UC San Diego forum maps the future of U.S.-China relations

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Participants of the Jan. 2024 China Forum, including Charlene Barshefsky, Stephen Hadley, Michael Froman, Jake Sullivan, and Susan Shirk
Charlene Barshefsky, Stephen Hadley, Michael Froman, Jake Sullivan, and Susan Shirk

In a keynote address, national security adviser Jake Sullivan shares the Biden Administration’s ‘invest, align, compete’ strategy with government officials, academics and business leaders in Washington, D.C.

In its fifth year, the UC San Diego Forum on U.S.-China Relations — the only American leadership meeting focused exclusively on China and U.S.-China relations — shifted its venue for the first time from the shores of San Diego to the nation’s capital, convening in Washington, D.C. from Jan. 30-31. 

The forum is organized by the UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy’s 21st Century China Center, with this unique D.C. forum hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

“The China Forum brought together top policymakers, business leaders and esteemed scholars in the U.S. to share knowledge and shape the trajectory of U.S.-China policy,” said Caroline Freund, GPS dean. “While views on how to balance security with economic interests differed, a better understanding of China’s political and economic landscape emerged as critical to crafting policy to foster peace and stability.”

Over 75 former and current government officials, academics, business leaders and other experts participated in the forum. The forum also capitalized on the proximity to Capitol Hill, drawing elected leaders from both the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate to engage in substantive discussions of U.S.-China policy. 

“It was rewarding to be able to engage directly with members of Congress and leading decision-makers in the Biden Administration about how to manage the crucial relationship with China strategically and effectively,” said Susan Shirk, director emeritus of the 21st Century China Center and China Forum co-chair.

Attendees included Assistant Secretary of Defense Ely Ratner, CFR president and former U.S. Trade Representative Mike Froman, former national security adviser Tom Donilon, former World Bank president Robert Zoellick, Rep. Andy Kim, Rep. Mike Waltz, Sen. Dan Sullivan and businessman Steve Schwarzman. Kurt Campbell, who was recently confirmed by Congress as the deputy secretary of state, was a founder of the UC San Diego China Forum and was also a participant.

Jake Sullivan on U.S.-China relations

In a public talk on the opening night of the forum, national security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with forum co-chair Stephen J. Hadley, who is a former national security adviser and board member of the Council on Foreign Relations, about the U.S. approach to sustaining an effective China strategy. The talk drew around 250 attendees in person and thousands who streamed live online.

Sullivan shared the successes of following the goals laid out by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken a few years ago: invest, align, compete. 

“We’ve made far-reaching investments in the foundation of American strength at home with historic legislation on infrastructure, chips and science, and clean energy, all while addressing the PRC’s non-market practices and taking steps to ensure that the U.S. would lead in the sources of technological and economic growth,” Sullivan said. 

And that approach has generated positive results. Sullivan shared that large-scale investments in semiconductor and clean-energy production in the U.S. are up 20-fold since 2019, with construction spending on new manufacturing projects having already doubled.

Sullivan reviewed the numerous ways in which the administration has worked to strengthen Indo-Pacific ties, highlighting the strengthening relationships with individual countries in the region, as well as partnerships like AUKUS, the Quad, multiple historic summits and how the U.S. has fostered connections and alliances between European and Indo-Pacific countries. 

“Our regional allies and partners, for their part, are betting on American economic vitality,” Sullivan said. “They’ve announced almost $200 billion of investments into the U.S. since the start of the administration.”

Sullivan also touched on the measures taken to protect against vulnerabilities in advanced technologies.

“We implemented carefully tailored export restrictions on key technologies; focused on advanced semiconductor manufacturing tools — a topic, by the way, that was central to one of the earlier UC San Diego forums when I first really got immersed in this question of semiconductor manufacturing equipment; supercomputing capabilities; and the most advanced chips critical to military modernization,” Sullivan said. “These steps are not about protectionism, and they’re not about holding anybody back — they’re critical for our national security over the long run.”

The overall approach, Sullivan concluded, is rooted in bipartisanship. 

“When the U.S. deals in a strategic competition from a position of strong bipartisan support, of all pulling together in service of the country, we always come out stronger for it,” Sullivan said. “We intend to do what we need to do to protect our interests and defend our allies, while at the same time effectively managing competition with China to the good not just of the U.S., but to the good of global stability, as well. That is our commitment.”

Productive discussions on the pressing issues in U.S.-China policy

Following Sullivan’s speech, forum attendees took time to honor the life of Jeffrey A. Bader (video), a distinguished diplomat and highly respected architect of U.S.-China policy across several administrations in the past five decades. Bader was an honoree of the inaugural China forum at UC San Diego in 2019 and, to perpetuate his legacy, the 21st Century China Center will fundraise to establish the Jeffrey A. Bader Fellowship to support students who have a demonstrated interest in contributing to U.S. policy toward China.

The forum resumed the next day with candid discussions about Congress’s role in the U.S. China policy, recent political developments under Chinese President Xi Jinping, China’s economic future, and the benefits and costs for U.S. competition with China. 

Though the forum retained its traditional focus on U.S.-China relations and domestic developments in China, especially on the Chinese economy, the implications of the recent Taiwan election for U.S. policy was at the forefront of the discussions. 

The 2024 China Forum was chaired by Shirk, Hadley and former U.S. Trade Representative Charlene Barshefsky, and participation was by invitation only. Chatham House Rule was applied throughout the forum, except for the public lecture, to ensure candid discussion. 

“The 21st Century China Center is proud to have collaborated with CFR and our longtime supporters to hold this special winter forum in Washington, D.C.,” said Victor Shih, center director. “Leveraging our expertise on China and U.S.-China relations, the center is committed to ensuring that the China Forum remains the premier platform for in-depth discussions about the U.S.’s China policy in the years to come.”

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Virginia S. Watson is the Assistant Director of Communications for the School of Global Policy and Strategy. She has spent her entire career in editing, writing and design, both in industry and higher education. She holds a master's in technical and professional communication from Auburn University and a B.S. in journalism from Troy University.
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