China, US face historic task of managing rivalry, avoiding fights: Ezra Vogel

By Xie Wenting and Bai Yunyi Source: Global Times Published: 2020/7/19 18:19:47

Ezra Vogel, Professor Emeritus at Harvard University Photo: Courtesy of Ezra Vogel

Editor's Note:

China-US ties, one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world, are at their lowest point since the normalization of relations in 1979 when the world is battered by a pandemic and economic recession. How will the increased tension between the world's two largest economies develop? What  is the possibility of an armed confrontation? What should both sides do at the moment? Global Times reporters Xie Wenting and Bai Yunyi (GT) interviewed Ezra Vogel (Vogel), Professor Emeritus at Harvard University and leading American scholar on East Asian affairs, on these topics.

GT: Last November you said there was no Washington consensus to be tough on China. But this year we saw both Republicans and Democrats adopt strong anti-China rhetoric during the pandemic. Do you think being tough on China has become a Washington consensus?

Vogel: What I said was that there was no consensus that our engagement with China had failed. I believe that is still true. There are still many people in Washington who realize that the engagement has not failed and that together our two countries have accomplished many things.

I think there has been a grudging acceptance that even though the relations are very bad and even though the Trump administration pushed things to crazy extremes, there is widespread recognition in Washington that we must find a way to work together to avoid conflict.

The mood in Washington is anti-Chinese, and we must expect in the presidential campaign, both sides will be critical of China. But I believe after the election when the next whoever is elected, whether Trump will remain or Biden will take over, there is a recognition that even while we promote our own national interest we must find new ways to have better relations with China and work on our common issues. I think we can expect a change after the election.

GT: If Donald Trump wins the November election, do you think he will make adjustments to his policies on China? 

The Trump administration is a very disorganized administration. But I think if Trump is re-elected, which now seems very unlikely, he will want to be known for his reputation for the four years, so I think he will be interested in avoiding conflict with China. But it would be hard to have an integrated cooperative program. It would be disorganized, but it could be somewhat better.

GT: Is there a possibility of an armed confrontation between the two countries?

Vogel: Unfortunately, there is. Nobody wants it and everybody would lose if a war happens. But if you look at what happened in World War I, for example, it was started by a little event and then the larger countries quickly became involved even though they had not planned to.

If there is a little scuffle in the South China Sea, it could soon escalate. And if the countries failed to control it, it could be devastating and everybody would lose. It is very scary.

I believe the leaders in Taiwan are aware of the danger of pushing so far toward independence that they provoke mainland military action and that they will try to avoid that danger. I think that there is real danger of war between China and the United States if Beijing leaders fear that the pressures toward Taiwan independence have crossed a red line or if they conclude that if they attack Taiwan, the United States would not fight to defend Taiwan. A conflict over Taiwan could escalate into an all-out war that could be devastating to all mankind. We must develop understandings between Chinese and American leaders to avoid this great danger.

All of us who care about the world and who care about Sino-American relations realize that we have to avoid conflicts and that to achieve that, we have to get better mutual understanding.

GT: What do you think is the historical task of the Chinese government at present? How it is different from Deng Xiaoping's era?

First of all, I think it requires working in a positive way with the United States to shape a new international order that is not a divided world order. I think it's a responsibility for both the United States and China and requires their cooperation. I and many knowledgeable Americans believe the United States made a mistake by not joining the AIIB. I think the Chinese leaders of AIIB did a great job in establishing rules and setting up a structure. China has done an amazing job of building the infrastructure and of raising the living standard in China. It's really remarkable what the Chinese have achieved. China is doing wonderful things in Africa in promoting infrastructure projects though China still has much to learn to keep good relations with those countries. I think the Belt and Road is a good idea that will be very important for linking the Euroasian continental mass although it is only in the early stages and will require some adjustments in approach. I believe some thoughtful Americans are coming to see that.

The United States did not do well in domestic policies in the 1970s and 1980s when we moved from an industrial economy to a service economy because the inequalities became too large.  The rich people have gotten richer while the poor people have gotten poorer. The growth of those inequalities is an important reason why so many people supported Trump to become president.

I think it's very important for Chinese leaders at this stage now not to let those inequalities between the rich and the poor grow. They should find some ways to create a new service economy and new jobs that will serve everyone with new technology and supply jobs with incomes that are not too unequal.

It's important for China to develop science and technology and to cooperate with other countries in accepting the rules for making payments when they acquire intellectual property from other countries. If they do so, it will make it easier for the United States and European countries to continue to welcome Chinese scientists and to have global cooperation.

We are fortunate that we have so many talented Chinese in the United States and many of them returned to China. I think the responsibility of the leaders of China is to help these people, whether they live in the United States or China, to keep the links between the two countries. It's also the job of the United States to continue to welcome Chinese students, scholars, and business people.

I think the historical job of Chinese leaders and American leaders is now to find a way to manage our rivalry and competition and to avoid fights. We have to find ways of living together. The Chinese leaders also need to find a way to work with other countries, with Europe and Japan and even India as well as the United States.

GT: The US has the world's highest death toll and amount of confirmed coronavirus cases. Who should be held accountable for this?

Vogel: There is a new article in the Atlantic magazine by James Fallows that gives the most comprehensive explanation of what happened. And it clearly is the Trump administration.

Before the coronavirus, there had been plans in earlier administrations for dealing with an epidemic. We had a good overall plan. Trump did not use those plans at all. He even acted when he first heard about the coronavirus pandemic as if there was not a big problem. So things were delayed. It clearly is Trump's responsibility.

We need worldwide cooperation to come out of the coronavirus pandemic. Even if we will have new medicine to prevent the virus within the next year or two, it will take a couple of years before we have control of the virus at the best. And during the time, the world economy will be in bad shape.

This will have a bad impact on both our countries. And if we don't cooperate, it will be much worse.  To cope with the coronavirus and to get the world economy going in a positive way we need to have cooperation between our two countries.

GT: How do you evaluate the current situations in Hong Kong?

Vogel: I think in the last few years, many issues were not handled very well in Hong Kong. So the dissatisfaction has grown. But if China can begin to solve the problems of the local people and have discussions with them, I hope that within a few years, it can improve.

The problems of Hong Kong were unfortunate. So many talented mainland people came to Hong Kong from the mainland and got many of the good jobs. Besides, many of the richest people in Hong Kong were making a lot of money from property and charging high rents, so that the local people, including the young people who did not get the best jobs, had to pay very high rent for very tiny apartments. Their life has been very unhappy. Also these young people did not have a good channel to express their views to the political leaders of Hong Kong. I don't think the Hong Kong leaders, either the rich people or the government or the demonstrators, have handled the problems very well. So there is a very great difficulty now.

I think the Hong Kong situation will have to be resolved before 2047. What will happen in the next few years will be very central. To resolve the problems successfully, it requires an understanding of the problems that gave rise to the protests and some effort to deal with those problems. The leaders must find a way to make life better for those who are now protesting.

GT:Do you think Hong Kong will become a battleground between China and the US?

I don't think there will be a battleground in the sense of the United States sending troops. But in public opinion, yes, Americans will be very critical of what is going on in Hong Kong. There is great sympathy for the young people demanding more freedom.

It's very difficult for the United States to find ways to have an impact, because after all, we don't have governmental control over Hong Kong. But many Americans believe they should be critical of Chinese handling of the situation. So I'm afraid it will be a battleground in public opinion on both sides.

GT: How do you evaluate the prospect of China dealing with the Taiwan question?

Vogel: I think it will depend on how much patience China has. If the mainland tries to use military force in Taiwan it could be terribly dangerous. If the mainland uses economic pressure, then I think they could potentially make some progress in pressuring people to accept greater mainland influence.

But I think that to get the support of people in Taiwan, Beijing leaders would have to find some way so that people of Taiwan can continue the way of life they enjoy.

I think Taiwan citizens could adjust to being considered a political part of mainland, but they would object to trying to change their pattern of life.

GT: Thirty years ago, Japan was portrayed as the greatest economic threat to the US. Now China is portrayed as the US' biggest rival. What are the similarities and differences of both eras?

Vogel: I remember that period very clearly because I was invited to speak in Japan and the United States at that time. And for two years, I worked in the US government.

There are several differences - one is that Japan and the US are military allies. While for a short period of time after China and the Soviet Union split, there was a close security relationship between China and the US; this did not last. In the case of Japan, that lasted.

Secondly, Japan was very quick to establish factories in the United States. They tried to establish factories in every state, which was very helpful to provide local employment. The third thing was that the bubble burst in Japan in 1989. But we do not expect the bubble to burst in China.

Fourth, China is much larger in its growth potential. China's economy will probably continue to grow and surpass the size of the United States. And Americans will find it very hard to accept that. But we must gradually learn to accept it.

I hope China will be very careful when its economy passes that of the United States because Americans can get very upset. I think there are lots of things that Chinese could do to make that more smooth, such as building more factories in the United States, allowing US firms to compete on an equal basis in China, buying more American goods. But even if China does all those things, it will still be a very difficult issue.

Newspaper headline: Currents of change

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