Over three years into Trump’s presidency, U.S.-China trade and economic issues remain unresolved while security concerns are creeping into the bilateral agenda. In this podcast, Paul Haenle spoke with Susan Thornton, former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, on the trajectory for bilateral ties and the potential for a crisis in U.S.-China relations.
Thornton said the firm Cold War era rationale for U.S.-China engagement collapsed following the breakup of the Soviet Union. Since then, successive U.S. administrations have struggled to put forward an enduring foundation for bilateral ties. She highlighted the 2008 financial crisis as a key breaking point in the relationship, after which Beijing increasingly questioned U.S. global leadership. China has yet to concretely outline its own vision for the international system, Thornton argued, and the United States should take immediate steps to reform and preserve the current global order. Thornton contended that Washington and Beijing should quickly agree on an initial trade agreement that ensures China’s further reform and opening. If the trade war were to morph into a technology war soon after its resolution, it would only cement China’s fears that the United States is trying to undermine and contain it. On North Korea, Thornton urged the Trump administration to make every last effort to continue diplomacy despite the fact that future negotiations will be more difficult due to Kim’s apparent unwillingness to give up his nuclear deterrent. Thornton pointed to Taiwan and the South China Sea as regional security issues that have receded to the background of the bilateral relationship. She advocated for the Trump administration to maintain regular dialogues and working-level discussions to ensure the appropriate crisis management mechanisms are in place in the event of a crisis.
Paul Haenle holds the Maurice R. Greenberg Director’s Chair at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy based at Tsinghua University in Beijing. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and U.S.-China relations.
Susan Thornton is former acting assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.