U.S.-China Relations Examined at Duke Kunshan 'Town Hall' Event

October 17, 2018

Following a presentation from Condoleezza Rice, panelists discuss US-China relations.

A town hall meeting about United States-China relations, held earlier this month at Duke Kunshan University, led to a wide-ranging discussion on trade, technology transfer and talent issues between the two countries. 

The event, which was open to the public and attracted more than 100 people, included an in-depth interview with former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who spoke via teleconference. 

A panel discussion, involving Duke Kunshan students and faculty as well as visitors from the Kunshan community and moderated by Duke Kunshan Executive Vice Chancellor Denis Simon, followed Rice’s presentation. 

The event was sponsored by the National Committee for US-China Relations, which has played a central role in developing relationships between the two countries dating back to the “ping-pong” diplomacy of the early 1970s. This is the 12th time the event has been held.

Rice, interviewed by National Committee President Stephen Orlins, concentrated on ways to help sustain the bilateral relationship even in the midst of current disagreements about trade policy, tariffs, human rights, the South China Sea and other issues. Rice stressed that leaders of both countries need to recognize that for there to be real, meaningful solutions to key global problems, including global peace and security, the U.S. and China must be able to work together to develop acceptable solutions and courses of action.

When asked about rumors that the current Trump Administration might curtail Chinese student visas to the U.S. and restrict the number of scholarly exchanges, Rice emphasized the need for maintaining vibrant on-going ties in areas such as education. She recounted how a National Committee-sponsored exchange trip that she made to China in 1988 had changed her perspective on China, exposing her to much new information that she previously had not known.  

The panel discussion, which included Cong Cao, professor of innovation studies at University of Nottingham at Ningbo, and Ted Pflaker, chief correspondent for The Economist in China, focused on the core sources of the current tensions in the areas of trade, technology and talent. The panelists noted that the current set of tensions actually pre-date the Trump Administration, but have been exacerbated by the current White House’s policies and actions.

Some suggested there was a conspicuous absence of veteran China experts within the Trump foreign policy and national security teams, making it hard to fashion policies without provoking harsh responses on both sides. While each of the panelists acknowledged the seriousness of the U.S. trade deficit with China and the need for Chinese officials to open up more markets and sectors to foreign investment, it also was noted that the U.S. has ongoing trade deficits with many other countries as well.

With regard to technology transfer and issues related to innovation and intellectual property, there was a shared sense that China indeed has made a serious commitment to produce more locally generated innovation activity. But concerns were expressed by the panelists about China’s need to further improve its management of intellectual property. Similar concerns were expressed about cyber-security and control on the internet; relaxed controls on the internet, for example, would better enable the Chinese scientific community to access a broader assortment of information that could prove useful in China’s research efforts, panelists said.

The panelists were a bit divided on where the current Sino-U.S. relationship is headed. Some worried there is an absence of people on both sides who would be able to bridge the lack of trust; others said the people-to-people relationships seem to be growing broader and deeper. Education appears as one of the truly bright spots, with projects such as Duke Kunshan University demonstrating that good intentions and shared goals between the two countries can lead to projects where both sides share the benefits and the risks.