Photo: Nixon Foundation President Hugh Hewitt opens the Nixon Forum on U.S. China Relations at the Wilson Center in Washington D.C.

Updated October 17, 2019 at 4:00 P.M. ET


David R. Stillwell, Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs

Synopsis of remarks:

The United States is limited in engagement with the People’s Republic of China because U.S. access to China’s political institutions is limited.

Three pillars the United States needs to address with China are defense, economics, and governance. Governance is defined by ideology and national character.

Assistant Secretary of State Stillwell argues that there is nothing wrong with President Xi’s objective of national rejuvenation, however, there are fundamental problems. China wants to be center on the world stage, and is using authoritarian means in pursuit of that goal. Case in point are recent events in Hong Kong.

U.S. policy should be to help influence allies and partners to be like-minded and be on the side of liberal governance.

U.S. policy objective is to lower barriers to communication and help make Asia pacific region strong, secure and prosperous.

U.S. policy objective is the engagement of Asia Pacific region, not isolation.

U.S. policy objective should be to pursue strategic partnerships, and encourage apolitical free trade. Free trade only becomes a concern when economics enters the security realm.

Recent restrictions on China’s diplomats to American institutions is a reciprocal measure to counter restricted U.S. access to China’s institutions. The end objective is greater transparency.

Panel: U.S.-China Geostrategic Tensions


Dan Blumenthal, American Enterprise Institute
Jonathan Hillman, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Jean Lee, Wilson Center
Edward Wong, New York Times and Wilson Center
Moderated by Abraham Denmark, Wilson Center

Summary and Key Points

It is important for U.S. policymakers to distinguish the mission of the Chinese Communist Party with the mission of the people of China. (Blumenthal)

Initiatives such as Belt and Road succeed in creating an international network with China at the center, but are not necessarily economically efficient. (Blumenthal)

China has made great strides in changing the balance of power in the region and modernizing its military. (Blumenthal)

China is on the cusp of national rejuvenation. (Blumenthal)

The United States’ objective of a balance of power in Southeast Asia is based respect for South East Asia regional frameworks, human rights, and free-market economics. (Blumenthal)

U.S. policymakers have taken for granted America’s strategic advantage. (Blumenthal)

In the long term, China and the U.S. will continue to have differences in ideology. China will continue to force constraints in free societies through economic leverage. (Wong)

In the short term, the greatest point of tension will be China’s military ambitions, and the United States’ desire to be a dominant power in the South Pacific. (Wong)

Small countries like North Korea will seek to adjust themselves strategically in greater U.S.-China conflict. If greater conflict doesn’t resolve, smaller Asian states will seek to resolve themselves through re-armament. (Lee)

China’s Belt and Road Initiative is an effective tool in influencing the behavior of 130 countries through economic and infrastructure inducements. (Hillman)

However, using infrastructure as a tool for influence can prove very difficult, as big projects are costly, take time, and raise clients’ expectations. (Hillman)

The United States shouldn’t oppose the Belt and Road Initiative, but should develop its own economic aide strategy that is worthwhile for countries across the globe to join for its own sake. (Hillman)

The United States needs a bi-partisan consensus on how it communicates competition with China. At home, there is bi-partisan consensus. Abroad, there is no such consensus. As an example, in the international sphere, some countries are on board with pushing back against Huawei’s 5G networks, while other countries are not. (Wong)

The U.S. should exert pressure on China in the area of human rights with the aim of changing its behavior. The U.S. should also spark China’s reform through pressures on trade. (Blumenthal)

China-Taiwan tensions have huge potential for greater conflict. (Blumenthal)

The U.S. and China should host summitry with a substantive focus on creating peace and ending war. (Blumenthal)

Not all of China’s development initiatives are a threat to U.S. interests. American policy makers need to grasp the art of navigating threats and areas of common interest so as to avoid a great power conflict. (Hillman)

President Nixon got rapprochement right because it fit with the context of the times. During the Cold War, balancing the Soviet Union against China solved a big geopolitical question. (Blumenthal)

Challenges with China are not a result of President Nixon’s rapprochement, but more recent developments in the bi-lateral relationship. (Wong)

The Nixon administration deftly managed the business of the U.S.-China relationship because of the professional process in national security matters that President Nixon and Dr. Kissinger put into place. (Hillman)


Panel: The Trade War: Any End In Sight?


Meg Lundsager, Former executive director, IMF, Wilson Center
Bob Davis, Wall Street Journal and Wilson Center
John Frisbie, Hills & Co
Moderated by Shihoko Goto, Wilson Center

Summary and Key Points:

Trade war has led to lost sales for U.S. companies in China. (Frisbee)

Agriculture exports to China has declined by 40 to 50 percent. (Frisbee)

While there hasn’t been a tangible impact on the whole U.S. economy, uncertainty has impacted market sentiment, in particular decision on investment and hiring. (Frisbee)

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently expressed its concerns in its global economic growth outlook, in particular disruptions of global supply chains. (Lundsager)

Leaders worldwide are having challenges adjusting their economic policies in the midst of the trade war, especially as they are normalizing their economies following the global economic crisis. (Lundsager)

There is no unified effort on how to deal with China’s policy on currency exchange. (Lundsager)

The Trump administration is not unified on trade policy. No deal would satisfy Peter Navarro, Chairman of the White House National Trade Council. Steve Mnuchin, Treasury Secretary sees trade as a problem, but is much more moderate. President Trump vacillates on the issue. (Davis)

Though they would like fairer access to Chinese markets, U.S. companies are largely against tariffs. (Frisbee)

Technology transfers are not necessarily a problem. A U.S. technology company might transfer technology R&D in exchange for access to markets. A problem arises when a U.S. national security interest arises, and when the Chinese government forces joint venture requirements. This is taking place in the cloud computing sector. (Frisbee)

U.S. companies need to be conscious about doing business in China, as there is a price to pay for sending messages that the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t like. (Frisbee)


Senator Chris Coons of Delaware

Leaders of the United States and the People’s Republic of China should define and articulate their positions dispassionately. The two-sides should cooperate to avoid conflict, and solve mutual challenges.

The United States needs a new commitment to domestic democratic renewal. Adherence to democratic values should begin at home before they are promoted abroad.

The United States should look for new ways to preserve freedom and openness including:

  • Enforce freedom of navigation and open sea lanes.
  • Transformation of the defense budget that adapts to the emergence of new technologies.
  • Enforce rules governing the deployment of new technologies, and strengthen capacity for innovation.
  • Develop an alternative to China’s Belt and Road Initiative that uses international partnerships for its strategic advantage.
  • The multilateral promotion of democratic values through international institutions like the United Nations Human Rights Council.



Panel: Human Rights and Religious Freedom in U.S.-China Relations

Dave Rank, Cohen Group
Nina Shea, Hudson Institute
Christopher Walker, National Endowment for Democracy
Robert Daly, Wilson Center
Moderated by Katie Stallard-Blanchette, Wilson Center

Summary and Key Points:

China persecutes religious minorities. Those who resist are eradicated, (Shea)

One million Uighur Muslims are in some kind of concentration camp experiencing slave labor. Many experience physical and sexual abuse, and sterilization. (Shea)

60 million Falungong are not allowed to exercise spirituality in public. (Shea)

China is working to replace the successor of Buddhist leader Dalai Lama with an imposter. (Shea)

Underground Catholic Church as been oppressed in China with religious symbols being taken down. (Shea)

A new Vatican-China agreement has given the Communist Party authority to choose bishops. (Shea)

The China government has instituted mass surveillance of churches and congregations. (Shea)

China’s leaders realize that capitalism has given them leverage on human rights, marking a significant shift in using the issue as a way to punish China. (Rank)

China has reset the rules on how we think about human rights, and personal and religious freedom largely because of poor performance from regional and international bodies that promote democratic principles, and Chinese organizations that are setting new standards. (Walker)

Certain political topics become off-limits when American businesses engage China’s economic sectors. (Walker)

In the realm of ideas, China is investing millions of dollars in media propaganda efforts. (Walker)

Change in human rights conditions in China has to be brought about from the Chinese themselves. Outside organizations like the Gates Foundation can help affect change. (Daly)

American public officials can speak out more effectively than business leaders. (Rank)

Media space in China is not politically plural despite increasing complexity. Pro-western communications efforts are minuscule by comparison. (Walker)

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, China and Eastern Europe went on two divergent paths of religious freedom. China’s leadership blamed the Vatican for fall of Communism in Europe. (Shea)

There are 100 million Christians compared to 90 million Communist Party members in China. Christianity is the only civic society nationwide independent of the state. (Shea)

Engagement shouldn’t be seen as a lever, but as a best practice that will have a profound impact over time. (Daly)

The United States is now contending with China’s engagement beyond borders, not just in China. Even America’s most powerful organizations and leaders are willing to change their behavior because of China’s economic influence. (Walker)

The solution to human rights in China is reforging democratic unity and solidarity with allies, and taking preventive measures so China doesn’t deploy divide and conquer tactics. (Walker)


Panel: The Nixon Legacy and U.S.-China Relations

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr, The Watson Institute
Ambassador Winston Lord
Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy, Wilson Center
Moderated by Robert Litwak and Hugh Hewitt

Summary and Key Points:

Rapprochement was a politically courageous decision on the part of President Nixon. Ultimately, rather than using Taiwan to contain the People’s Republic of China, he used the PRC to contain the Soviet Union. (Freeman)

The United States wanted to open relations with China primarily to have better relations with the Soviet Union and China, than each Communist power had with each other. (Lord)

The secondary goal of rapprochement to China was to get the Soviet Union and China’s assistance to end the Vietnam War and put American global leadership in a new perspective based on big power diplomacy. (Lord)

Deng Xiaopeng’s goal in U.S.-China normalization was to keep the Soviet Union off balance and de-Sovietize the Chinese economy. (Freeman)

The U.S. and China recognized that each side needed a normal relationship. (Freeman)

In the late 1980s, the United States went through a period of a lost Soviet threat, and needed a basis for a new relationship with China. (Roy)

Today, China sees the United States as an external threat, and its ideas influencing various factions of its domestic society as an internal threat. (Roy)

The United States and China are pursuing the opposite course of President Nixon, whose objective was to integrate China in the world community. The current course will lead to geopolitical instability. (Lord)

U.S. policy should based on pillars of strengthening democratic institutions at home, working with like minded allies, and supplementing strengths through multilateral relationships. (Lord)

U.S. policy makers need to show logic and powerful example to the Chinese. They need to demonstrate that a particular course of action would be in their self-interest. Coercive diplomacy and shaming tactics are not useful. Neither is capitulation. (Lord)