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John Edwards on the Future of US-China Relations

Senator John Edwards (

Senator John Edwards (

Discussion with Senator John Edwards

New York
October 31, 2006

Address to Asia Society

VISHAKHA DESAI: Good morning and welcome. Welcome to the Asia Society. I'm delighted that so many of you are here this morning. My name is Vishakha Desai, president of this wonderful institution. And it's my great honor to welcome all of you on behalf of the Asia Society as well as the National Committee on US-China Relations. This program, indeed, is co-sponsored by National Committee on US-China Relations and it has a lot to do with the fact that, in fact, our speaker has just come back from China from a trip that was organized by the National Committee. I'm delighted to welcome Steve Orlins, the President of the National Committee, and thank both Steve and Jan Barris for their great support for this program.

I'm not going to take a lot of time just to simply say that this particular program is part of a series that we have developed for American political leaders, to understand their views on Asia. As you can imagine, many of them have national aspirations and that's one of the reasons why we want to know how they're going to think about Asia, both in terms of importance of Asia in the global affairs, as well as the issues that arise from number of hot spots that, of course, we know are in Asia today.

Senator Edwards is going to speak particularly on the future of US-China relations but there will be a broader gauged conversation afterwards. I'm delighted that you are here. If you're not members we invite you to join and I hope that you will join us as we continue to do our work in arts, culture, business, policy and education. Without further ado, I'm going to turn over the program to Leslie Stahl, who needs no introduction. But before I invite both of them to come up, a few housekeeping rules - and that is, please turn off your cell phones. And secondly, we would be grateful if you would fill out the questionnaire that is with you so that you can also tell us how we can do these programs better.

Leslie Stahl needs no introduction but she's a great friend of the institution, of our Chairman, of mine and most importantly, of course, a celebrated journalist from 60 Minutes. She's going to introduce our speaker and moderate the discussion. Please join me in welcoming both Leslie Stahl and Senator Edwards. [APPLAUSE]

LESLIE STAHL: Nice to see you. Senator Edwards and I are veterans at the interviewee/interviewer game because I interviewed him - not once in 2004 for 60 Minutes, but twice. But I get ahead of myself. Henry Kissinger once said that no one should run for president unless they have had a major tragedy in their life or a major setback in their life and have learned how to weather and bounce back. And Senator Edwards is that person. He was a trial lawyer, a very successful trial lawyer in North Carolina, sort of humming along when he had a tragedy. His beloved son, Wade, was killed in a freak car accident. And through that healing he decided to completely change his life and go into public service. And that is when he ran for the Senate from North Carolina, was a Senator for one term, ran for President in 2004, was chosen by John Kennedy to run.


Kerry. [LAUGHTER] We're in trouble. We're already in trouble. Can you hear us way in the back? Look how many people are here!

Yeah, that was great. Can I just point out?


Kennedy would have chosen me, too, but I was only eight at the time! [LAUGHTER]

[LAUGHS] Kennedy definitely would have chosen you! But, anyway, obviously, the run for Vice-President is not the end of the story. By all appearances, it quacks like a duck, the Senator is going to try again. And we are delighted that he is here today to share his views with us on foreign policy issues. But you've just come back from China.

I have.

And we are anxious for your briefing to start us off.

SENATOR EDWARDS: Okay. Thank you, Leslie, very much. Thank you, Leslie, very much. And also let me say a thank you to Richard and to the Asia Society for their hosting this event and to my friend, Steve Orlins, and the National Committee on US-China Relations, who hosted me in my trip to China. I just came back, maybe about a week or ten days ago, I guess. We had a terrific trip. Short, unfortunately, but it was very valuable from my perspective. Let me begin. I'm going to speak for a short time because I want us to have a conversation and then I want to have a conversation with you. And by the way, I'm going to speak only about China and one other subject that's important to me personally now, but we'll broaden the discussion when Leslie starts asking questions and you start to ask questions.

You know, it was clear to me before I went to China and it became even clearer while I was there, that there is no more important relationship that America has than our relationship with China. It's a relationship that, from my perspective as a Democrat, has not gotten the attention that it should have gotten over the last few years, for obvious reasons - Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, other priorities of this administration. And I think the relationship has suffered some as a result and I think we have a reason to be concerned about that. What I want to do today is talk just about a few very specific things and then I want to talk very briefly about a trip I made to Uganda and a piece that's in The Washington Post today, that I wrote about what's happening in Uganda right now.

Let me talk first about the immediate issue with China, which is North Korea and North Korea's testing of both missiles and nuclear weapons. For those of you who may not have seen the news, the Chinese have just announced that the North Koreans have agreed to come back to the Six Party Talks. Haven't been scheduled yet but they made this announcement within the last twenty-four hours, which is encouraging. That's a good thing. There was also some news in the last few days. It came out as part of a regular reporting process. But apparently in September China did not sell any oil to North Korea. Now, the Chinese did not announce this so we don't know if it's part of their policy and we don't know if it's a sanction that China has imposed. There's no way to know at this point. There's a lot of speculation about it. But one of the things that we were concerned about while we were in China and meeting with government leaders was the extent to which the Chinese were actually willing to enforce the UN sanctions, how committed they were to the enforcement of those sanctions. I think a lot of us, including me, have some concern about their willingness to do that. When we met with the Foreign Minister, which was actually one of the best meetings we had while we were there, we spent some time in the room where the Six Party Talks have been going on. And what he said to me is, he said, It would be very easy for the Americans, if they were willing to do it, to come in the context of the Six Party Talks, and the American representative and the North Korean representative just go over into that corner. He said, It's very important to the North Koreans, not just as a matter of substance but as a matter of how the world perceives North Korea. A matter of some pride for them, he says. And from my perspective - and this is, again, this is the opinion of John Edwards - I think it is very important for America to be willing to negotiate directly with the North Koreans. I don't think it's a sign of weakness. I think it creates a greater possibility of us being able to resolve this situation. And I think it's certainly less likely for us to be able to address this issue in a successful way if we're not willing to deal directly with the North Koreans. The Chinese are very, very supportive of America engaging in a direct dialogue with the North Koreans. So there's some encouraging news. It appears the Six Party Talks are going to resume. I'd love to see America get more engaged and be willing to dialogue directly with the North Koreans. I think this is a very, very serious issue. I'm sure today, as Leslie told me before we came in, we'll also talk about Iraq, talk about Iran and how all these things are connected, because - at least in my judgment - they are.

The second subject I want to talk about briefly is the question of China's rise and what it means for America. And one meetings that I remember best was that we had a meeting with the Education Minister. And it was fairly startling to me - it won't be to most of you - that China is going to become the largest English-speaking country on the face of the planet because they require that their kids in school learn to speak English. And they are completely invested, both financially and emotionally, in closing the education gap that exists in China - both regionally and between the better off families and those that are poor. About half their kids major in science, math, technology - the areas which I think are critical to success in today's world. By comparison, they graduate somewhere around ten times the number of engineers that we graduate each year. So they're very, very focused. It was striking to me, both in terms of their domestic policy but also the way what I'm about to say informs their foreign policy. Basically, what they seem to want is, they want to stay focused on being successful internally, strengthening and growing their economy - not at any cost, but willing to take a significant amount of cost in order to accomplish that. And that includes things like environmental degradation and continuing their rise in the consumption of energy. But it also affects their foreign policy and you can hear it in everything they say. You know, I asked specifically about the genocide in Darfur in Sudan. A lot of people, including me, are concerned that the Chinese are providing some propping up of Sudan and the Sudanese government because they get a lot of oil from Sudan. And I think there's just some truth to that. Their energy demands are high. They're focused on developing their economy. They need this oil in order to strengthen and grow their economy. So they're willing to not put pressure on the Sudanese government, even when a genocide is going on. But I think, also, it's put of this whole notion that they are focused in, not out. They want the world to be a stable, relatively tranquil place. I think it's also one of the reasons that they generally are not supportive of sanctions. I mean, America is much more aggressive about sanctions than the Chinese are, I think because we are about projecting ourselves around the world. And they certainly have more influence internationally than I think they're willing to recognize. But they are clearly focused on being successful internally. And it affects not only their domestic policy but also their foreign policy.

They also have huge challenges. That became clear. We had a meeting with a gentleman who was in the equivalent of their Environment Protection Agency. He was in the environmental bureaucracy, which is relatively small, by the way, for such a huge country. And he talked about going out into the rural areas of China and trying to get the local public officials to do something about the extraordinary environmental problems - and they have huge environmental problems in China. And he said, It's virtually impossible to get them to engage on this issue because they are judged based on their economic development. And he said, It is not a perimeter of their success whether they're doing something about environmental problems. Just anecdotally, I know a lot of you - and maybe all of you - have been there, but Beijing has as bad a traffic as Moscow, where I spent some time a few months ago, which is virtual gridlock a lot of the time. You can barely move. So they're becoming a car society with very little control, huge traffic problems. And they have both environmental and energy concerns. They're now the second largest consumer of oil on the planet, after the United States. I think that's very important in our relationship with them. Because, as I said earlier about Sudan, I think it's also true about Iran - as long as they continue to have these energy demands, as long as they're focused on economic development and what's happening internally, it will drive the way they engage on these other issues, particularly Iran, Sudan, Venezuela, other countries that we care about. So the question is, What does America do? How do we engage the Chinese? How do we engage them in a way that strengthens this relationship over time? Because I think it is in our interest for that to happen. It's in their interest for it to happen. But I don't think it's an easy challenge. You know, I had a conversation with the Defense Minister about the EP3 incident that happened in 2001. And I said, In follow-up to that, do you now have a direct line to the Defense Department in the United States so that if something happens accidentally we have a way to communicate with you and communicate quickly? Because that was one of the problems that occurred back in 2001.