Apr 11, 2023
U.S.-China Relations: What’s to Come?
The World Affairs Council of Philadelphia hosted a lecture by Buntzie Ellis Churchill, President Emerita of the Council, about the difficult relationship between the United States and China.
Watch the Recording
About the Event
China is now the United States’ greatest economic competitor. Currently, these two countries are at loggerheads over issues ranging from trade and technology to national security and Taiwan. President Xi Jinping has vowed to make China a modern socialist power by 2035 and to ensure that the country leads in “national strength and international influence” by 2049. But is this possible, and how is China currently faring on these goals?
With its investments in the military, China appears to be bracing for confrontation, while there are concerns about American preparedness. The US military is no longer the unchallenged leader. Is the United States still a superpower?
Ms. Churchill began with an analysis of computing power as the newest arena of warfare and great power competition. She argued that the U.S. needs to focus more on the development of AI and increase funding for DARPA. She described China’s long history of innovation and invention in pre-modern times and argued that its current society no longer makes frequent breakthroughs. Ms. Churchill compared the present dynamic to the Cold War, but depicted the US as politically fragmented while China presents a strong and unified national will. Moving on to military matters, she argued that China seeks to attain influence and military power commensurate with its economic weight. Despite growing size and funding of China’s military, Ms. Churchill pointed to serious structural challenges, such as the lack of hands-on military experience and the potentially disastrous effects of wartime deaths of young soldiers because of the One Child Policy. Examining the industries and supply chains of China and the U.S., Ms. Churchill looks at expanding Chinese investments in foreign agriculture and the American reliance on imports for all of its critical minerals. She argued that the American economy does not have an arms industry capable of supplying the military past the opening phase of a war, even if it could resolve the persistent delays in procurement evident during peacetime. On the recruitment front, she noted that many Chinese engineers find employment in the military, while the U.S. Defense Department struggles to attract talent which is instead employed by the private sector.
Ms. Churchill then described the leverage that the United States still holds over Chinese businesses and the world diplomatic system. She detailed the Biden administrations ban on exporting U.S. chip manufacturing technology to China, which immediately redirected the supply chains of many of the world’s top manufacturers. She praised the efforts to foster chip manufacturing in the U.S. but lamented the CHIPS Act’s many riders, which she predicted will stifle investment. Ms. Churchill also noted the potential for international and domestic unity on foreign policy, pointing to U.S. coalition-building during the Gulf Wars and recent bipartisan hearings on China. She ended her keynote with a warning that China plans to take aggressive action soon, since she believes its leadership predicts that Chinese economic and demographic advantages may evaporate in the long-term due to U.S. innovation and China’s aging population. To prevent a conflict, she advocated increasing military spending and modernizing American equipment to deter China.
The event then moved to audience Q&A. One audience member asked what China hopes to gain from its support for Vladimir Putin. Ms. Churchill replied that Russia’s reputation as a great power grants prestige to China when the former is seen as a junior partner to the latter. On the matter of changing rules of engagement, she advocated for greater communication between think tanks and military leadership to adapt to future changes in warfare. An audience member asked about the significance of Tiktok and Ms. Churchill expressed her belief that it is an important tool for communicating ideas. The final question of the night was about the widespread distrust for elites and experts. Ms. Churchill said it is the responsibility of everyone to educate their children and grandchildren on important matters and to fight the climate of divineness.
About the Speaker
Buntzie Ellis Churchill led the World Affairs Council of Philadelphia as president for almost a quarter century and built a national reputation for the organization. During her tenure, as the Philadelphia Inquirer described, she brought the world to Philadelphia—Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, Henry Kissinger, and Benjamin Netanyahu. American politicians, journalists, and academics were often headliners. She moderated the Council's daily radio show on WFLN-FM for a decade, has conducted educational trips to more than 60 countries, and she now lectures frequently.
She has received numerous awards for her contributions to the community, including being awarded several honorary doctorates. She has been a member of the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, as well as a trustee of Drexel University and a dozen other non-profits. Buntzie has co-authored two books with the doyen of Middle East studies, Princeton professor Bernard Lewis—Islam: the Religion and the People and “Notes on a Century: Reflections of a Middle East Historian.”
Mrs. Churchill attended Philadelphia High School for Girls and graduated with honors from the University of Pennsylvania in political science and international relations.