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Experts warn of an increasingly challenging period in Sino-U.S. relations

Feb. 7, 2021, 8:47 p.m.

The future of U.S.-Sino relations will be fraught with challenges due to China’s military modernization and the countries’ differing views on human rights, experts Larry Diamond and Thomas Fingar said at a Friday panel.

Diamond, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and the Freeman Spogli Institute, has found himself increasingly worrying about China’s attempts to reunite with Taiwan.

“China clearly has a goal of achieving the reunification of Taiwan with the mainland,” he said. “I increasingly worry that Xi Jinping and the senior Chinese communist leadership may intend to do it by force.”

Diamond pointed to the pace of military modernization in China and the rhetoric of the Chinese government relating to Taiwan. Although he is unsure of the timeframe of this reunification, Diamond warned that “it may no longer be generational.” He theorized that any forceful attempt by China to reunify with Taiwan would “be an event in world history tantamount to the Nazis marching into Czechoslovakia.”

“I think China has the goal of changing the world system to eliminate the word ‘liberal’ from ‘international order’ and to create a global framework that is safe for authoritarianism,” he said.

Fingar, a lecturer at the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, is skeptical that China could actually achieve these ambitions, depicting the Chinese power as fragile.

“China is not an unstoppable juggernaut,” Fingar explained. “I don’t think we should fixate on stopping China’s rise, which is slowing precipitously, particularly in reference to the demand and expectations of its society.”

Fingar referenced China’s internal problems, including that its gross domestic product per capita is still below the world average, its people are some of the most heavily taxed in the world and it is struggling to meet the healthcare demands of its aging population. 

In regards to the U.S. response toward growing Chinese ambitions, Fingar suggested that “we start with getting our own house in order.”

According to Fingar, one of the first steps in this process involves the transition toward newly-elected President Joe Biden’s foreign policy vision. 

“I think he is viewing foreign policy as what is necessary to achieve very ambitious domestic goals, from fighting the pandemic and to rebuilding the economy,” said Fingar in reference to Biden’s policies regarding China.

Diamond also expects new dynamics within the U.S. national security structure. 

“Not only Biden, but you’ve got Secretary of State Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland,” he said. “These are people that really care about human rights and defending democracy in the world, so I think that human rights will be more of an item on the agenda of our bilateral relations with China.”

According to Diamond, the real challenge for the United States will be continuing to push for human rights while still cooperating with China on international security issues. 

“We need China to manage the global economy, manage global public health and most of all, address the ticking time bomb of climate change. It’s going to be very challenging to manage these imperatives and still challenge China on human rights,” he said.

Contact Nina Iskandarsjach at ninaisk ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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