Orville Schell: 'Tarnished' U.S. Needs to Learn How to Work With a More 'Combative' China

An onlooker holds the US and China flags as US President Barack Obama welcomes Chinese President Hu Jintao during a State Arrival ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, DC, January 19, 2011. (Jewel Samad/AFP/Getty Images)

Much has been written about China's so-called Jasmine Revolution and the government crackdown on progressives — including artist and activist Ai Weiwei — that followed. But beyond China's response to the protests, and the West's response to China's response, there is a larger sea change at play, Orville Schell, the prominent journalist, author and Arthur Ross Director of the Asia Society's Center on U.S.-China Relations, said in an interview Tuesday.

No matter their opinions on China's style of governance, Schell said, countries like the United States must learn how to live with this rising global power, which increasingly appears to care little about plying soft power.

You can watch video of Schell's comments at the bottom of this post. And here's a complete transcript:

I think in many ways we are sitting at the edge of a real shift in how China relates to the rest of the world, and thus how we will have to relate to China. And the Jasmine Revolutions, I think, have had a very profound effect on this. Because on one hand you have the well understood and somewhat familiar reaction of them feeling beset upon and criticized and vulnerable. But on the other hand you have this rising sense of confidence that grows out of China's increased power.

So I think we've arrived at a point where the old patterns of when Western countries negotiate with China it's always done from a position of sort of superior power, wealth and position — now the playing field has somewhat leveled. And China is not willing any longer to play this role of inferior. And it is certainly not suggestible to the old tactics, of before a president's visit or a prime minister's visit, that they are pressured into releasing a few dissidents or making some demonstrations, some genuflections, in order to win favor. Now they have adopted a much more rigid and firm and combative posture. So this means that in the future it's going to be a very, very different set of circumstances for a country, like the United States, that wants to have a good relationship. There's going to have to be a lot of more sensitivity, whether you agree or not with China's political positions, on how they are going to react.

I think one of the things that contributes to this new climate in which China is going to interact with the world is both its rise and, in many senses, the decline of the United States. Not only does the United States not have a lot of money to throw around, but I think its model as a good example of even certain kind of democratic practices is somewhat tarnished. So this makes it very difficult to be teaching, much less preaching, as the exemplar of a way that we'd like to see China imitate.

I am increasingly fearful that Americans are less and less able to keep up with this changing nature between not only China and the U.S. but China and developing countries, China and the E.U. It isn't any longer enough to ask if you like what China is doing, if you agree with its model, its form of governance. The question that we also have to ask is, how do you best deal with it? How do we best come to some kind of an accommodation to deal with the critical global problems like nuclear proliferation, climate change, world trade, global health issues that from which there is no escape?

About the Author

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Dan Washburn is Asia Society's Chief Content Officer. The Financial Times named his book, The Forbidden Game: Golf and the Chinese Dream, one of the best of 2014.