Former U.S. Ambassador to China: 'Nobody Knows What China Policy Would Look Like Under Trump'

Winston Lord and Orville Schell discuss how the next American president should approach the U.S.-China relationship. (3 min., 58 sec.)

Former U.S. Ambassador to China Winston Lord says that U.S.-China relations have entered a new phase, which he labels “controlled enmity.”

“We'd hoped to be partners on the world stage, then we sort of scaled it back and said maybe we can be wary competitors,” he said on a panel at Asia Society in New York on Thursday. “As long as [Chinese President Xi Jinping] is in power, with his domestic and foreign policies, I think we're going to have to live with controlled enmity.”

Lord, who was ambassador to China under presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush from 1985 to 1989 and assistant secretary of state under Bill Clinton from 1993 to 1997, said that, while China and the U.S. are still doing business and managing to keep major sources of conflict in check, China is taking an increasingly hostile posture toward the U.S. through state media and official rhetoric. It has also ramped up repression of NGOs, media, and academia that might bring in foreign influence. Xi, Lord said, is “anti-American” and won’t be convinced that the U.S. isn’t trying to subvert China.

“I think Xi is haunted by the ghost of [Mikhail] Gorbachev, who he felt gave away the [Soviet] Communist Party and the empire by having too much political openness,” he added. “And to be fair, I think Xi honestly believes that we're trying to overthrow his government.”

However, he noted that both sides share blame for the souring relationship. He pointed to the U.S. unnecessarily alienating China by attempting to thwart its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), as well as the Obama administration poorly framing its “pivot” to Asia. This year’s American presidential election may also be fanning flames. “We have to be careful not to be arrogant in terms of saying, 'You oughta be like us,'” Lord said. “Particularly with the way we're looking these days in terms of our democracy.”

Going forward, Lord suggested that the next U.S. president appoint someone “very close and very prestigious” to represent the White House and spend substantial time in China to try and turn the relationship around. This could perhaps be done by the national security advisor — the role Henry Kissinger held when he first re-initiated contact with China in 1971.

Also speaking on the panel, Director of Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations Orville Schell suggested that, if Hillary Clinton is elected, her husband would be ideal for the role of opening a more substantive dialogue with Chinese leaders. “My own view is that first thing she should do is tell Bill to pack his bag, go to Beijing, and smoke this thing out for a couple of months,” Schell said. “There's no human being who has more status — which is immensely important to China — than a former president… He should just go to Xi Jinping and say, ‘Listen, this is a critical tipping point moment — we either turn this thing around somehow, get some better, deeper, more trusting understanding about our intentions and ability to collaborate, or we're going to both rue the day, because we'll fall into a more adversarial position.’”

Neither Schell nor Lord knew what to make of the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. “Nobody knows what China policy would look like under Trump — above all not Trump himself,” Lord said. “I'm serious. This man is incoherent and has no idea what he's going to do.”

Watch Schell and Lord discuss how the next president should approach China in the above video. Watch the full program below.

Winston Lord and Orville Schell discuss challenges and opportunities for the U.S.-China relationship and the implications of the U.S. presidential election. Emily Parker moderates the discussion. (1 hr., 14 min.)

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.