A Symposium on US-China Relations in the Age of Trump

After the Trump government came to power, a series of basic principles and the consensus previously formed by China and the US has encountered challenges, and it’s certain this relationship will be under close scrutiny for the next few years. Under such background, professionals from academia, the media and the economic sector attended a “Symposium on US-China Relations in the Age of Trump” held recently at Duke Kunshan University. 

Attending and leading the symposium were Ker Gibbs, Chairman, The American Chamber of Commerce (Amcham) Shanghai; Dan Guttman, the Professor of NYU Shanghai; Ted Plafker, the Foreign Correspondent of The Economist, Beijing; Elise Devido, the Adjunct Professor at Duke Kunshan University; and Junjie Zhang, the Director of the Environmental Research Center and the Program Director of Master of Environmental Policy at Duke Kunshan University. These experts on the ground in China shared their perspectives in a discussion that included the economy, trade, the environment and business relations.

Dr. Junjie Zhang opened the gathering with his views on climate issues, noting that more efforts are needed to deal with climate change and that the most important thing is to achieve a consensus between China and US. “We cannot only rely on the administration or the White House to promote this,” he said. “We need legislation, and the Obama government did not reach success on this point.”

At the Hangzhou G20 Summit last September, China and the United States signed the "Paris Agreement" to promote the accord that would take effect on November 4. Since then, the issue of global climate governance leadership has been discussed widely, with some people thinking that global climate governance leadership is shifting. Dr. Zhang expressed his belief that China is not yet a global leader in climate governance issues.

"Although standing in the center of the stage is good, this kind of leadership comes with a price,” Dr. Zhang noted. “Can China bear such a price now? Personally, I think that we cannot. China's current economic situation is not completely positive, growth is slowing down, and local governments hope to protect their economic development. Right now, air pollution control is difficult, and there is no doubt that solving global environmental problems will be quite complex."

Dr. Zhang pointed out that the biggest result of China-US climate negotiation in the last year was that China agreed to reach the peak value of carbon emissions by 2030. As a result, he believes China should start preparing for this as soon as possible. He stressed the fact that although China is clearly on the path to clean energy, this transition cannot deliver huge changes in the short term.

On the afternoon of February 17, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) released the "China Carbon Market Research Report 2017" in Beijing. It’s believed that the Chinese carbon market, which was launched in 2017, could become the world's largest carbon trading system. In Dr. Zhang’s view that considers the current political and economic situation, however, the impact of this state-level carbon market may not be very great.

According to the symposium, if one were to ask “Will China continue to implement the Copenhagen Agreement and the Paris Climate Agreement?” the answer is yes. The Chinese government always has been very cautious in its decision making. But will China become the leader in the global climate issues? That answer may be no.

As for the trade war issue also discussed in the symposium, Dr. Junjie Zhang said that, as an environmental economist, he understands that those in economic academia typically considered trade to be good in the past. However, they are now coming to realize that the issue lies in who can benefit and who can lose from trade. 

He held up as an example the American family, explaining that his former colleagues found that the development of China-US trade reduced the average employment rate of Americans, which led to lower labor participation rates and wages. That’s why for the past three decades, the income of the US middle class has been stagnant. A similar effect has come into play in the area of education. American families that want to send their children to college are finding it more difficult and competitive because the major American universities have encouraged global enrollment to participate in the international competition. These are just two examples of a long-term and common problem that arises from trade distribution influence.

This phenomenon explains to a large extent, Dr. Zhang argued, why Trump was elected to the presidency, attracting many American wage-earning families whose situations have not improved in more than thirty years. And, in turn, that explains the need for this symposium at Duke Kunshan University.