Wednesday, May 15, 2019 | 4:00 AM EDT - 4:00 AM EDT
The Portman Ritz-Carlton, Shanghai
Susan A. Thornton delivered the 2019 Barnett-Oksenberg Lecture on Sino-American Relations in Shanghai on May 15, 2019. Now in its twelfth iteration, this annual lecture affords the opportunity for a frank and forthright discussion of current and potential issues between the two countries; it is the first and only ongoing lecture series on U.S.-China relations that takes place on the Mainland.
Susan A. Thornton
Susan A. Thornton is a retired senior U.S. diplomat with almost 30 years of experience with the U.S. State Department in Eurasia and East Asia. She is currently a senior fellow and research scholar at Yale Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center.
Until July 2018, Thornton was acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Department of State and led East Asia policy making amid crises with North Korea, escalating trade tensions with China, and a fast-changing international environment. In previous State Department roles, she worked on China and Korea policy and served in leadership positions at U.S. embassies in Central Asia, Russia, the Caucasus, and China. She speaks Russian and Mandarin Chinese.
May 15, 2019 | Shanghai, China
2019 Barnett-Oksenberg Lecture on Sino-American Relations
“Prospects for Co-evolution in Sino-American Relations“
Susan A. Thornton
Senior Fellow, Paul Tsai China Center, Yale Law School
Former Acting Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Susan Thornton: Thank you all very much for being here today. I was told this was going to be an informal event, and I wanted to make sure that I leave plenty of time to have a conversation with all of you. I’m not sure who put me on the list of the top 10 people impacting U.S.-China relations, but I hope that we’re all here today because we want to have a positive impact on U.S.-China relations. I think all of us in this room care a lot about the future of this relationship, and that’s why you’re here. I am honored to be here on the long list of Barnett-Oksenberg lecture speakers. The whole list, actually, is just an incredible list of my heroes, and people I’ve looked up to my whole career, so I’m humbled to be here in front of you today.
I wanted to also mention, though, that we’re here because of the special bonds that get created between teachers and students, between adventurers, travelers, scholars, and business people who travel the world to meet people from different walks of life and different cultures, who speak different languages. They build close bonds because they have practical cooperation that they work on or they have curiosity about something. And those bridges, those connections end up being the strong things that carry us through life, and you can see it on the screen here today, with Paul Yeo setting up this forum to honor two people who were very influential in his life—his teachers. So I think it’s important to keep in mind that we’re all real people here. Whether we are from the United States or from China, we have long-time relationships that bring us together, and those are really valuable, strong currency for us, and we should hold on to that.
Today, U.S.-China relations are caught up in this vortex of mutual insecurity and recrimination. It’s been alluded to here by several of the speakers that there are daily stories in newspapers about the trade war, China’s predatory economic practices, the theft of intellectual property, cheating, etc. The acting defense secretary of the United States, who’s been nominated to be the defense secretary, and others have said that China is the greatest long-term threat to the United States. The director of our Federal Bureau of Investigation has called China a whole of society threat, and a representative of the State Department not long ago said that the U.S.-China strategic rivalry could be a clash of civilizations. China also believes the U.S. is threatening it by thwarting its economic rise and trying to block its modernization program. Both sides are contending with military assets in the seas near China’s coast and elsewhere, just daring the other side to provoke some kind of crisis. People in both China and Washington, D.C. are calling for technological decoupling, or the separation of the U.S. and Chinese economies, in part or in whole. This is something that seems so fantastic and unrealistic to us, but people are talking about this now.
Some people say that the U.S. and China are entering a new cold war. This is a huge change. The U.S. has always seen China as an opportunity, and China has certainly seen the U.S. as the key to its modern progress. In the early days of U.S. interactions with China, U.S. travelers focused on opening up China to the outside world. And in those days, this was done by traders and by missionaries. In World War II, China and the United States were allies, fighting against the Japanese invasion of China, and the U.S. saw China as crucial to the plans for the war in Asia. The U.S. even tried to end China’s civil war in 1949 when George Marshall tried to broker a compromise between Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. Of course, he was accused, after the fact, of losing China, and that touched off a raft of accusations in the United States Congress by Congressman Joe McCarthy, who went looking for the communist traitors who lost China. We then entered a period of estrangement from China, and Mao Zedong returned to the Soviet Union to try to help modernize China.
But when that didn’t work out, luckily for U.S.-China relations, President Nixon, who was quite visionary, and Henry Kissinger saw an opening, an opportunity to both address the lingering war in Vietnam, and try to bring that to a close, but also, to find a new ally against Soviet aggression in China. And so, those two goals were behind the opening that Nixon made when he came to China in 1972, but he also spurred kind of a curiosity and a vision among Americans about China when he said, “We can’t leave China there, outside the community of nations forever.” I think that was the beginning of a real love affair in America with China. That visionary diplomatic normalization that took place 40 years ago was key to the following 40 years of peace in East Asia. And key, frankly, to the Asian economic miracle, the rise of the Chinese all across Asia that brought about the greatest reduction in poverty and increase in human well-being in modern times.
So, what is it that has changed? People keep asking me this question. What happened? I think this is a really important question that many people have tried to answer. Clearly, things have changed in both China and the United States, and those changes have brought us to what many people see as a fundamental breakpoint in U.S.-China relations. Graham Allison, a professor at Harvard University, has posited that the new event is that the U.S. and China are falling into the Thucydides Trap. Graham Allison wrote a book about this Thucydides Trap and the U.S.-China relationship, and the book is called “Destined for War.” It’s a bestseller right now in Beijing, and it’s been translated into Chinese. That’s pretty ominous for us, and where we stand today.
Some say that changes in Beijing have led us to this point. It’s probably mostly Americans who say that, but we’ll go with it for now. I think it’s clear that China has embarked on a more aggressive foreign policy, and has turned away from reform and opening. It started in 2008-2009, just after the great financial crisis. China abandoned the economic reform program that was put forward in 2013 at the third plenum, turned more toward state intervention in the economy here, embarked on an aggressive island-building program in the South China Sea, and along with this, we’ve seen an increase in state efforts to appropriate technology, by whatever means, so that China could move up the production value chain and try to escape the middle-income trap, which has been a huge priority for the Chinese state. Of course, China continues to favor Chinese companies. I see a lot of business people in the audience, and I don’t think that would come as a surprise to you. Market sectors that U.S. companies and others have been hoping would open up have been kept closed. And China has generally not lived up to the commitments of moving to an open market economy that were embodied in its WTO accession commitments in 2001. Coincident with this was a renewed campaign of official retribution against those who would speak out or organize against prevailing government policies, and the specter of the incarceration of an entire ethnic group based on the assumption that they harbor extremist thoughts, which is pretty anathema to people in the United States, and I think elsewhere in the global community. I think what’s happening in Xinjiang is actually more significant in deterioration of relations between the United States and China than most people in China realize.
But of course, things in the U.S. have also changed. Obviously, our current president has a unique style. He likes to keep people off balance and communicates often very directly through certain social media platforms. I had direct experience with this, as it makes diplomacy very difficult. This approach of the president reflects, I think, a disappointment and a fear regarding globalization and the changing international landscape among many Americans. So maybe Graham Allison’s Thucydides Trap is onto something here. Many want to blame this fear of globalization and uncertainty about the future on China, claiming that China hasn’t played by the rules of the international system that it signed up to, that China has undermined U.S. industrial base, cost us jobs, etc., and kept its markets closed, and some of these claims might be exaggerated or incorrect, but there is a kernel of truth in all of them. That is what the current trade negotiations are about.
I think that the U.S. and China should certainly get about fixing the global trading system so that it is fair and sustainable, which is in both of our interests. And I also think that the trade deal that was on the table as of a week and a half ago, and now seems to have evaporated into thin air, should be pursued, and should be closed as quickly as possible. I think it’s a good deal for U.S. business, and I think U.S. businesses should make it clear that they think it’s a good deal. And I think it’s going to be a good deal for China because China needs to move ahead on opening up its markets and moving ahead with its economic reform program. I think you need to make it clear that the two countries that benefit the most from globalization are the United States and China, and people who’ve talked about rolling back globalization and think that that’s going to happen need to face up to this reality.
So what should we do? Rather than being destined for war or entering into a costly new cold war, because I’m one of the people who lived through the Cold War, and I certainly don’t think there are many people that want to go back to that, I think U.S. interests are best served, over the long term, by constructive cooperation and responsible competition with China, coupled with balancing and deterrence to curb any aggression. We can compete effectively while allowing China the space to grow and expand its influence and make its own mistakes. U.S. interests will be harmed not just by conflict with China, but also if we are unable to accept a more powerful China and if we fail to build constructive relations with China. China’s active participation is going to be crucial to addressing future challenges affecting all states, and the reality is that future problems will mostly not be bilateral, but multilateral or transnational, no matter what China and the United States would prefer.
To devise a policy that would allow for more productive U.S.-China relations, I think we would need to see clearly what it is that each country, what each side wants. Or maybe, more appropriately, what each side needs. So, I have a list of what China wants, and I have a list of what the U.S. wants. It’s not a complete list because I only have a half an hour up here, and the U.S. list alone would probably take hours to unspool.
But, my list for China goes like this. Number one, China wants stability. First and foremost, China wants domestic stability. And secondly, China wants stability in its region, on its periphery. No conflict. Number two, China wants continued growth with its national economic power, access to natural resources to power its economy, and markets for continued growth—and here I had in parenthesis Belt and Road Initiative, which we can talk about later. And this, in China’s view, is the win-win cooperation part of the equation. Number three, China wants international respect and recognition of the legitimacy of its governance model. This is the mutual respect. And it wants the ability to push back on those that are infringing its interests, in other words, not respecting it. And number four, China wants consolidation of its national borders. This might go hand in hand with number one: stability, but certainly consolidation of national borders, ie. stability in Tibet, stability in Xinjiang, recovery of Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea, and those areas that it claims.
What does the U.S. want? First, the U.S. wants to maintain global leadership while seeing increasing contributions to the global system from others. Some might think this is controversial now in the United States, but I don’t really think it is. I think most Americans want the United States to maintain global leadership. Number two, the United States also wants continued economic growth and dynamism for its economy. Number three, the United States wants to continue to provide a security turret and security umbrella in the Asia-Pacific region, to ensure stability and peace in this region. This region is going to be crucially important economically for America’s future, and for the future of global prosperity and growth. The United States wants to make sure it can have a role and be engaged in providing security here. Number four, the United States wants respect for the rules of the game. Fair play in the international system. Number five, the United States wants promotion of good governance around the world, meaning the spread of its values, ideally. But if it can’t get that, at least avoiding the creation of failed states through bad governance. And it would not like it if other countries were spreading that kind of bad governance, or values and standards that were anathema to good governance.
So, if you look through these two lists, it might look like there’s a lot of problems in the list of wants that the U.S. has, and China has, and there might be a lot of room for tension and conflict there. And I think that’s right, but there’s also a lot of space for common ground and working together. Since these interests that I’ve listed above are enduring, they’re probably going to outlast the current administrations in both countries. These are not things that are going to be changing at some point in the future, most likely. These are kind of bedrock values that the two countries are seeking, so it does provide us with the possibility of devising a longer-term roadmap for what I call co-evolution that accounts for common desires and differences, and tries to work those out satisfactorily, over time. This is the kind of effort that Henry Kissinger has called for when he says we need to fashion a new world order. And perhaps this is also the kind of thing that has been referred to in the Chinese concept of a new model of major powerful nations. I don’t know.
But we have to try to focus on this kind of a productive long-term shared agenda if we’re going to make progress in this relationship. And so, I’d like to speak to a few of the areas where I think we could possibly focus efforts to try to come up with a roadmap for a virtuous co-evolution cycle between the United States and China. The first, most obvious area is the economy, and we’ve got to get this trade deal done if we’re going to move forward on this one. As I mentioned, Asia is the future engine of global growth, and China and the U.S. can both make tremendous gains, or engender tremendous setbacks, depending on our ability to co-evolve with the international economic system. The U.S. should continue to press China on the forum’s opening, and should push the envelope here by joining the CPTPP, which is the new name for the Trans-Pacific Partnership that we tried to close in the last administration. This would push high standards of trade in the trading environment and would have the effect of a trade-induced race to the top that would provide competition for the world trade organization.
It would also allow the U.S. and its partners to set modern standards for new technologies, which will be the lifeblood of future growth. If you have a large trading block with high standards like this, that comprises a lot of the economic activity in Asia, and if you could link it to a trade agent with Europe, like TTIP, then you would have a competitor to the WTO, and you would also provide an incentive for China to move further towards reform and opening high standards and an open trading system. The second area is East Asian security. This one is a little bit tougher to find a co-evolution solution, but for the 40 years of U.S.-China normalization, there have been no conflicts in East Asia. So let’s just think about that, 40 years of normalization, no major conflicts in the East Asia region. I mean, that’s incredible. States have not had to spend money on military build-ups and military assets, they’ve been able to put their money into economic development in this region, and it shows. They’ve been able to balance economic dependency on China with the U.S. security umbrella which has allowed them to avoid falling prey to pressure tactics. I think this setup has proven itself and will need to continue into the future. I think China is going to have to evolve to see the value of the constraining effects of the U.S. security presence in the region, and the U.S. is going to have to evolve in respecting legitimate Chinese security concerns. This is going to be very difficult, but I think this problem is not the most prominent problem that we have in U.S.-China relations, and I think that it can be managed. I hope that over time it would be ameliorated if we could address it in this way. And there are clearly potential areas for cooperation in East Asia between the U.S.-China, for example, on the North Korean nuclear program, so we should be able to move ahead in those productive areas as well.
A third area is technology and cyber. Right now, this area appears to me be the locus of major tension and a standoff. But as two major technology innovators and users whose populations and systems are totally tied to our devices, the U.S. and China, are going to have to cooperate on many aspects of technology, including standards, regulation, emergency response, and international norms for the protection of infrastructure and arms control type agreements. Domestic governance is another area where I think we could find some fruitful cooperation. Chinese technocratic governance is increasing people’s satisfaction with government services in China. China has a lot of experience in innovation in managing megacities and is using, for example, automated systems to register and resolve certain types of court cases. Imagine what this would do to the U.S. legal industry, but a lot of people say those jobs are going away anyway. The U.S. has problems with some of China’s government’s methods, there’s no question about that, and we certainly wouldn’t adopt wholesale everything that’s happening in this area, but many U.S. mayors and governors have had continuing contacts with local Chinese officials in these megacities, and they are finding that they also have a lot to learn and share, regarding pragmatic city management and governance issues. I think this could be an expanding area, as technology changes.
Another area is international governance. International institutions are in need of a major overhaul. There’s no secret about that. China has complained that it’s not being given a say in setting up the international system or its institutions, and so I think it is high time that we try to work with China on reforming these institutions, since they need changing anyway. This would be an opportunity to revamp global development programs, fix the funding mechanisms, modernize and repair the international trading system, and listen to China’s ideas or objections to various respects of the UN system and the ideas they have for reform of that system. I think this is a crucial area for future work, as both the U.S. and China want to strengthen the international system for their own long-term interests. Some people say that China wants to overturn the international system. I disagree. I think the international system has served China’s modernization development very well. I think China understands the need for and the value of the international system, and I think it would be willing to work with the United States and other countries to strengthen that system and to contribute even more to that system, as it’s begun to do in recent decades.
Another area is global issues. This is my personal favorite. I mentioned that I think most of the problems of the future are going to be transnational in nature, not bilateral. People in the national security industrial complex in the United States have a tendency to dismiss things like health and disease, migration, environments, non-proliferation, food and product safety, education, scientific research, and transnational crime. They dismiss these things as being kind of soft, or multi-lateral issues. But these are the things that people in our two countries, the average people out there, not in the capitals, really care about. And these are the things that profoundly affect their daily lives. I think people around the world are looking to have their faith in government and institutions renewed. So U.S.-China cooperation on something like climate change, for example, could restore some of that faith and has the potential to be planet-altering. I think this could be just the important kind of thing that brings people back to the realization that U.S.-China cooperation is going to be essential for our long-term future. I think if we don’t do that, our future generations are not willing to forgive us, and I think they probably are right, they should not forgive us.
Thank you very much, and I look forward to having a conversation with you.
Professor Ni Shixiong: Thank you very much, Susan, for your excellent speech. Next Professor Cui Liru, the former president and the senior research fellow of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations to make comments.
Professor Cui Liru: Thank you, Professor Ni. I am very much honored to be invited as a commenter, especially for Susan, and also it is my honor to be here for this very meaningful and important Barnett-Oksenberg lecture. Because time is limited, I’ll just go straight into my commentary. Susan made a very good speech. It’s very comprehensive and very much objective and positive and constructive. I generally think I agree with her descriptions of the current situation and general views about both China and the United States. But I have to say, nowadays, as far as I know, I have seen many people when giving a speech, much like Susan, talk in such constructive and positive views.
So, Susan belongs to the school of optimism. Nowadays, maybe more people belong to the school of pessimism. Now, the question we cannot avoid very much is the topic of the trade war. I think the trade war is a very important subject, both for the United States and China. That is, we have come to a historical turning point, a crossroads, and a new phase of our relationship in the coming decades. My question is that why all these changes? What have these changes brought and what can we expect in the future of our relationship? We have to face that. In my view, we have come to a very historic period. In this era, we will see a new configuration of Sino-U.S. relations, which is very different from the past 40 or 50 years. Fundamental changes are taking place in the international arena, and in China-U.S. relations, and also above our mutual perceptions in the U.S. and China.
So I think that among various factors, one of the most important things, especially for U.S.-China relations, is that China is rising up. From my personal perspective and observations, not many American strategists and politicians in Washington, D.C. can have that kind of positive, objective, and sober view about this rising of China, like Susan does. So this is very much a fundamental issue now. Quite a lot of Americans in Washington, D.C., to me, have difficulty accepting the rising China. I’m not saying that China, or all things happening in China, is perfect. We have many problems. We’ve made mistakes. Governments make mistakes, great leaders make mistakes, but that’s not the point.
In her speech, Susan gave a very good narrative of what China wants and what the United States wants. But the different perceptions have now become a very prominent problem for us. For most people in China, their view is that America wants to interfere in China’s domestic affairs, which are not America’s business. But Americans believe they hold rightful values and that [interference] is something legitimate. We have to speak up. We have to leave all this, and resolve our relationship. This is a big problem we have to face. Taking the trade war as an example, why is there a trade war? China and the U.S. have had this dialogue for decades, and we have strategic and economic dialogues at the higher level, but we’ve made little progress. One of the reasons is that there are very different perceptions and very different arguments. The discussions just have been going around as both sides make their different arguments.
The trade war in the United States encompasses two things. One is the deficit, and the other is reciprocity. President Trump won’t reduce the deficit in the very short-term. So through reciprocity, there have to be some fundamental changes in China’s policy, and in China’s system. Thus, the trade disputes have become something formidable. In the last two weeks it has become predominantly political, which means that it will become extremely difficult, because for both sides, when things come to the political level and America makes all these conditions it wants agreed to, extremely difficult to accept, at least from the political point of view. It is almost asking for changes of the Chinese political system. What kind of Chinese leader or Chinese government can explain this to Chinese people? This is the problem.
From my personal observation, I think we are in a very difficult transitional period. Now, America’s argument for many people, why this exists is because China has changed its course, China has changed its policy, so the United States has to push back to remedy this course change. I do not quite agrees with this kind of argument. If China were still a weak country and had changed some course policies, America would not have cared too much. So, the essence is China has become big, and now that they’re too big, America has become very sensitive to all things happening that the United States doesn’t want to see. That’s the problem. We have to handle these problems, and we have to address these problems.
I think that we have different history, different cultures, and different political systems. And the evolution of Chinese society is very different from U.S. history, U.S. culture, and the U.S. political system. But we still have a lot of things in common, fundamental things in common. One of them is that China wants to build up this market economy. That’s why China and U.S. became interdependent. We can carry on with this economic integration, which we need and which the world economy needs.
I think this difficult situation will continue for quite a while. We have to prepare for these difficult periods in what we will do and what we should do. The key word is management. We have to manage it and not let the situation spiral down too much. We are still in a downturn situation. Two weeks ago, many people debated whether the two sides could reach agreement on this trade dispute. This will lay a very important foundation for the management of our relations for the next five years, at least.
The essence of Sino-U.S. relations has changed somewhat. A typical example is the U.S. national strategy published at the end of 2017, by the Trump Administration, which labeled China as a major challenge in the revisionist state, and defined China as a major challenger. They could have used different terms, but nowadays as it becomes more and more serious, the label could become rival, and then adversary, and it could also become enemy. Maybe two or four years ago, I think that rival was most often used, but in the recent months, what I heard from the United States is that they want more people to use the other words.
But China-U.S. relations is very much conflicted. Some people use the terms selective group, selective corporation, or selective competition. So even as we talk about the adversary or talk about the rival, I think, because our relationship is very complicated, we can also use the selective terms. In some areas, at least, the United States regards China as an adversary. In some strategic levels, areas in economics and high-tech technologies, the U.S. takes very weak measures. When you talk as Susan did about the disengagement, that term is something from the Cold War. So when you use those kinds of policies and terms, China is thought of and regarded as an adversary. But in other areas, I think China is a rival. But China is a major rival, major challenger, competitor, which is very much different from what we call a competitor, in general terms.
But still, we are partners. In most areas, we are stakeholders. So this is our relationship. But it’s not certain. The future is uncertain. We could be drifting in a very bad direction. With this trade war going on, if we can’t find a compromise or a solution, it could possibly drift into an all-around adversarial relationship. But I’m somewhat hopeful that we can manage to avoid that possibility, mainly because China and the United States are big countries. I think rationalism is important in big countries. If big countries cannot be rational and cannot be reasonable in the world order, how will others? I have been in this area for more than 40 years, so I am very happy to hear what Susan has talked about on this topic. On both sides, a lot of people still have long-term views based on realism, based on rationality, and based on being hope for our relationship. So, I’m still hopeful, in the long-term. Thank you very much.
Questioner: I have two trade war-related questions for you. Why did you mention Belt and Road, and what do you think would be a good American policy towards China’s initiative? Given the American Congress, could these long-term polices, long-term thinking, and long-term behavior really happen?
Thornton: I am optimistic and hopeful of U.S. Congress. It’s hard sometimes to be hopeful and optimistic. But you know, I think that the U.S. is also in a trade position, and there is a lot of rethinking going on. There’s a new generation coming up, and there are new challenges emerging, so I’m hopeful that somehow there will be more long-term thinking, if not in the Congress because we can’t really expect it in the House of Representatives with reelection every two years, but at least in the Senate. I hope we can have more bipartisan foreign policy because foreign policy needs to be bipartisan for it to be worth anything, so I’m hopeful for that.
On the first question, Belt and Road, I think a good U.S. policy on the Belt and Road would be to be more accepting, less skeptical, more involved with the Belt and Road, in order to try to help China bring up the standards or correct the pitfalls that we’ve been concerned about, to try to help them make it more successful, and to try to get U.S. companies more involved in the projects, in the Belt Road, and in investments that are happening. I think there’s been a lot of careless criticism of the Belt and Road, and I think that while a lot of the investments that China has made in Belt and Road have run into some trouble or haven’t worked out as well as they wanted, some of them are working out quite well. It’s a big picture. I don’t see the Belt and Road as some kind of a strategic threat to the United States, and I think that it would be helpful for other countries to be more involved and try to make it a positive thing for infrastructure development in this region, which would help road preservation and be down to our positive benefit.
Questioner: Not so long ago, when we had the second Global Summit, we had a very high-level dialogue between two countries where we talked about how to set a positive vision for the two countries to work together, how to maximize cooperation, and how to minimize decaying differences. Based on that period, are there things that we can learn from either the successes or the failures of that approach to the relationship that could help us work through where we’re at?
Thornton: There are no doubt lessons, I think, all along the trail of U.S.-China diplomacy that we have either forgotten or are not paying attention to now. And so, this [inaudible 01:12:33] this is a good example, where one of the lessons is that you have to have good communication and frequent interactions between high-level leaders in the United States and China. And you have to have leaders that send out coherent policy messages on what the approach to U.S.-China relations will be. Because in the absence of that, what you get in big bureaucracies, like in China and like in the United States, if there’s not a clear framing for the policy and for the relationship, people freelance and you get kind of a free hunting season on the other country. You don’t get coordinated policy, there’s no clear, overarching aim or goal, and you can’t get anything done. It’s just a cycle of mutual mistrust and weaker foundations.
I think in the second Global Summit, what the two leaders tried to do was set that framework for the overarching part of that relationship. And they didn’t manage to do that because the Chinese side suggested this new model of inter-country relations, which was not accepted by countries in the region or by the United States. So I think this issue of mutual suspicion, about what the other side is trying to sneak in behind a slogan or a framing concept has been a real problem. Without that framing concept, they would have problems in the institution, but I think we’ve learned a lot of other lessons along the way. We need to have continuous conversations about a whole range of topics. Professor Cui may have even mentioned that we have a lot of dialogues that haven’t produced a lot of results. That’s a big problem on the U.S. side. This administration introduced the concept of results oriented into their description of what they want for the U.S Treasury to do. But I think that’s, again, a cultural misunderstanding about what that means, how many results, and what period of time. And how do we implement and reinforce them? It becomes very oppositional, as opposed to the partnership that Professor Cui described, and I think working towards partnership is what we should be doing, but we’ve had a lot of trouble on that road.
Cui: I think that besides what Susan said, another factor is the domestic political factors that I feel are very much influential in foreign policy. It’s easier for me to take the United States as example, and I think that we see the policymakers as being shifted from the middle to hardline policies and cabinet members that occupy right-wing conservative principles. So we have a very different view about this relationship. And I think also, President Trump’s domestic agenda is very much driving forward what he would like counterparts in other countries to do. This is a very new situation, and I think China, in the beginning, needs a vision and a leader in the fight, who understand these kinds of new situations and the thinking and logic of President Trump. So, although we have had some good periods in the very beginning between the two governments and the top leaders, now we see very different thinking, new objectives, new agendas and the driving force behind them, and the main situation becomes more and more difficult. So again, there are different perceptions on both sides, and we have to have some time for both sides to get used these kind of changes.
Questioner: Do we expect another president to solve our relationship with China, or should we count on President Trump to fix it?
Thornton: There are people who say that the one issue in Washington DC on which there is a bipartisan consensus is to get Trump on China policy. So, not only the Republican administration is on board, but also all of the Democrats in Congress are fully on board with President Trump’s new hardline policy on China. I tend to think that it is not a good idea to have all of the U.S.-China eggs in the economic basket. I don’t think it’s balanced, and I don’t think it’s managing properly the differences between our two countries in a way that’s sustainable and can minimize the differences and make progress. So basically, while we talk about the trade and economic issues, a lot of the problems that Professor Cui alluded to are just being ignored and festering. We used to have a lot of robust communication and conversations between the two governments. That’s all stopped now. We’re only talking about trade at this very high-level channel, which means that miscommunication on all kinds of other issues and in all kinds of lower levels is just magnifying because there’s no communication happening.
I think the question China is always asking itself is which U.S. president is going to be better for China? And I think that’s probably not the right question to ask, because it depends on what the situation is and what they do about U.S.-China relations when they come in. The problem the democrats have is that they always are going to be accused by Republicans of being weak, so they have to look tough. That’s the problem with Democrats on China policy. But I think that President Trump has a very unique style, so any other president coming into office in the United States is not going to have that unique style, and will have a more balanced and predictable set of policies toward China. So I would expect that this obsessive focus on trade deficit and reciprocity would morph into something that’s a lot more familiar from the past presidential administrations of the United States. That would be my guess.
Cui: I don’t think that the China-U.S. relations would totally depend on the U.S. president, but Trump has played a big role. However, Trump’s view and the view of many people in Washington DC in these political and strategic circles does not completely represent the rest of the United States. So if you go to different parts of the States, you might observe differences from Washington DC. But the president makes the final decisions, so that is most important. China’s policy in the U.S.-China relations should not solely depend on our prediction of who is going to be elected our leader. I think we have to realize this is a huge condition. We have to realize, as Susan described, the huge changes in place, and because of these transitions, we have to address them. But one of the important things we should realize is that we have to understand each other better than we used to. I think that this is a challenging issue. I have talked with Americans and my Chinese colleagues, and just on a very simple argument or on a simple phenomenon people might have very different views.
As China and the United States have become closer, we have intertwined our relations. These differing views could have a huge impact on the policy-making process. People firmly believe in what they consider to be the truth, so this is a challenge we have to address.
Questioner: What is the agenda behind the current foreign policy of Congress and the current administration in provoking China on the Taiwan issue? Is Washington DC concerned that such provocation will eventually accelerate the reunification of Taiwan and mainland China?
Thornton: I certainly hope not. Ever since Jimmy Carter sent his national security advisor over to negotiate the normalization communique in secret, without telling the Congress, Congress has taken it upon itself to be the protector of Taiwan. So, this is not a new phenomenon. But it is true that there is more anti-China legislation being produced in Congress than we’ve seen in quite a long time, not just about Taiwan, but also about other things. I think this comes, to some extent, from this hunting season phenomenon that I mentioned. There’s very little signal being sent from the top on what the overarching policy for China from the United States administration is, so I think this is an easy way for people in Congress to push forward a politically advantageous issue without expecting any kind of roadblocks from the administration. That said, I don’t think any of the resolutions or things that have come out recently fundamentally change anything about U.S. policy. The administration has said that there isn’t a change in its Taiwan policy, so in a way, it doesn’t really matter what Congress puts out because it’s the administration that determines what’s going to happen on Taiwan policy.
I think, from where I sit, this is a congressional overreaching on this issue, but I don’t expect to have it produce any major changes. I think this is one area where the administration, and President Trump himself, has declared that the policy will not change, that he’s not interested in any changes to the status quo on Taiwan, and he very much wants to encourage Beijing and Taiwan to maintain the status quo. I know that these pieces of legislation get a lot of attention in China, but they get almost no attention in the United States. That is actually a constant theme about a lot of the China-related statements and things that are put out in Washington. They’re aimed at a domestic audience, but they get very little domestic attention, and they get a lot of attention in China, which is unfortunate. But I think this fits in that category, and I actually think that the Taiwan issue is one that, among all the problems we have right now, has not been a major point of contention or confrontation between the U.S. and China recently. So, I hope we can maintain that kind of steady approach to the situation.
Cui: Personally, I’m very much concerned by this development. The first issue is that in Washington DC, not many people in the public arenas are speaking positively about China, which provides the background. The second issue is the bills being passed because should the president choose to apply what was passed in Congress, there would be serious problems. For example, in this trade war, all our economic relations are going through some kind of confrontation. Taiwan is the foundation, in terms of our relations between the two countries. So I hope what Susan said can come true, but there are of course uncertainties there. Thank you.
Questioner: The notion about co-evolution implies some parity in which two groups are equal, but it seems that the present misconception is that China’s rise has been at the expense of the U.S and that the rivalry between the two groups is a much more prevalent way to look at foreign policy. Would you see yourself as an outlier in terms of your view of co-evolution?
Thornton: I think you could say I fundamentally disagree with the policy coming out of Washington. I don’t understand what we’re going to accomplish by this current path that we’re on. I think it’s destructive to U.S. interests principally, probably also to other countries’ interests, but mainly to our own interests.
Questioner: What affect do you think the trade war will have on institutions that are trying to bring Chinese and Americans together? And what these institutions do to help make better relations?
Thornton: I’m hopeful that the trade war is not going to have any major negative impact on institutions such as the Shanghai-American School, or other universities and educational institutions. Even though Professor Cui said he’s hopeful as he ended his talk, his talk didn’t sound too hopeful to me, but I’m hopeful, at least, that we will get to a resolution of this trade dispute. A trade dispute between the U.S. and China is not going to end with this trade deal. The U.S. and China are the two largest economies on the planet, they’re two different systems, and we have a lot of complicated and intertwined business and economic interactions. This is a never-ending trade negotiation, but if we get a deal that is a good deal for U.S. companies and also helps with China’s reforms, I think that’s a win-win, and that’s something we can focus on, implement, and move forward with. So I hope we’ll get that in the next month. It could be longer, but I think we’ll get it eventually.
I think in the meantime, people in institutions like the Shanghai-American School and their students can write letters to President Xi and President Trump and encourage them to move in the direction of a trade deal because it’s going to be good for both countries, their people, and for those around the globe. That would be my suggestion.
Cui: First, my view is that your institution will not be affected, unless our relationship becomes very, very bad. Second, regarding the trade war, I’m not that optimistic in the short period. We have already passed the possibility of reaching a comprehensive framework or solving all these problems with the framework as a base for our trade relations in the future because it is not a balanced discussion. The Chinese current feeling is that the United States has asked the Chinese people to change its agreement in the coalition. I don’t think that, politically, the Chinese government can accept that. But I think President Trump will stay on the issue. So I hope the problem can be resolved through finding some middle ground and creating a transition period.
Questioner: With the rising concern of bioengineering and artificial intelligence, what should China and the U.S. work together on in order to mediate the consequences and establish a better 21st century?
Thornton: I’m glad that you’re worried about those things because I’m really worried about them, too. I think this is a clear area where we don’t know what the future is going to bring. The technology is already running ahead of the government’s ability to regulate it and its ability to even know what’s happening. So I think we’re filled with a lot of mutual suspicion on all of these technology issues right now, which has prevented us from getting together in international forums to talk about ways in which governments should be trying to exert some kind of regulatory control, or at least awareness and transparency over what’s happening in these areas. That would be one of my areas for co-evolution, and it’s actually way beyond time to start having these conversations, but unfortunately, we haven’t been having them for the last couple of years. I think China might be having these conversations in international institutions while the U.S. chair is sitting empty, and I think that is quite unfortunate.
Jan Berris: The private sector is, however, beginning to do some of that work. The National Committee has a dialogue that we just started, called the U.S.-China Track II Dialogue on the Digital Economy, that looks at some of those issues, but it’s going to require that the government sit down in addition to just the private sector.
Cui: My view is that this mainly depends on U.S. policies. As I said earlier, the U.S. policies are selective in these areas. My impression is that in these areas, the U.S. has developed more advanced knowledge than China has. So there will be more difficulties in the areas you’ve mentioned.
Questioner: For Ms. Thornton: given the divergent views cybersecurity, what is your opinion on some of the challenges for cooperation in this area? For either Professor Cui or Professor Ni, as someone who wants to see the future of the U.S.-China relations improve, what is one piece of advice that you would give to the new generation of budding scholars and policymakers from the U.S. side?
Thornton: I have been involved in a lot of conversations with China and the Chinese counterpart on cyber issues when I was in the government. I’ve also done a lot of looking into this question since leaving the government. My impression is that this is going to be very hard. First of all, I don’t think many people have grappled with the reality of cybersecurity. I think we’re still trying to figure out where the belly button is on cybersecurity. People are not really grappling with a cost-benefit analysis on cybersecurity, how much security is enough and how much are we willing to pay for perfect security? And then you’ve got the whole intelligence angle on cyber, in which nobody really wants to agree to anything or be limited in any way on what they might do in that space. So I think it’s very broad, and I don’t know if we’ll be able to get to reasonable conversations about it. It hasn’t really started yet.
We had some conversations about trying to define critical infrastructure, in the case of a cyber-attack. Once you start defining critical infrastructure for a cyber-attack, on both sides, the definition just keeps building until you’ve got almost everything covered. And that keeps happening on almost all of these areas. You can never get to that narrowly targeted set. Right now, people on technology are talking about a small yard and a high fence, but nobody can decide what’s in the small yard. Almost every technology now is dual-use, and it’s all considered sensitive by somebody in either the intelligence or national security communities. So these conversations aren’t even happening right now because people are not being very realistic. Until we get more realistic about what it is that we want to see and how we’re going to have a conversation about it with other people, we’re not getting very far, unfortunately.
Cui: I hope the young generations studying China and the United States could become more comprehensive. We have more and more people in studying Chinese, but they are also becoming more and more specified. People like Doak Barnett and Mike Oksenberg, and even Professor Lampton, are more comprehensive. In our relations, if you want to know the other side better and understand complicated relations, you have to be relatively comprehensive.
Berris: Excellent suggestion. And actually, the National Committee has a program to get our younger China specialists to be more like Phillip Barnett, Mike Oksenberg, and Mike Lampton and have them look at China more comprehensively, rather than through their own narrow prism of their own setting.
So, I just want to thank you all before turning it over to Professor Ni on behalf of Paul, and the National Committee. We thank you very much for this. It’s been wonderful. Thank you all very much for coming.