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The current state of China-U.S. relations

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As a new year begins, we wanted to take stock of where things stand between the world's two largest economies. That would be the U.S. and China, and there's no shortage of points of friction in the wider relationship. The Biden administration has confronted China over human rights, tariffs, chip export controls, Taiwan. Then there's the space race. NASA is concerned about China claiming parts of the moon. Well, joining me now is Yun Sun. She is director of the China program at the Stimson Center. Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

YUN SUN: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: I want to start with this perception of China - the perception that China is a threat to the United States. It's so entrenched that I think it's fair to say it's one of the few areas of bipartisan agreement in the U.S. Let me begin by asking, from an economic standpoint, is it true that China poses a threat?

YUN: Well, it depends on the perspective that you look at it. So first off, China is still the largest trading partner of the United States, and the trade has been going up despite COVID and despite the economic decoupling in the past few years. On the one hand, we're treating China as the largest geopolitical challenge and a potential adversary of the United States, but on the other hand, we're also dependent on China for a certain number of goods, trade commodities and exports as imports. So these two perspectives are pulling the U.S. in two very different directions.

KELLY: Yeah.

YUN: So that's the problem here.

KELLY: Let me ask about a big development in Washington and what impact that might have on the relationship - Republicans taking over in the House and bringing, for the most part, a more hawkish agenda on China with them. We just recently on NPR spoke with Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin. He's set to lead the House Select Committee on China. He told us he plans to focus on decoupling - his word - decoupling the two economies. How are messages like that heard in Beijing?

YUN: Throughout not only the past years but throughout the past decades, I think the Chinese has consistently perceived the U.S. Congress as the most hostile political entity or political force in the whole United States towards China, so this slightly more aggressive agenda by the Republicans in the House is not necessarily going to be news for the Chinese. The only difference I think it will make is that we know that the current administration is from the Democratic Party and whether the Republicans in the House is going to initiate sort of agendas simply to oppose what the Biden administration is trying to do on China. I think that bipartisan split could potentially be what the Chinese identify as the most consequential impact from the midterm election.

KELLY: Let me ask about a development on China's side and what impact that might have. Qin Gang, who was China's ambassador to the U.S. - he was just appointed China's foreign minister. In fact, he's going to be hosting Secretary of State Tony Blinken on his visit to China this month. What should we know about him?

YUN: One of the observations that people have made is that Qin Gang has gained the trust of President Xi and that this personal trust is his most important qualification and most important credential because with the trust and confidence from the top Chinese leader, he will be able to pursue his foreign policy agenda without much of internal opposition or internal pressure.

KELLY: I had the chance to question him last year, when he was still ambassador here in Washington.

YUN: Oh, great.

KELLY: He was very blunt about his displeasure over U.S. policy, particularly recent moves in regard to Taiwan. I know that's a huge political thorn in the relationship. Does it impact the economic relationship between the U.S. and China?

YUN: Not in terms of the specific results that we can see. Like, for example, when the former speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, visited Taiwan, we all thought that China was going to retaliate, and one of the most frequently used tools in the past for China has been the economic sanctions. But in this specific case, we haven't really seen economic pushback from China either towards the United States or towards Taiwan in a meaningful way. And the reason for that is that China itself is in a economic slowdown right now, so the ability to really jeopardize its trade with the United States at this specific time is not necessarily something that the Chinese will pursue.

KELLY: Well, let's try to end on a positive note because I've seen where you have said both countries are interested in stabilizing the relationship. Is there a specific thing or two that you think it will take to achieve that?

YUN: We know that in the year of 2023, there's no major domestic political events like elections here in the United States. And China has just completed its 20th party Congress, which means that the bilateral relationship could proceed with relatively little interference from the domestic political events. And another one that a lot of the Chinese diplomats and interlocutors have been discussing is that, yes, Secretary Blinken will be going to Beijing in January, and hopefully that will provide a terrific, positive tone and opening to the bilateral relations in the new year.

KELLY: Yun Sun previewing where U.S.-China relations may go in 2023. She's a senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center. Thank you.

YUN: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.