David Firestein Examines "Tectonic Shifts" in the U.S.-China Relationship

Commentary | March 18, 2013

In a talk delivered at Michigan State University on February 26, EastWest Institute Vice President David Firestein discussed nine “tectonic shifts” that he believes are profoundly affecting U.S.-China relations. Firestein divided these shifts into three spheres of change: economic, political and geopolitical.  

In the economic realm, he explained that both the United States and China are dealing with each other from points of weakness. The U.S. is coming from a position of sustained economic weakness due to the recession, while China is experiencing slowing economic growth relative to the past 30 years.

He also noted that China is moving up the value chain as a producer of goods and services, which in turn reinforces another major shift. The U.S. business community’s support for U.S.-China relations has deteriorated recently, stemming from disillusionment towards the Chinese market for U.S. exports and stiffer competition at home from higher-end Chinese imports.

In the political sphere, Firestein described 2012 as a “tectonic year.” For the first time since the founding of the People’s Republic of China, both the United States and China experienced the possibility of real leadership transitions in the same year, resulting in a lack of restraint in how U.S. and Chinese leaders framed the other country in public remarks.

Additionally, U.S. political leaders have changed the way they view and discuss China in American political discourse. In the past, both Democrats and Republicans framed China in terms of human rights issues, but today, the prism through which U.S. politicians view China is based on trade, investment and—ultimately—national competition. Firestein also noted that congressional sentiment towards China has deteriorated sharply.

He then explained the emerging geopolitical shifts in the U.S.-China relationship. In terms of balance of power, China’s military has made rapid and significant strides in its development, creating a more formidable challenge to U.S. foreign policy-making. The U.S. rebalancing or "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region is another major geopolitical development. Lastly, Firestein pointed out two unique “firsts” in U.S.-China relations: neither the U.S. nor China are now dealing with each other in terms of sustained economic growth, and the two powers no longer share a grand common objective.