richard Rosecrance, director of the Project on U.S.-China Relations.

While the U.S.-China relationship was the official theme of the 2016 conference, an unexpected secondary theme quickly arose: structural changes, and the uncertainty they are creating on both sides of the Pacific.

Chinese and American experts alike stressed the enduring importance of a close U.S.-China relationship amid a world beset by new economic, sociopolitical, and technological forces. While previous dialogues had stressed opportunities for cooperation within the U.S.-China relationship, there now seemed to be a recognition that the ground under the relationship was shifting, and that both sides have to find new footing.

The new challenges facing the relationship were clear. Growing economic inequality around the globe and rising voices of nationalism and anti-free trade populism loomed large. China’s steady shifting of the balance of power in Asia inspired fears of “Thucydides Trap.” President Xi Jinping’s centralization of power cast doubt over the future shape and character of the Chinese political system.

Regardless of ongoing economic reforms, a majority of conference participants argued that slowing Chinese growth was more a result of structural economic forces than of Chinese policy. Slower growth, they contended, would likely become the new normal regardless of policy decisions in Beijing. Others, meanwhile, also feared that the world may have reached “peak trade,” a development that would have profound global implications.

On the defense side, several noted that the rise of non-state actors and new capabilities in cyber warfare are creating uncharted waters for policymakers and military planners in both countries.

And, while North Korea and its leader remain as mercurial as ever, the hermit kingdom appears to be entering a worrying new phase of nuclear weaponization, with the potential for more than 100 weapons by 2020.

The sense that new structural forces were pushing both nations in uncertain directions was a common thread in the comments of almost every speaker and also permeated conference participants’ informal conversations. “The world is running away with both of us,” one Chinese expert warned.

But rather than inspiring confrontation, such unstable ground seemed fertile for cooperation.

The Chinese delegation noted that North Korean nuclear weapons posed a risk not just to Seoul and Tokyo, but also to Beijing. This risk has caused China to prioritize denuclearizing the Korean peninsula over stability for the first time, they said, a stance which makes further cooperation with the U.S. more plausible.

There was also broad consensus on the possibility of progress on disputes in the South China Sea. The Chinese delegation made clear that while China claimed all of the South China Sea within its “nine-dash line” under “historical rights,” such historical rights were not automatically equivalent to sovereignty. Control of the waters within the nine-dash line, and possibly even its land features, seemed more negotiable than official comments from Beijing might lead analysts to believe.

Overall, scholars on both sides agreed that facing a host of global challenges, the U.S. and China have little choice but to work together for the maintenance of a stable and functional world order.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Levine, Nathan. U.S., China Experts Confront New Challenges Amid Uncertainties.” Belfer Center Newsletter (Summer 2016).

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