Is there optimism for China-US relations?

Source:Global Times Published: 2018/9/10 19:28:39

Editor's Note:

China-US relations have nosedived in recent months. Why have the two countries been drawn into an escalating confrontation? As their trade conflict worsens, is there any optimism left to improve the bilateral relationship? Global Times (GT) reporter Li Aixin recently talked to Stephen Orlins (Orlins), president of National Committee on US-China Relations, about these issues in an exclusive interview during the 2nd Taihe Civilizations Forum held in Beijing over the weekend.

GT: Many people are concerned about Sino-US ties, are you?

You would have to be asleep not to be concerned. Since December, we've seen a significant deterioration in the US-China relationship.

It began with the National Security Strategy of the US, where US President Donald Trump branded China a strategic rival of the US. In addition, it said China was revisionist power along with Russia. That was followed in January by the National Defense Strategy, where the defense department following the National Security Strategy laid out steps they were going to take to counter China. Then there was the US Trade Representative's report, the 301 report, which raised lots of issues like transfer of technology, the tariff barriers, non-tariff barriers and others. That then has led to a tit-for-tat increase in trade tensions. We've seen tariffs enacted on both sides. The Chinese have responded to American actions on tariffs, which is causing significant concern.

In maybe the next few days we'll see tariffs on additional $200 billion of Chinese exports to the US, which will be very significant and will escalate tensions.

We also have seen China excluded from military exercises in RIMPAC (the Rim of the Pacific Exercise), which is a cause of concern because for the last few years of the Obama administration we saw the military relationship between the US and China improving almost irrespective of the political relationship. Problems arose, the military relationship remained on track. But that's now turned with the exclusion of China from RIMPAC, that (they said) was done in response to America's view that China has militarized the South China Sea in contravention to commitments that the Chinese leadership made.

We've seen visa issues deteriorate. If you are a Chinese student going into any of the STEM field - science, technology, engineering or math fields, you are no longer granted a five-year visa, you'll be granted one-year visa, which is a return to the policy of almost six years ago.

We've seen legislation in the US that is troublesome for US-China relations. On August 13, the President signed the National Defense Authorization Act, which has provisions which are troubling.

GT: Some analysts warn of a dangerous new Cold War. How likely do you think the new Cold War may take place?

China is not the former Soviet Union and I think it would be terrible for both governments if we fell into the trap of a Cold War. Maybe on the margins, US interests and Chinese interests are different. But fundamentally, they are not.

I was thinking about a mother in Shanghai and a mother in New York. Are their concerns really that different? I think the answer is no. The mother in New York lived through 9/11, so she is concerned about terrorism. A mother in Shanghai is also concerned about terrorism. A mother in Shanghai is concerned about economic crisis, because the economic crisis that occurred in 2008 will make the opportunities for her children less. The same with the mother in New York. Last but certainly not the least is climate change. I think the mother in Shanghai worries about rising sea levels and flooding. A mother in New York has lived through a super storm which absolutely devastated the subways, and the streets of the New York. These are the concerns that people have. Those are not conflicting concerns. Those are complementary concerns. It's the same for Chinese as it is for Americans.

Are there differences on the margins? Yes, there are. But I think the people are going to decide what the policies of each government are going to be. And my view is that people of the US and people of China don't want to go into a Cold War, not want to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in defense expenditure, rather than using those funds to lift people out of poverty, fix infrastructure, or provide better education to their children.

In the short term we have difficulties, but in the long term, the views of people are going to prevail and the relationship will be considered a complementary relationship, not a conflicting one.

GT: What is US President Donald Trump's goal in escalating confrontation with China?

President Trump believes China has basically stolen American jobs and brought them to China through state subsidies, tariffs, non-tariff barriers, and an unequal playing field. The US has lost millions of jobs.

Whether one believes that is true or not, President Trump believes it is true. What he wants to see is some of those jobs come back to the US. He wants to see a leveling of the playing field. He wants to see an end to state subsidies, he wants to see an end to the lack of protection of intellectual property of American companies, he wants to see a lowering of tariff barriers, he wants to see fair and transparent regulation in China. The USTR 301 Report, points to many things which he wants to accomplish.  Trump believes because the US imports from China much more than what China imports from the US, Washington can withstand this trade tension better than China. I don't agree with the views but those are the views he has.

GT: Is the confrontation between China and the US about power or ideology?

It's about many things. You can't say it's about power or ideology. Certainly the fact that China is not a democracy is one of the reasons for the tension. We had similar tensions with Japan in the 1980s. But there are two fundamental differences. Japan was an ally. Japan was democratic. So the tensions with Japan could be fixed by having Japanese businesses, Mitsubishi, Toyota, Nissan, set up factories in the US, employ Americans, limit their exports to the US.

With China, what I am concerned about is that even if we fix the trade tensions, we will continue to have security tensions, we will continue to not be able to cooperate on 21st century technologies. We now see concerns in the US about China's AI. What we should be doing is finding ways to cooperate on AI. What we are doing is moving in the directions of setting up two separate eco-systems for AI - a Chinese one and an American one. That means each will not be as good as it could be if we cooperated. So I find these directions of policies distressing. I believe together we have a chance of solving the world's problems. Separately we are not able to do it.

GT: In June this year, you wrote that in the US, there are those who consistently misconstrue China's actions and exaggerate China's impact. Do they represent the mainstream viewpoint in US strategic circles?

There are certainly folks who exaggerate China's actions and misconstrue what it does and that deeds this narrative of the US needing to counter China's actions. Is that the majority? It doesn't matter. What everyone needs to do is speak out.

When a US action is misconstrued in China, a Chinese in China needs to speak out. When a Chinese action is misconstrued in the US, an American needs to speak out. It's becoming more difficult in both countries to speak out and criticize our own governments.

GT: You have witnessed China and the US from normalizing their ties to deepening them. Do you think there is any hope to improve relations?

Absolutely. There is so much that pulls the two societies together. There have been so many bright and shining movements in US-China relations. I talk to Chinese students in the US all the time, you know, there are now more than 350,000 Chinese students in the US. Think about their impact. Some are going to stay in the US and some will come back. If they stay in the US, they will educate the Americans about China. If they come back, they will educate Chinese about America. That's going to be a tie that binds the two countries and that very much is the future.

There not enough American students in China, but there are 20,000 - 25,000. They would do the same.

I think the investment flows. Even though the combination of the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, and Chinese capital controls have limited that investment, the investment is so important cause that is also the ties that binds.

My first job when I came to China was working on US companies investing in China. The people that I've worked with are people who, as a result, understand the America better than the average Chinese. Investment is not like trade. It's like marriage. You have to work to make an investment successful. As a result, those kinds of ties bind America and China together.

I think one of the bright and shining movements in my last 15 years was when Fuyao Glass opened a facility in Ohio. Suddenly, 2,500 Americans went to work at that facility in a city. It was so uplifting to see Chinese investment taking a community like that and improving it.

So I think the investment ties, the student ties, the complementary interests ultimately will pull the two societies together. That does not mean we are not going to have difficulties in the short term. It also tells everyone who cares that they can't sit back. They have to work at making US-China relations good.

If you sit back and say uh, let somebody else do it, it's not going to happen. Every person who has benefited needs to work on it.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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