Event Summary: Superpower Showdown
On Monday, July 20, 2020, the SETA Foundation at Washington, DC hosted a virtual panel of experts to discuss ‘Superpower Showdown.’ The discussion featured Bob Davis, Senior Editor at the Wall Street Journal, and Lingling Wei, Senior China Correspondent at the Wall Street Journal. The panel was moderated by Kilic Kanat, Research Director at SETA DC.
To begin the discussion, Davis explained that their book is one of deep reporting, dating back to the Clinton era. The expertise and resources of both Davis and Wei allowed them to report from both Washington and Beijing, distinguishing themselves from others writing on the US-Chinese relationship. Through this research, Davis found that in terms of disunity and disengagement, the US-Chinese relationship has only gotten worse, with the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbating these trends. Debates in Washington revolve around the US being too dependent on China in many fields, particularly medical devices and pharmaceuticals, and the pandemic is highlighting the importance of domestic capability and the downfalls of globalized supply chains. He explained that during the early 1990s with the collapse of the Soviet Union and democratization around the world, many believed that China would follow the same path to democracy. Now, experts realize that it was a mistake to believe that economic globalization in the Chinese context would yield political liberalization. The US served as a model for economic liberalization, but the Chinese domestic model was much sturdier than people gave it credit for. If Trump gets reelected, Davis predicts that a turn to multilateralism is unlikely, although this would presumably be Biden’s approach. There is broad bipartisan agreement that China is a rising threat and needs to be confronted. Congress gives support to the Trump administration’s hardline views. If Biden wanted to take a softer line, he’d face considerable difficulty with Congress.
Wei began her statements by explaining that their book offers a different perspective given their ability to report from both Washington and Beijing. In addition to COVID-19, geopolitical issues involving Hong Kong are playing into China’s decision making process in how to deal with the US. Despite the fact that the Trump administration is talking about decoupling with China in the technology and financial sectors, China has already done so, with the earliest example being the Great Fire War. Removing Chinese people from American technology cannot happen overnight; it will continue to be a work in progress. The US-Chinese relationship has arrived at a point where if the US takes action, like instituting a round of sanctions, China inevitably hits back. Wei believes that in order for China to carry out change and reform its policies, the pressure must come from within China as opposed to international pressure. When speaking about the upcoming US elections, she noted that some people in China view Trump as a gift because of the damage his administration has done to the US on the world stage. The US, in many respects, is no longer the leader it was in the past, opening up space for China to be more assertive and act like a superpower. Difficulties on the diplomatic front have also rallied support for Chinese party leadership. The Chinese government continues to activate anti-American propaganda whenever it serves its purpose and takes advantage of crisis moments.