China-US relations test future generation of leaders

By Douglas Paal Source:Global Times Published: 2018/12/28 9:37:15 Last Updated: 2019/1/2 16:28:46

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

In late November, America and the world said goodbye to former President George H.W. Bush.  His passing marked not only the end of a life richly lived, but also the end of an era in US-China relations.

Bush had an enduring personal investment and interest in China, starting with his assignment to Beijing by President Nixon as chief of the US Liaison Office there in 1973. Over the decades, he, his family, and best friends and colleagues James Baker and Brent Scowcroft all put in serious personal time traveling there, welcoming Chinese friends and visitors, and helping US policy conform to the realities that China represents.

People like these are no longer in positions of authority in the United States. They were well known to many in key positions in China today, and it is unsurprising that those familiar with them have continued to reach out to try to find contemporary office holders like them. They will search in vain.

It is not just that the older generation of cold warriors no longer holds high office. Their supporting cadre of scholars and bureaucrats has also moved on. A new generation of specialists on China, and less well trained people who propose policy views on how to deal with China, have developed a more critical set of views about the relationship with Beijing.

It is hard to say precisely why so many of the younger generation have such critical views of China's behavior and system and less sympathy for the distance China has come over the past 40 years. But as we mark the anniversary this month of China's decision to undergo reform and opening-up together with the establishment of diplomatic relations with Washington, it is a good occasion to reflect on this generational transition.

Certainly today's China is much stronger economically and militarily than four decades ago.  Beijing's interests have intensified and spread geographically as it became the world's second largest economy, largest trader, a huge consumer of commodities, and increasingly important global investor. These new facts alone would command attention from those who would influence policy in the US.

Many in the US argue that the previous generation of policymakers placed too heavy a bet on China gradually converging with Western democracies as its middle class grows and its political system evolves. The merits of this argument are highly debatable, but there can be little doubt that in recent years China has reinforced the role of the Party and State in all aspects of life after decades of retreat.

With recentralization in China, American observers are less inclined to accept that the things that occur in the dealings between Americans and Chinese are not premeditated and part of a larger strategic framework. Suspicion suffuses policy debate and raises the perceived stakes of even minor developments. What is the meaning of this word or that action?

A corollary of this perception is decreased attention by American policymakers to the effects of what they say and do on public attitudes in China. If one assumes that diversity is in sharp decline and that conformity is on the rise, then there will be presumably little payoff for initiatives that treat what authorities do as somehow different from what the Chinese public may wish for. This runs contrary to long-standing traditions in American diplomacy of distinguishing between governments and their people. 

The older generation of American China policy experts and practitioners had an observable sympathy for the ups and downs of the people in modern Chinese history. This was repaid with an evident Chinese popular preference for the American lifestyle, culture, education, and economics. The sense today that the current American generation is more hostile and suspicious can surely be expected to lead to the US being viewed less favorably among ordinary Chinese, with consequences that will reduce constraints on the authorities on both sides in limiting access to education and other opportunities.

Is this a productive path? The high stakes trade and policy interaction now underway, with a short deadline of only days before much greater tariffs and retaliation may mark the failure of the current negotiations and significantly alter relations between these two important countries, requires some stock taking on the course that brought us to this moment.

This commentator cannot do much to influence how policymakers decide to proceed, but can advise American observers to notice that within China there is a widely shared view that change is needed, that the US is not wrong to use pressure to advance its interests, but that the pressure will be best used successfully if its ends correspond as well at least roughly to the interests of the Chinese people in continued reform and opening.

If we can transition the current period of changing great power relations peacefully, in bilateral relations as well as multilaterally, the challenges before both countries will still remain daunting. They will test successive generations of leaders in the two nations, but these experiences should accumulate wisdom from both negative and positive occurrences.   

The cycles of illusion and disillusionment that we have experienced for the past 40 years stand a chance of being replaced by a growing mutual understanding that will make our peoples more realistic about each other. If we thereby fashion a new great power relationship that contributes to regional and global stability, the next 40 years stand a chance to contribute to the grand chronicles of history. Success in this endeavor will, I believe, depend on paying sympathetic attention to what our counterparts seek as well as what we believe we want. We will need to learn from President Bush, General Scowcroft and their generation.

The author is vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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