The Challenge in U.S.-China Relations
Daniel Russel at Loyola Marymount University
The following is the full transcript of ASPI Vice President of International Security and Diplomacy Daniel Russel's full remarks at Loyola Marymount University on February 4, 2020.
Let me begin by telling you why I became a diplomat.
I learned to love my own country by learning to admire other countries. I spent a year as a student in the United Kingdom and subsequently traveled to Japan, lived there for several years, learned the language, and became intrigued by its culture. It was these overseas experiences that taught me where I came from, what shaped me, and what I most valued in my own country.
After returning to the U.S., I took a job that entailed helping visiting business, scientific, local government, and other delegations from Asia arrange meetings in the U.S. to learn from their American counterparts. I was struck by the energy and appetite for learning by these foreign professionals, many of whom spoke English. In contrast, I was bothered by the complacency and ignorance about other countries on the U.S. side, virtually none of whom traveled abroad or spoke other languages.
Eventually, it dawned on me that the United States wasn’t someone else’s country, it was mine – and if this lack of international expertise really bothered me, then I should do something to remedy it, not count on someone else to do what’s right. That led me to join the Foreign Service, where I enjoyed a wonderfully rewarding and deeply satisfying career. So I urge you all to consider public service as a career, whether in government, an international organization, or a non-governmental organization.
Why is this biographic excursion relevant to today’s topic – the challenge in U.S.-China relations? I’ll offer two reasons:
First, an objective, reality-based understanding of China includes appreciating what is admirable and being clear-eyed about what is objectionable in China, its system, and its national behavior. That balanced assessment is a prerequisite to developing an effective strategy for dealing with China.
Secondly, unless we are each willing to take action to make our own country better, smarter, more capable, the United States simply won’t be in a position to implement an effective strategy for dealing with China.
But let’s start by looking at the U.S. - China relationship - then and now.
I worked for President Obama for eight years, advising him on Asia policy. There is today abundant criticism of past U.S. policy toward China for overreliance on “engagement”, but our basic strategy was anything but naïve and I am convinced it was sound.
We worked to promote cooperation with China on issues that genuinely mattered to our citizens and the world … like climate change and global health. We worked to identify our differences with China with a view to resolving them where we could, and managing them where we couldn’t. We worked to build consensus on the rules governing competition and to enforce them in the context of global governance.
We worked to show China that the U.S. accepted the rise of China; that we wanted it to be peaceful, stable, prosperous… but with a quid pro quo, so to speak -- namely, that we also wanted China to be a responsible player in global affairs that respected the rules, even when to do so was inconvenient.
And importantly, we worked to live up to the ideals that America has championed; to show our resolve to protect core values – freedom, democracy, human rights; to demonstrate that the United States stands for something greater than its own self-interest. In my experience as a diplomat, this is a huge part of what has generated international respect and support for the U.S. I have also observed it is what inspires and motivates citizens in other countries, including in China, to work for positive change in their own systems.
As I said, neither I nor my colleagues, nor then-President Obama, were naïve about the Chinese government. We were frustrated and concerned by problematic policies and worsening behavior in multiple domains. We recognized that the accumulated grievances over China’s policies and behavior were reaching a tipping point in the United States. The U.S. government stance toward a range of problematic Chinese behavior was toughening and that trend would surely have continued in a Hillary Clinton administration. Today’s “consensus” on China formed over time and reflected a widespread and intensifying sense of unfairness.
A feeling that China has been gaming the system by taking advantage of the openness of international institutions, the openness of U.S. markets, and the openness of U.S. society. This is a feeling not limited to the United States or to one sector or political party. And it’s not without a credible basis in fact because there is certainly a lot to complain about: the lack of reciprocity, unfair treatment of U.S. business, forced tech transfer & intellectual property (IP) theft, military muscle-flexing, bullying or corrupting neighbors, selective adherence to international law, persecution of religious minorities and other affronts to universal human rights, broken promises on reform… On top of these things, Xi Jinping has put a greater emphasis on ideology and party control while doubling down on the use of repressive technology alongside more old-fashion methods of squelching political speech and dissent. In responding to the Coronavirus epidemic, Xi has regressed toward Mao-style mobilization, shifting blame to local officials and external forces, and calling on citizens to spy and report on one another.
On the other side of the equation – and on the other side of the Pacific – Chinese views of the U.S. have also crossed their own tipping point. The Chinese perception of the United States as a hostile power seeking to contain or even undermine it used to be a view of hardliners. Today it has become a mainstream view. Many in China feel they can now point to “proof” in the form of Trump tariffs; Pence & Pompeo speeches; congressional and executive actions limiting investment or visas; the National Security and Defense Strategies that define China as a strategic threat and adversary, lumped together with Russia; the ban and global campaign against Huawei… And many, if not most, Chinese today see U.S. support for Taiwan and for protestors in Hong Kong not as a reflection of longstanding American values, but as anti-China pressure tactics by the Trump Administration.
At the same time, more Chinese are buying into that idea and the narrative that America is a “sore loser” that can’t accept any other country or system outcompeting it. They accuse the United States of trying to hurt China and to prevent China from reaching its potential. In support of this thesis, some Chinese zero in on dysfunction in the highly polarized U.S. political system, on chronic social problems in America, and on worsening relations with allies and partners, as evidence that America is in decline.
So where has that left us? The U.S.-China relationship is bad -- more of a downward spiral than a pendulum swing. More of a demolition derby than a race, and both sides are getting pretty banged up.
There are those in Washington who want to flatten China’s growth curve or worse. There are those in Beijing who want Donald Trump to “keep wrecking the United States” and create advantages for China.
But undercutting the other guy is not a strategy. Moreover, the U.S. and China each have the power to cause serious problems for the other, but not to coerce or defeat the other. This contest is not what we should think of as competition – since competition generally brings out the best in both sides. Rather, it is more of a destructive strategic rivalry – something that brings out the worst. Competition is the Lakers vs Celtics. Strategic rivalry is more like the Crips vs Bloods. Which model do we want to govern the relationship between the world’s two largest powers?
In a normal relationship, we typically regard something bad as a problem for the two sides to solve. In an adversarial relationship, the bad thing typically becomes proof point of the negative narrative about the other side. Even if the two sides want to solve problems, today, the normal bilateral mechanisms of cooperation have almost entirely shut down. Bilateral national efforts to cooperate on global challenges like climate, energy, migration, or development are moribund. It is hard to imagine a more graphic demonstration of the need for active U.S.-China cooperation on global public health than that of the devastating health crisis emanating from China – the Coronavirus (COVID-19). Not just a belated offer to send help after the virus began spreading across the world, but sustained scientific and governmental collaboration to build global resilience and safeguards against pandemics.
Are we in the “foothills” of a Cold War, as Henry Kissinger memorably said last year? I believe that in fact there are four wars brewing or already underway between the U.S. and China; not shooting wars, but wars nonetheless.
The first is the trade war. The January 15 deal is a truce of sorts, although the majority of tariffs remain in place, the priority issues, structural obstacles and subsidies, aren’t dealt with, the Chinese import targets seem highly optimistic if not unrealistic (especially if Coronavirus knocks a few points off growth like SARS did)… but at least the immediate threat of escalation seems to be reduced.
Beyond trade, though, we have also entered a technology war – that’s harder to deal with and has put us on a path towards “decoupling” of supply chains, standards, and technology – with no guarantee that the U.S. will come out on top. Huawei and 5G systems are battlefields in the tech war, but the battle extends to all corners of the digital domain, to biotech, space, new materials, artificial intelligence and machine learning, quantum computing, and beyond.
Third, we are trending toward what I’d call an influence war. We’ve begun trying to weaken the other’s international ties in order to gain geostrategic advantage. Both the United States and China are pushing others to take sides; something the few, if any, countries want to do. Some of the wounds in the influence war are self-inflicted: disparaging allies as “freeloaders” and demanding a king’s ransom for the “honor” of hosting U.S. troops is not a winning strategy. But neither is bribing foreign officials to accept unfair contracts for infrastructure projects that create heavy debt but not local jobs. This is a race to the bottom.
And lastly, we’re cycling towards a fourth war -- an ideological war. I don’t mean a battle of Marxist-Leninism vs. Wilsonian Democracy. Xi Jinping isn’t Trotsky trying to spread communism, and Trump isn’t exactly a champion of democracy himself. And it’s something more than the competition between liberal free-market capitalism and Chinese-style authoritarian state-directed political capitalism. What I mean by an ideological war is really the shift from an approach that says “their behavior on this issue is bad,” to one that says “they are bad”… to vilifying a nation and a people. To framing strategic competition as a battle between good and evil. This is the respect in which both the U.S. and China are becoming more ideological–in our domestic politics and in our approach to each other.
The COVID-19 epidemic is the CCP’s biggest crisis since Tiananmen because it has exposed systemic failures and ruptured public trust. The Chinese people, like others, believe they deserve honest, transparent, and effective leadership.
The irony here is that, just when the idea of engaging China to bring it in line with international norms has been discredited, it seems that there is actually a kind of convergence after all — but instead of drawing China towards the behavior and values that America wanted to see – Americans are the ones adopting the behaviors we’ve always objected to: visa restrictions, security forces interviewing scholars, limits on businesses, investment, and travel, etc. Is this really the kind of reciprocity we want?
On the Chinese side, we’re seeing a growing form of extraterritoriality – exporting domestic controls and ideological conformity. That includes censorship of overseas speech and the demand for adherence to the Communist Party of China doctrine – initially directed at Chinese students and citizens abroad, but now aimed at foreign governments and corporations like the NBA.
From the U.S. side, we’re seeing a kind of “red scare” – a campaign to warn companies and governments against doing business with China, to use economic tools as weapons against companies like Huawei/ZTE, and to limit or discourage Chinese students and researchers at American labs and institutions. COVID-19 conspiracy theories being propagated by some prominent Americans have only further inflamed anti-Chinese sentiment and distrust.
So, what should we do?
Many institutions and scholars are wrestling with the question of how the U.S. and China can compete in a constructive and healthy way – more like the Lakers, less like the Crips! My colleague Kevin Rudd is working on a book about “the avoidable war and “managed competition,” The Council on Foreign Relations in New York has just issued a report with 22 recommendations. A former government colleague of mine who is now at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, just wrote a report mandated by Congress that lists 94 recommendations – count ‘em!
It’s worth flagging that the common thread in most of these recommendations is that the United States urgently needs to put its own house in order - to get its act together. And I strongly agree with that. Historically, culturally, and as good Leninists, China respects power. So there is no substitute for the U.S. regaining national strength. China can’t be “contained” …but it can be out-competed.
But rather than a long list of prescriptions, I’m going to limit myself to two points, which I think are matters of common sense, not arcane foreign policy.
The first is that we need to maintain and increase channels of real communication. Twitter won’t do it. Propaganda won’t do it either. Nor can we rely on telepathy. As I mentioned, government-to-government dialogues between our two countries basically ground to a halt under this administration. And the one narrow channel that was kept open—between trade negotiators—has probably gotten as far as it will ever go.
I’m not suggesting that “talk therapy” is the answer – in the past, we did a lot of talking that didn’t get us anywhere. But reciting positions is not to be confused with “communication.” Communication uses listening to build understanding that hopefully allows the two sides to produce genuine results. But in the absence of good communication and in the absence of understanding, we are left to guess the other side’s intentions and concerns… and it is awfully easy to guess wrong. A series of worst-case wrong guesses can quickly catapult our two countries into a crisis – something neither country, nor the world for that matter, wants.
Let’s bear in mind that there are a number of persistent friction points where some seemingly minor incident could quickly escalate. Taiwan, for instance, is at the top of the list. Other chronic risk vectors include the Spratly Islands, or the Senkakus, or North Korea. And it’s not just the hardy perennials we need to be concerned about. As China’s global interests and presence expand, whether along the Belt and Road, into the Arctic, or into Space, the U.S. and China will be bumping up against each other in more ways and places than ever before. So real communication, the kind that helps us understand the other’s strategic intent and that can prevent or defuse confrontation, is absolutely essential.
The second common sense point I would make is that we need to focus on behavior that we object to, rather than condemn and vilify the other side. To quote Mohandas Gandhi, “hate the sin, not the sinner.” This goes to the point I made earlier about an ideological war in which the other nation and its people come to be viewed as the “enemy”. Let’s deal with the practices and the policies that we object to; let’s encourage and incentivize the behavior that we seek; let’s look for ways to strengthen the advocates for reform and responsible policies within China; let’s protect ourselves and help other countries with safeguards against coercion, or IP theft, or corrupt practices; let’s push back or at least speak out against persecution of religious minorities and other human rights violations. But let’s also remember that criticizing specific behavior and policies of the Chinese government does not mean condemning the Chinese nation or people. This is a crucial distinction that should be kept in mind.
There is no quick or easy fix to the deterioration in U.S.-China relations; it will take time, determination, leadership, and wisdom on both sides. Great power relations need to be managed skillfully, and as a former government policymaker, I can attest that it isn’t easy.
Regardless of who is inaugurated as president in 2021, we won’t simply see a snap-back to an earlier, happier era in our bilateral ties. Both countries have changed, and toxic suspicion of the other side will not quickly leach from the relationship. Nor, for that matter, would we snap-back to the international esteem, influence, and relationships of trust that the United States once enjoyed.
Now, I don’t believe that conflict is inevitable. The U.S. and China aren’t Athens and Sparta. But without a viable framework for managing friction, an incident can lead to a crisis… and a crisis can lead to a catastrophe. That means each of us have an obligation to the future to work for a relationship that allows both sides—and the world -- to flourish. We simply can’t afford to continue on the path of strategic rivalry.