Expert discusses state of US-China relations with Steamboat audience

Scott Kennedy, senior advisor and trustee chair in Chinese business and economics for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, gives a presentation as part of the Seminars at Steamboat series on Monday, July 18, 2022. Kennedy has been traveling to China for 30 years.
Katy Pickens/Steamboat Pilot & Today

Prominent academic and expert on relations between the United States and China, Scott Kennedy, explained the current state of affairs between the nations to an audience of Steamboat residents the evening of Monday, July 18, as part of the Seminars at Steamboat.

Kennedy, a senior advisor and trustee chair in Chinese business and economics for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, was a professor at Indiana University for 14 years and has been traveling to China for over 30 years. 

He kicked off the talk by showing a photo from his first trip to China in 1988, and then an image of himself in the same spot in the country in 2012.

“Over the last 34 years that I’ve been watching China, the relationship between our two countries has changed dramatically,” Kennedy said. 

He described the evolution of relations between the U.S. and China through several presidential administrations. Kennedy described one common foreign policy strategy used as “engagement,” or the “patient integration” of China into the global systems relying on international institutions and norms.

Kennedy explained that Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama all favored an approach of engaging with China.

Alternatively, other presidents opted for a “management” focused strategy, which included maintaining a “peaceful coexistence” with China without publicly debating topics like democracy or political violence, according to Kennedy. Proponents of that approach were Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush.

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But, the rise and rule of President Xi Jinping has turned these paradigms on their head, Kennedy said. While the country had previously been moving towards a capitalist, free market system, Xi launched China on a different path, with a renewed focus on Lenninist ideology, Kennedy explained.

“(Xi has) moved the country in a much more left direction, and every time the U.S. has put out an olive branch to try and stabilize the relationship, he’s turned it away,” Kennedy said. “All the way up until today, and what he’s done in 2022 with China’s approach to COVID, you can really see that China’s moving in a very different direction.”

Kennedy added that the Trump and Biden administrations have handled relations with China in starkly different ways.

“Whether you like Donald Trump or hate Donald Trump, he was the first one really to sound the alarm that China was moving in a direction that was significantly challenging us,” he said.

“Donald Trump obviously had no commitment to local international institutions, multilateralism, (or) allies, and he has one typical negotiating style: massive pressure against the other, no stepping back, no looking for conciliation until the other side yells ‘uncle,’” Kennedy said. “The Chinese were caught off guard, because they’d never met a leader that tried that. In fact, that’s not very different, oftentimes, from China’s negotiating style.”

With President Joe Biden, the approach is much more traditional but maintains consistent concern about the threats China may pose to the United States, Kennedy said.

Biden’s approach has “a more ideological basis to it than the way the previous administration did,” Kennedy explained. “And in their view, this means that what we’re seeing is not competition between two countries, just duking it out for who can have more power and influence internationally, but whose system is going to reign supreme.”

Kennedy emphasized that as an academic, knowing and consistently talking to folks who live in China is essential for understanding the state of domestic and global affairs for the country.

COVID-19 had made this enormously difficult, as travel was essentially shut down for about two years.

“Everyone has an opinion about China and obviously in Washington, D.C., you don’t need any facts to have an opinion,” Kennedy said. “So there’s a lot of talk and chatter about China now, more than ever, but our understanding is almost at an all-time low.”

Kennedy explained that quarantining restrictions made it impossible for him to visit Shanghai earlier this year, but that he visited neighboring countries to talk to people face-to-face about the state of affairs. 

A colleague he has worked with who is from China, Wang Jisi, visited the U.S. to do the same not too long before Kennedy went abroad.

Kennedy explained that he hopes to visit China again later this summer, and that conversations can be facilitated to promote understanding between the United States and China.

“Hopefully, I’ll still be the first think-tanker from D.C. in China in almost three years,” Kennedy said. “We’ll see what talking does.”

The Seminars at Steamboat series for the summer will continue next week with a lecture entitled “Cryptocurrency: The Future of Money or All Hype?” by Lee Reiners at 5:30 p.m. Monday, July 25, at the Strings Pavillion.

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