China has been an animating issue in the 2020 election. With U.S.-China relations factoring into political debates at all levels of government, policymakers must weigh the risks and opportunities of the actions and positions they take relating to Beijing. On Thursday, October 15, the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings hosted an online discussion with a bipartisan group of policymakers on China exploring how leading political figures at the federal, state, and local levels of U.S. government approach these questions.
In opening remarks by Brookings President John R. Allen, he noted that although “relations with China today are very complex and under enormous stress,” on issues including “technology, education, immigration, or trade, U.S.-China relations have a powerful and lasting impact on American lives.”
Following Allen’s remarks, Brookings Fellow Ryan Hass introduced the panel, which consisted of Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton, Ohio; Governor Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas; and Representative Rick Larsen of Washington state. The panelists analyzed the ways in which the economic and social ties of their constituents to China have shaped their views on the U.S.-China relationship.
Mayor Nan Whaley discussed how her city of Dayton, which was at one time a manufacturing powerhouse, has approached the relationship with China. “Trade issues [have been] very tough in the Midwest,” she said. “You can’t just have a zero-sum game where places in the middle of the country are going to lose while other areas are going to win and not have a real [solution] for that.”
Whaley proceeded to state that “the fact is that the U.S.-China relationship has been politicized by the administration, making it very difficult to take a nuanced approach,” and that “we have to think about how we collaborate.”
“When we’re thinking about technology and thinking about our protection as a country, we didn’t do the best when thinking about supply chains and manufacturing,” Whaley said. Going forward, she concluded, “making sure that these efforts are worker-centered and not stock-market centered will be really important in this discussion.”
Governor Asa Hutchinson said that from a trade perspective, he appreciated being able to work with China.
“Whenever you have the second leading economy in the world, it’s hard to say we are not going to have an interchange with them. And of course, from an Arkansas perspective, we love access to that market, from the standpoint of agriculture to retail,” Hutchinson said. “I think we were successful in having some major [Chinese] investments made in Arkansas from a $1 million paper mill to a major manufacturing plant in the state … This was well-received in Arkansas.”
According to Hutchinson, “everything changed because of the national dialogue, the mistakes that China made, and the trade war.” Going forward, he said, “I think there’s a possibility of a bipartisan approach to China. I think fundamentally it starts with having a tougher approach … we need to have a more level playing field.”
“The most important thing to me that [the U.S. and China] can work together on is global security,” he added. “The last thing we need is to have a confrontation. We need to build a relationship in which we can have exchanges again.”
Finally, Representative Rick Larsen weighed in on the discourse on U.S.-China decoupling.
“The decoupling debate is really about technology, more than it is about manufacturing and services,” Larsen said. “Decoupling gets a broader definition that really makes it not a very useful term. The Boeing company is not going to move manufacturing out of China.”
“I think that there’s still room in this debate for economic policy,” Larsen added, saying that “we need China to deal with North Korea, international terrorism, despite the security concerns we have with China.”
“There is a true competitive nature to this relationship between the United States and China around the world about what our values are versus what a Chinese Communist-led party would bring,” Larsen concluded. “Part of our strategy needs to be investing in infrastructure, rural broadband, [and] workforce training, in order to ensure that the workforce can be competitive. It really is about what we need to do internally to be competitive while reestablishing ourselves externally.”