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Biden’s China relationship: The view from Utah

The downturn in U.S.-China relations has sent ripples throughout the nation, including in our own state

FILE - In this Dec. 4, 2013, file photo, Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden as they pose for photos at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Lintao Zhang, Associated Press

The Joe Biden administration will face profound challenges in reshaping the U.S.-China relationship for the good of both nations as well as overall international stability. While our two countries inevitably will be strategic competitors in many areas, and even aggressively confront one another over vital national interests, it will be essential for us to find areas of cooperation.

Direct partnerships between American states and Chinese provinces offer one possible path toward reviving engagement in several key areas: higher education and trade are two that are crucial to Utah’s economy and would benefit from enhanced, smart engagement. Without it, students and markets will choose to go elsewhere.

The downturn in U.S.-China relations has sent ripples throughout the nation, including in our universities. Chinese students comprise the largest group of international students in the United States. (In 2018, Chinese students made up more than one-third of the University of Utah’s international student population.) Losing them diminishes American students’ opportunities for enriching cultural experiences in and out of the classroom that help bridge differences and promote understanding.

Students from China, especially in STEM fields, are foundational to our teaching and research, and many departments are suffering from the loss of their teaching assistants and the contributions of their Chinese colleagues.

There are also financial implications: Chinese students contributed $15 billion to the U.S. economy, including ancillary costs such as housing and services sectors. The loss of Chinese students — who generally pay full tuition — severely affects the budgets of state-run and less well-endowed higher education institutions, including their ability to offer in-state tuition to American students.

Twenty percent of all Mandarin Chinese taught in the United States occurs in Utah, preparing the next generation to better engage with China in order to expand economic and problem-solving opportunities. With continued downturn in the relationship, those connections that Utahns have spent decades cultivating could be severely diminished.

The trade war has cost U.S. consumers approximately $50 billion in tariffs on groceries to smartphones, yet no manufacturing jobs were regained in return. Moreover, American farmers, small business owners and manufacturers are suffering from the loss of their China markets, which they spent decades developing. In fact, it is other countries that are benefitting from the U.S.-China trade war. Goods from the European Union are not subject to China’s retaliatory tariffs. Argentina and Brazil have seized the opportunity to increase and improve their soybean exportation — making them a long-term competitive threat to U.S. producers. Many in the agricultural sector now feel they have unwillingly ceded the China market to other countries and worry about ever getting it back.

In recent years, China was among Utah’s largest export markets for services such as tourism, education, semiconductors and medical equipment; these exports supported approximately 6,000 local jobs. Yet in 2018, exports to China decreased by just over $1 billion as a result of the trade war. Furthermore, tourism, Utah’s most significant export to China, is on the decline nationwide due to the rising political tensions between the two countries and an increasingly negative view by both the American and Chinese media.

While the Chinese government under current leader Xi Jinping has increasingly adopted policies Americans abhor that now impact every major national American interest, the absence of a bipartisan strategy towards China hurts the people of Utah and has unintended consequences that will reverberate in local communities. These consequences might be less detrimental if those at the state and local levels are involved in formulating and contributing to a balanced China policy.

To be clear, the single greatest challenge facing the United States this century is the rise of an emboldened China with the elements of power — economic, military and diplomatic — to shape a world that is antithetical to our values. We can neither disengage nor wish it away. Our best defense is to continuously improve our system at home that speaks to the American Dream, which still remains aspirational for many around the world — even in China.

Nationally, we must have a coordinated strategy in place that reinvigorates our local economies, rebuilds our infrastructure, works with our allies, and recognizes that an economically strong America is the best way to compete with China. America has succeeded by being open, not closed, to foreign students, ideas and businesses. The federal and state governments must work together to develop and implement a consistent policy toward China that upholds our national ideals and improves American lives.

As we embark on the next stage of the bilateral relationship, current realities and strategic interests in both countries will require honest dialogue and wise diplomacy. To be most effective, we must work with like-minded countries to put pressure on the Chinese government, including its approach to intellectual property, rule of law and human rights. At the same time, we should be looking for opportunities to cooperate with China, and not just at the national level. Especially in times of disagreement, subnational partnerships can serve as a ballast and offer channels of productive dialogue and understanding. The only question is whether domestic politics in both countries will preclude America from reaping the rewards of smart competition with the world’s other superpower.

Jon Huntsman Jr. is a former governor of Utah and served as U.S. ambassador to China from 2009 to 2011.