October 14, 2021

By Jeenho Hahm MPA ’19

Thomas Christensen, a scholar of international relations and China in particular, joined SIPA as a professor of international and public affairs in fall 2018. He has taught at MIT, Cornell, and Princeton, and from mid-2006 to mid-2008 he served as deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs. His most recent book, The China Challenge: Shaping the Choices of a Rising Power, was an editors’ choice at the New York Times Book Review.

Christensen is also codirector of the Columbia-Harvard China and the World program, which supports newly minted PhDs whose work bridges China studies and international relations and brings them together with recognized scholars and practitioners in these fields.

Christensen spoke with Jeenho Hahm MPA ’19 in late June. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

How do you assess the Biden administration’s policy toward China in the first six months?

It is hard to tell because my sense is that the Biden administration has a phased approach to China. First, I think the new US strategy is to patch up relations with the allies and partners in Asia and Europe before approaching China. I don’t think bilateral engagement with China has been a priority, because the new administration wants to bolster relationships with others first so as to approach China from a position of strength.

Second, I don’t think adjusting the aspects of the Trump administration’s China policy is a priority for the Biden administration, because they have so many big fish to fry, from the COVID-19 pandemic to infrastructure projects. We haven’t yet seen the Biden administration’s approach to China in its full form.

Third, the US can’t avoid dealing with China on certain issues. There’s always talk in Washington—on both sides of the aisle— about abandoning the old engagement policy with China because it was a failure. I think that’s pretty much all nonsense and that any administration has a particular set of issues on which China has to be engaged if we are to resolve them. One of them is climate change. Th e other one is nuclear nonproliferation. China is by far the biggest economic partner of North Korea and Iran. You just can’t deal with nuclear proliferation issues in a non-kinetic way without dealing with China.

And other issues will come up over the next year or so. In particular, the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic in the developing world, I think, is going to be a big issue in 2022. As the pandemic impacts their economies and they cannot repay their debts, engaging China will be necessary because it is a significant lender in the developing world. Th e idea that engagement was wrong or stupid doesn’t make sense.

You once drew a stark contrast between the case of the United States and the Soviet Union’s successful cooperation on the elimination of smallpox during the Cold War with the recent failure of the United States and China to cooperate on COVID-19. What lessons can the US and China draw from history to work together on global issues even during competition?

I said in the spring of 2020, when the pandemic was new, that the United States and China should be able to cooperate on vaccine distribution and health infrastructure around the world. It’s a tragedy that the US and China can’t do it. And I offered reasons why both are to blame, not just one.

We can have a competition. But if you want to compete, let’s see who can do more for the developing world in distributing vaccines. Th e US and advanced democracies can do well in helping the developing world with vaccines. It is impressive how private industry in the US produces better vaccines—and produces them faster than others. I hope we remember that the strongest part of the US’s competitive power is the private sector. I’d prefer we work with China because they have specific skill sets that we don’t have regarding health conditions in the developing world. We should be able to work together in a very productive way, it seems to me. But we have not.

Scientists tell us that unless everybody’s vaccinated, none of us are safe over the long run because variants will form in places without vaccines and defeat the type of vaccine we have now. It’s in our self-interest to vaccinate the whole world.

Th e analogy I’d use here is kids in the US with their little orange boxes at Halloween competing to raise money for UNICEF. If you raise a bunch of money, that’s great, but it’s even better if someone raises more money, right? It’s a kind of competition that could produce very positive outcomes if it mobilizes both countries to do the right thing. It shouldn’t have to be a zero-sum competition.

Do you believe that China will engage less in security and human rights issues over time, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic?

I think China has been more assertive for several years, especially on sovereignty disputes and human rights, as it has lashed out at countries that criticize it. And China has been much more assertive in a way that has made the country much less popular in multiple countries around the world. This was true even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, I think China wants to return to the dialogues and has signaled that to the United States, but the Biden administration hasn’t been so eager, for the reasons I mentioned earlier.

As I said before, I reject this idea that somehow engagement was wrongheaded. That’s based on the idea that engagement is all about being friendly and accommodating. We’ve been competing with China in the military sphere for decades, and we’ve pushed back when China behaved in abrasive or aggressive ways. That should continue, and I’m sure it will. We’ve also been engaging China as necessary because its footprint is so large that it would be counterproductive to leave China out of discussions. I think no matter who’s in charge, you’re going to have that combination of competition and pursuit of cooperation on global issues.

I think that the trade war set a tone for China to be less willing to engage on other issues, which is kind of a natural response. On the other hand, a lot of China’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy is also really counterproductive, which shows a combination of insecurity and overconfidence. I’d argue that has been destructive to China’s diplomatic portfolio.

But I do not think we are going to see something like a US-Soviet Cold War in our relations with China. There are three critical missing factors in the Cold War analogy. I think it’s probably better to look at my publications on this topic, but, first, I don’t believe that China is trying to export its political model. Second, 8 out of China’s top 10 economic partners are the US and its allies, which means that today’s economic integration is different from the economic separation in the Cold War. Lastly, the previous two factors lead to the lack of the cleanly defined and opposing alliance blocs that we saw during the Cold War.

That doesn’t mean there’s not a great power competition. Still, suppose the United States adopts policies consistent with a Cold War situation when it’s not a Cold War. In that case, the US will end up alienating its allies and partners, which I believe are the greatest source of comparative strength that the US has in its competition with China. China lacks serious alliance relationships like we have around the world. My test of an alliance sets a very high bar. Can you imagine China fighting alongside Russia in its disputes in eastern Europe? Or can you imagine Russia fighting alongside China across the Taiwan Strait or against Japan? My answer to that is still no.

How would you respond to the calls for limiting the number of Chinese students studying in the US, especially on STEM subjects, which could concede the long-term advantage to China?

I think it’s in the US’s interest to have an academic exchange with China in both directions. I think it’s important for Americans to go over to China and understand the place better. I hope that the US will get over some of its allergies to immigration and make it very desirable for citizens of all countries, including China, who want to stay in America after getting their education to stay here because I think that’s one of the greatest sources of strength in American history.

Even if the two countries are in a hostile relationship, it’s better to understand each other than not to understand each other because it avoids at least one source of unnecessary conflict, which is mutual misperception.

In terms of artificial intelligence, lasers, and other weapons-related technologies, that’s something that the United States should be careful about sharing with international students. From a policy perspective, I support the effort by experts in those fields to figure out where those lines are, but I would encourage people not to go so far as to exclude Chinese students in general science.

I also taught at MIT, and the school benefited greatly from having Chinese graduate students and postdocs who were expert staff in the laboratories. The MIT model, as I understood it and as someone else put it quite well, was to have “high fences around small yards.” The small yards to be protected are the weapons-related technologies; but we should not build fences around the entire scientific community, because that will make America weaker in the end. That kind of model is probably the best.

What is the role of the Columbia- Harvard China and the World program (C&WP) during unprecedented times?

C&WP provides services that I think are very important to Columbia in two ways. First, our postdoctoral fellows teach one class on China’s foreign relations in either SIPA or the Political Science Department. Those classes have been very well received, and you have a force multiplier that provides three or four courses related to the subject in any given year.

The second is our speaker series, where students can attend lectures by leading scholars and public officials addressing issues related to China’s foreign relations. I’d prefer to have meetings in person, but we’ve had record attendance on Zoom because physical rooms have limited capacity but Zoom’s limit is 300. We hit that limit a couple of times this year.

The primary purpose of C&WP is to nurture the careers of young recently minted PhDs to encourage them to land good jobs and stay in academia to teach. We want to keep people in the classroom to educate the next generation of citizens worldwide about this really important topic of China’s rise. And we’re proud that we’ve had over 50 fellows, and now 90 percent of them are in teaching jobs. The vast majority of them are in tenure-track positions, and some even have chaired professorships.

What are the key takeaways for students studying US-China relations now?

I learned that one of the great things about teaching is that you learn from your students. And what I’ve been taking away from the program is that in a situation where US-China relations are very tense, it’s harder to get research opportunities. It’s harder for Chinese experts to visit the US because they run into visa and security problems. It’s also harder for US experts to get over to China to do their field research.

I’ve discovered through the research of some of my fellows that it’s still very fruitful and possible to research China’s policies toward third countries that impact the strategic competition with the United States. We have fellows from around the world who study China. They study China’s policy toward multiple countries, and those policies have a significant impact on US strategy. We’ve had fellows who study China’s use of economic diplomacy, like the Belt and Road Initiative, and China’s relations with Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia.

You can travel to third countries and study these topics without being subject to the same restrictions that exist now in studying relations between the United States and China. In studying bilateral US-China relations, it is harder to have the kind of robust dialogues that we’ve had in the past because people feel constrained. So it is sometimes easier and more fruitful to research Chinese foreign policy toward third countries, and many of our fellows have been doing that in the last several years to produce excellent work that I think is also useful for the United States.

This story appears in the most recent issue of SIPA Magazinepublished in October 2021.