The Top Ten US Questions about China in the Year of the Ox

February 11, 2021 | 11:08 pm
Macau Photo Agency/unpslash
Gregory Kulacki
East Asia Project Manager

As we begin the Year of the Ox and a new US administration settles into office, China looms large in the US imagination. Many people seem worried about the future of the US relationship with one of the world’s largest countries, where nearly one-fifth of humanity appears to be enjoying a growing economy and improving technology under a communist government.

UCS hosted an event to talk about What’s Up With China and invited our 500,000 members and supporters to submit their most pressing questions. Here are the top ten.

Question 10: What can be done about the Chinese government’s violations of human rights in Xinjiang and Tibet?

No matter what the historical, sociological or political circumstances are, or how difficult China’s economic and governance problems may be, there is no justification for the Chinese government’s repression of the people in Xinjiang and Tibet, who are, as the US government recognizes, citizens of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Calling attention to political repression is important. It provides solace, hope and a sense of solidarity to the oppressed. And there is a possibility that US expressions of concern could eventually lead the Chinese Communist Party leadership to change its repressive policies in Xinjiang and Tibet.

However, the current US tendency to characterize US-China relations as a competition between “great powers” may blunt the impact of US expressions of concern for the people of these two regions. US efforts to discuss PRC human rights violations could, in this context, be misinterpreted as a US strategy to score points in battle for global influence. A less competitive and more cooperative approach to US-China relations would allow for more productive bilateral conversations about human rights.


Question 9: Why is the Chinese government intervening in Hong Kong and how should the United States government respond?

The United Kingdom demanded Hong Kong as a reparation after defeating the Qing Dynasty in the Opium War of 1840. The UK ruled Hong Kong, undemocratically, as a British crown colony for the next 156 years. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher agreed to return the island to the PRC in September 1984. The formal transfer took place on July 1, 1997. The United States government recognizes Hong Kong is a part of the PRC.

China and the UK signed a Joint Declaration that called for the promulgation of a basic law to guide how Hong Kong would be governed after the handover. The Chinese government claims its imposition of a new security law, and the actions undertaken to enforce that law, comport with the basic law. UK officials claim it is a violation of China’s international obligations under the Joint Declaration. Who gets to interpret the basic law? The basic law vests that power in the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, which passed the new security law for Hong Kong.

As with human rights violations in other parts of the PRC, US expressions of concern are important sources of support for the victims and may lead to positive change if these entreaties to respect universal human rights are not seen as part of a competition for global influence.


Question 8: Is China stealing US intellectual property?

Yes, and quite a lot of it. There are innumerable examples that include everything from gigantic construction equipment to snippets of computer code. Official US estimates claim Chinese IP theft costs US companies between 250 and 600 billion dollars per year. The PRC government appears to be allowing Chinese companies to appropriate foreign intellectual property in violation of its agreements with foreign governments.

IP theft isn’t a new way to get ahead. It has been a part of intellectual and commercial life from time immemorial. The United States government adopted the same nonchalant attitude towards IP theft during the heyday of its industrial development in the late 19th century.


Question 7: Will the new administration change US economic policy towards China?

No one can predict the future. China’s communist leaders began pursuing new economic policies intended to make the PRC less dependent on the existing international financial system after it suddenly collapsed in 2008. The Obama administration responded with new trade policies intended to reshape international trade in ways that might encourage China to rethink its new policies. President Trump chose tariffs and other trade barriers as part of a strategy to decouple the US and Chinese economies. The current expectation is that the incoming administration may adopt some combination of the two policies pursued by its recent predecessors.


Question 6: How does the US-China relationship affect global progress on climate change?

PRC leaders will continue to act aggressively to put China’s economy and society on a more sustainable and climate-friendly path whether US-China relations improve or not. They believe choosing that path serves their interests, both domestically and internationally. Greater US-China cooperation would, most likely, address the climate problem more effectively than making it another area of US-China competition.


Question 5: Is China a leader or a laggard on environmental protection?

It is difficult to say. China came late to the industrial revolution and progressed more slowly, until recently. Chinese public awareness of environmental problems lags behind other nations but the PRC government is investing considerable resources in environmental education. The Chinese Communist Party has a high degree of control over China’s economy and Chinese society and is using its authority to improve China’s environment. At the same time, however, the party’s repression of free speech and independent research limits public participation. The lack of an independent judiciary creates opportunities for powerful interests to subvert environmental laws.


Question 4: What is China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” and how does it affect Chinese and US relations with Africa and other parts of the world?

The “Belt and Road Initiative” is a political term used to describe a set of Chinese economic policies meant to integrate China with the rest of the world. Transportation infrastructure projects are a central part of the initiative. Many observers, inside and outside of China, describe these projects as an attempt to reconstruct the ancient Silk Road trading routes that connected Europe, Asia and Africa.

Relations between the PRC and Africa predate the Belt and Road Initiative by many decades. The votes of newly independent African nations, freed from European colonial rule, gave the PRC the majority in the UN General Assembly it needed to reclaim China’s seat in the United Nations from the rival Chinese government on Taiwan in 1971. PRC colleges and universities awarded tens of thousands of scholarships to African students in the 1980s and 1990s. Many of the graduates now play influential roles in African governments and economies.

There is no need for the United States to compete with China in Africa. It can utilize the infrastructure China has helped to develop to complement Chinese investments in a variety of areas to the benefit of all parties. Making Africa a political and economic battleground in a global competition between China and the United States, and compelling African governments to choose sides, would be counterproductive.


Question 3: How can the United States have a less confrontational and more productive relationship with China?

There are three important steps the United States can take to improve US-China relations. The first is to stop seeing the relationship as a zero-sum contest between so-called “great powers.” This perspective, which is a product of abstract debates among students of international relations theory, presumes there must be a winner and a loser, which is a recipe for conflict and war.

The second step is to base the US-China relationship on clarity rather than ambiguity. The US-China agreement on Taiwan is the foundation of the diplomatic relationship between the PRC and the United States established in 1979. The US executive branch has not been honest with the US Congress and the US public about the commitments it made to PRC leaders on the status of Taiwan. Successive US presidents told Chinese leaders the US recognizes Taiwan is a part of China, but then told Congress and the US public the issue was unresolved. Tension over Taiwan is the single most important reason for the military buildup in East Asia. Honest and transparent negotiations about how to solve the Taiwan issue in a way that satisfies all parties is a prerequisite for peace in the region.

The third step is for the US government is to break with the past. Since the late 19th century, US China policy has been based on the presumption that the United States could help reform China in one way or another. The US government and the US public need to recognize that China is not theirs to change. US officials need to build a working relationship with the China they see in front of them rather than a China they hope to see in the future.


Question 2: Why are there disputes with China over sovereign claims in the South China Sea?

The territorial disputes in the South China Sea go back thousands of years. Every nation with competing claims has taken steps that have troubled the others. PRC claims have been public knowledge since the PRC published its first official map in 1955. It is only in recent years that Chinese economic development has brought these disputes into greater focus.

One important source of tension is control over the very productive fisheries in the South China Sea. Rising Chinese incomes increased Chinese demand for seafood. This led to a significant expansion of Chinese commercial fishing, and greater use of the Chinese coast guard to protect Chinese fishing in disputed waters.

The growing military competition between the United States and China also led to a dramatic uptick in the activity of US and Chinese naval forces in the region. Differing interpretations of the international laws governing what defines territorial waters are a complicating factor. China has been building up atolls in the region to bolster its sovereign claims.

Promoting negotiations between all the contesting states is the best way to solve territorial disputes and to manage the fishery.


Question 1: How great is the risk of war between China and the United States?

The risk of war between the United States and China is greater than at any time since the Taiwan Strait Crisis of the 1950s. For a number of reasons, Taiwan is, once again, becoming a source of acrimony that could lead to a military conflict.

The key question is whether Taiwan, officially named the Republic of China (ROC), will seek a formal declaration of independence from China. The PRC government passed an anti-secession law that says if “possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means.” PRC leaders believe the present government on Taiwan, led by President Tsai Ying-wen, is unwilling to negotiate in good faith based on past PRC-ROC agreements. PRC leaders could interpret Tsai’s unwillingness to accept those past agreements, and her assertion that Taiwan is already an independent country, as fulfilling that legal condition. Should PRC leaders decide to act upon that interpretation, US leaders may feel compelled, under the terms of a US domestic law called the Taiwan Relations Act, to use non-peaceful means to try to stop them.

The United States and China would be at war over Taiwan.

Both nations are currently preparing for a war over the status of Taiwan if it becomes necessary. Both sides also have nuclear weapons. China declared it will never use them first under any circumstances, but US policy allows for the first use of nuclear weapons if victory cannot be assured by other means. China has promised to retaliate if struck first. So, a nuclear war between China and the United States over the status of Taiwan, while unlikely, is possible.

The featured image in this blog is courtesy of Macau Photo Agency/unpslash

Posted in: Global Security

Tags: China, Taiwan

About the author

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Gregory Kulacki collects information and conducts analysis on security problems in East Asia. He uses that information and analysis to facilitate constructive dialogue between scientists, scholars and legislators from the United States, China, Japan and South Korea who seek solutions to security problems that do not depend on the use or threat to use nuclear weapons.