Global Affairs professor discusses deteriorating U.S.-China relations
Liam Kelly | Monday, March 6, 2023
“It is the biggest challenge that we have faced since World War II, and we have to get ready for that challenge,” Notre Dame professor Joshua Eisenman said of the United States’ relationship with China during a lecture Friday morning.
Eisenman is an associate professor of politics in the Keough School of Global Affairs. His research focuses on the political economy of China’s development and its foreign relations with the U.S.
In the lecture — the most recent in the “Ten Years Hence” Mendoza College of Business speaker series — Eisenman detailed what he believes the U.S. policy toward China should be during a period of increasingly fraught relations between the two countries. In order to craft this policy, Eisenman said, it is necessary to understand the problems China is currently facing.
“China’s economy is slowing considerably,” Eisenman explained. “There is actually precious little the Communist Party of China and its leaders can do to stop it, because the fundamental problems that are tanking the Chinese economy are long-term and structural problems.”
Eisenman described the three major problems currently dogging China: demographics, dictatorship and debt.
When it comes to demographics, China’s problem is that it is an “old and male country,” Eisenman said, adding that China has roughly 20 million more men than women. Because of these lopsided demographics, China’s population decreased last year for the first time in six decades.
This population decline will inevitably harm China’s economy, Eisenman said.
“The idea that China can simply return to high growth when its population is old and retiring and shrinking would buck history,” he explained.
Eisenman said the financial cost of China’s authoritarian government is also weighing the country down. He pointed out that “concentration camps” and surveillance systems are incredibly expensive and a burden on the Chinese economy.
“There is a security state in China, and that security state costs money,” he said.
According to Eisenman, the authoritarian state has also caused the Chinese government to take on large amounts of debt.
“When you own all the banks and you force the banks to loan money to your state-owned enterprises who are not productive, you are going to create a burden of debt,” he explained.
Alhough China may face these structural problems, Eisenman said, the nation still represents a threat to the United States.
He categorized China’s goals into three types: revisionist goals, revanchist goals and rivalry goals.
On the subject of revisionism, Eisenman detailed how China seeks to create a new international order that “stands in direct juxtaposition to what we’d like to call the U.S.-led, rules-based order.”
China has created international organizations in Africa, Asia and South America to influence policy in these countries, Eisenman said. The nation has also tried to curb the effectiveness of the United Nations by preventing the release of reports that reflect on the nation negatively.
When it comes to revanchism — which Eisenman defined as policy aimed at retaliation — China aims to regain lost territories of its own, as well as help other countries reclaim their lost territory.
In addition to asserting its control over Hong Kong and threatening Taiwan, China also “seeks to assert its control and has territorial claims with regard to Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, India, Nepal, Bhutan” and more, Eisenman said.
Eisenman also painted China’s support for Russia amidst its war against Ukraine as a revanchist position.
Most of China’s goals, Eisenman said, seek to shape the country into a genuine rival of the United States, and the methods which China has taken to achieve this goal are often aggressive.
“The wolf-warrior diplomacy, the cyber hacking, the militarization of South China Sea islands and the actual blaming of the United States for COVID-19” are all examples, Eisenman said.
Eisenman also pointed to Chinese propaganda in Africa, which he claims is now “wholly anti-U.S.”
The results of this rivalry policy have harmed China’s relationship with the U.S. and its allies, Eisenman explained.
“China’s relations with countries around the world and perceptions of China around the world have collapsed since 2017,” he said.
While Eisenman praised former President Donald Trump for pointing out problems in the U.S.-China relationship, he said he believes U.S. policy has improved under President Biden.
“[Trump] turned the table on a relationship that needed to be turned, but the Biden administration has set the table and set the table, I would say, about as well as it can be set,” he said.
Eisenman described the current U.S. policy toward China as the “least worst” option, given the circumstances.
“We’re building awareness of the problem,” he said. “We’re building our capacities to deal with problems. We’re building our alliances with countries around the world who are like-minded. We’re finding ways to protect ourselves and limiting exports of dual-use technologies. And increasingly, we’re doing it in a bipartisan fashion.”
Even if China decides to invade Taiwan and U.S.-China relations greatly deteriorate, the Biden administration should not necessarily be blamed, Eisenman said.
“Do not believe that if China does attack Taiwan or China becomes more aggressive that that’s a failure of United States policy,” he explained. “China has its own will, its own timetables and decision-making. It is not our fault if another country takes that step.”
Eisenman also added that while the U.S. should do what it can to oppose China on the world stage, it should not attempt to change the nature of the Chinese government itself.
“We should not, under any circumstances, pursue regime change. We couldn’t even pull it off in Iraq. It’s not happening,” Eisenman said. “U.S. policy can never again be predicated on the idea that we’re going to change China. We have to accept them for who they are. And we have to deal with that.”