Experts weigh in on the future of U.S.-China relations

Huang Ping, China’s consul general in New York, and Robert Work, former U.S. deputy secretary of defense, were among the speakers at the annual Penn China Research Symposium.

Person stands in front of podium with read banner reading "Perry World House"
Ambassador Huang Ping, China's consul general in New York, speaks at Perry World House.

The future of relations between the United States and China, the current climate of mutual distrust between the nations, and the coronavirus outbreak were among the topics discussed at the Penn China Research Symposium on Jan. 31.

Huang Ping, China’s consul general in New York, and Robert Work, former U.S. deputy secretary of defense and current Perry World House Distinguished Visiting Fellow, were among the speakers at the annual symposium that highlights China-related research from across the University. 

Ping told the gathering that he hopes China and the U.S. can make progress away from the current tone of rivalry, and said he believes the two nations’ interests have more in common than they have differences. China is not interested in replacing the U.S. on the world stage, he said, and wants the two countries to focus on better communication as a way to rebuild trust.

Ping believes that U.S. decoupling from China would be to decouple from opportunity, and he lauded Penn’s partnerships with China over the decades, encouraging continued student exchanges to build better relationships.

Touching briefly on the coronavirus outbreak, Ping said it was the nation’s top priority, and the strict measures they’re employing are to ensure they get it under control.

Work, who served as the deputy secretary of defense in the Obama and Trump administrations, told the attendees he’s concerned about the direction of the competition the nations are in.

“I would say that U.S./China relations are more brittle than at any time since Tiananmen Square, and possibly more brittle than any time since 1972 when the United States reached out to China,” he said, pointing to the current administration’s tone and characterization of their relationship with China.

Person at podium speaks to crowd, gesturing with right hand
Former U.S. deputy secretary of defense Robert Works speaks at the Penn China Research Symposium.

Work believes that opening more channels of communication as well as technical collaboration would moderate the competition that is heating up. 

Work added that collaboration could include artificial intelligence and genomics, developing guidelines and rules both countries could live with, as well as climate change and space exploration.

“I believe the United States should go to China and Russia right now and say, ‘Let’s go to Mars together for all of mankind. Let’s share all of our data, let’s share the cost burden,’” he said.

“Although I am concerned about the direction of the competition, I’m actually optimistic that we could do something that would benefit all of the inhabitants of our small planet.”

Other speakers at the daylong event discussed sustainability, health care, and biotechnology.

During a policy session led by James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, Jacques deLisle, director for the Center for the Study of Contemporary China, spoke about a project in the works that has tapped more than 20 scholars at Penn to develop and disseminate policy papers on the future of U.S./China relations, including topics like security, trade, technology, climate change, human rights, and research ties.

Five people sit in chairs on a stage, having a conversation while audience members look on
Discussing a project on the future of U.S./China relations are (from left) Jim McGann, Jacques deLisle, Kaiser Kuo, Samm Sacks, and Neysun Mahboubi.

The project is funded by the Penn China Research and Engagement Fund (CREF) with additional support provided by internal and external sources including the Penn Center for the Study of Contemporary China and the Foreign Policy Research Institute. It is one of 30 CREF-funded projects to date.

The idea is to draw on Penn’s in-house expertise to draft policy papers to be presented at conferences at Penn, in Washington and hopefully in Beijing, deLisle said. The need for new voices and original thinking on charting a new relationship with China is critical, he said, especially in the current period of uncertainty.

Whether or not there is a new U.S. administration after the November election, there will be an appetite for new ideas and approaches and a new Congress, deLisle said. The intention is to disseminate the revised papers to policy makers in Washington, he said.

“The goal is to get into the room in Washington with people from the Hill, from the administration, people from think tanks,” he said, “The idea is to get this conversation going, to get that expertise into the policy people’s discourse and not in silos in academia.”

Photographs by Nile Miller and Chris Klaniecki.