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The Ford School of Public Policy hosted a virtual Policy Talk on the current relations between the United States and China Tuesday morning. 

Moderated by Ford Dean Michael Barr, the conversation concentrated on the possible outcomes of U.S. and China interactions and their acceptance of one another as political and economic global superpowers.

Panelist Kenneth Lieberthal, senior fellow emeritus in the Foreign Policy Program at Brookings, discussed the history of the U.S. relationship with China, using his knowledge from working on the National Security Council in to accurately reflect on this. 

“By the late 90s, a major focus was, in many ways, to normalize China’s economic relations with the rest of the world,” Lieberthal said. “So there was a big push to negotiate China’s entry into the World Trade Organization.”

Mary Gallagher, a political science professor at the University of Michigan also sat on the panel. Gallagher said both China and America have benefited from “the massive expansion of trade” and that it has completely altered the global power structure.

Ann Lin, an associate professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, said power dynamics between the two countries have shifted over time.

“I think we have to understand that the power that the U.S. has to shape China’s image, or the power the U.S. has to let China into the rules of the world, is no longer the same as it was at the end of the 20th century,” said Lin.

The panelists said both countries are experiencing a decline in global standing, and Gallagher emphasized the adverse effects of the power competition on their internal actions. 

“We are encouraging each other’s bad behavior,” Gallagher said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence, for example, that in the same year that the United States, or in the same couple of years that the United States did a ban that was basically trying to ban people from Muslim countries coming into the United States in 2016, the following year China began to set up reeducation camps in Xinjiang to put Muslim minorities through a kind of reeducation and attempt to start to cleanse religious practices our of them.”

Lin said it is important for the U.S. to recognize China as a global competitor, despite fears about China’s economic growth posing a threat to American security. She added that one of the best ways to improve America’s relationship with China is by accepting international students.

“As China’s people are wealthier, more educated and more integrated into the world system, they would be better neighbors for us,” said Lin.

President Donald Trump’s administration recently proposed a new Department of Homeland Security policy to place a four-year fixed term on international student visas. 

In a previous interview with The Michigan Daily, Engineering junior Tony Pan, who is an international student from China, said the proposal, if adopted, would be the latest obstacle for international students, coming almost four months after they were nearly blocked from entering the United States if their university classes were online.

“There’s no Google without Sergey Brin, who’s an immigrant, and there’s no Tesla without Elon Musk, who’s from South Africa,” Pan said. “This (proposal) deters students from a U.S. education because it takes away valuable parts of getting working experience as a part of the education.”

At the panel Tuesday, Lieberthal said China’s human rights violations are a difficult issue when it comes to determining the U.S.’s relationship with China because it can be hard to persuade another country to alter its domestic behavior.

“On these issues very little, if anything will change. In fact, I think they will probably crack down harder insofar as they see us pointing to the problem,” Lieberthal said. “It’s one of those terrible issues where you just kind of sit there and wring your hands and say I wish there was more I could do that would be effective in improving the lives of the people that we’re talking about.” 

Lin said both countries have a cultural understanding of their own importance that shapes their policies toward one another.

“Both China and the U.S. share one thing in common in our national ideologies, which is that each country thinks it’s exceptional,” Lin said. “Each country thinks that, you know, that it is a leader, and should be a leader of the world.” 

Lieberthal acknowledged that a shift in American leadership’s partisanship could help the country open up to global cooperation in areas including climate change, health care and pandemic response.

“Those relations are best when both countries feel they are doing relatively well domestically,” Lieberthal said. “It gives them a kind of confidence to then address real issues with the other side.”

Daily News Contributor Brooke Halak can be reached at

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