China, US must rebuild relations brick by brick: Charles W. Freeman Jr.
Published: Dec 27, 2020 11:20 AM

Charles W. Freeman Jr. Photo: Courtesy of Charles W. Freeman Jr.

Editor's Note:

China and the US must rebuild cooperative relations brick by brick, said Charles W. Freeman Jr. (Freeman), a former senior US diplomat who has witnessed the establishment and development of China-US diplomatic relations. 

In a previous interview with the Global Times (GT) in May, he worriedly said China-US relations have entered the worst state since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1979. Now, with a new US administration set to assume power next month, is the bilateral relationship facing a chance to recover? Or will it become worse? How will relations develop under Biden? Freeman shared his insights with Global Times reporter Yu Jincui and Bai Yunyi in an email interview recently. 

GT: Calling for a reset of China-US relations, Chinese state councilor and foreign minister Wang Yi has recently said on several occasions that China's door for dialogue is open anytime. What message do you think was conveyed in his remarks? Will the US respond? 

I hope so. The two countries need to talk seriously about our views of the world of today, its challenges, and what we might do about them separately, in parallel, or together. Many problems that ought to be of concern to both cannot be addressed without efforts by both.

GT: Addressing the Asia Society Policy Institute recently, Wang said it's impossible for China and the US to change each other. Can the US abandon its attempt at changing China ideologically? 

This will be hard. The American revolution had a global and inherently messianic message, whereas the Chinese revolution was all about China. As an American, I hope for the triumph of our revolution's values at home. Only with that can they be an example to non-Americans.  

As a realist, I hope both the US and China can look to our interests, many of which dictate cooperation with China, and place them above our ideological preconceptions and prescriptions. That will not be easy for either of us, but it will be easier for China than the US.  

GT: Former vice foreign minister of China Fu Ying in a column for the New York Times proposes China and the US develop a relationship of cooperative competition. What's your take on the notion? How would you suggest the two countries realize such  kind of relationship?

This is entirely possible, in my view. But it will require dealing with each other pragmatically issue by issue rather than deriving cooperation from broad principles or presuppositions. We must unravel the problems we have created for each other strand by strand. If we pursue "grand bargains" we will just waste each other's time.  

In his recent remarks on the subject, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi identified three broad areas in which cooperation would be mutually advantageous. I agree with him, but these areas will have to be divided up into discrete projects for a spirit of cooperation to replace the current mutual antagonism. We must rebuild cooperative relations brick by brick.

GT: Many foreign policy and political analysts believe that Trump wants to leave a legacy of being tough on China. From now until Biden takes office, what risks are China-US relations facing? 

I am sorry to say that this is not a mere matter of conjecture. It is what the outgoing Trump administration is actually doing. Mr. Trump and his entourage are trying to lock his successor into his prejudices and policies, not just with respect to China but across the board. President Biden will need actions by China as well as support from his supporters in the US to overcome this legacy, which is a burden on both countries.

GT: As you said in our last interview, the China-US relationship is at the worst moment since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two. Is there a chance under Biden that it will begin to recover?

Of course. But relations could also worsen if either side miscalculates on issues like Taiwan. This is a moment for caution, not precipitous action. Both countries need a peaceful international environment. Neither should wait for the other to begin to reweave a resilient pattern of relationships to replace those that have been damaged. I believe the Biden administration will want to do that, but it will take skillful statecraft on China's part to encourage and enable this.

GT: Within the first 100 days of Biden assuming power, what policies or orders related to China might he issue? In the next year, what will be possible landmark events that can be used to observe whether or not China-US relations will turn better or worse? 

I do not expect much. President Biden will face a delicate balance with the Senate, whatever the results of the two senatorial elections in Georgia turn out to be. He must set priorities and stick to them. He has first to deal with the bungled federal government response to the current pandemic as well as with a public that, in the absence of leadership from Washington, has become deeply divided on the issue. The pandemic has produced a major crisis in the US and global economy that requires a strategic response it has yet to receive. Foreign relations will most likely have to wait, and Sino-American relations are among the most difficult to address politically, so they will have to wait longer than others to be addressed.

GT: The Trump administration claimed that the policy of engagement with China has failed. What attitude will the Biden administration take toward the engagement policy? Will it make adjustments or eventually end the policy? If so, what alternative policy frameworks will the Biden administration introduce? 

Americans and Chinese inhabit the same planet. We are its two largest and most powerful countries. It is said that to whom much is given, much is always asked. The world, as well as our own citizens, expect our leaders to engage with each other to advance common interests and manage areas of disagreement. In the end, we have no alternative to doing so if we wish to sustain our peace and prosperity. This assures that there is a basis for a return to a more balanced relationship than the one we now have but we will have to work imaginatively and hard to realize it.

GT: Trump regards a closer relationship between the US and Taiwan as a key part to counter China's growing influence. He has tested the bottom line of the mainland by increasing arms sales to Taiwan, sending high-level officials to visit the island, and strengthening economic cooperation. Will Biden continue Trump's Taiwan policy? Will the risk of war between China and the US over the Taiwan question increase or decrease? 

As I have argued elsewhere, the three parties to the Taiwan imbroglio, Beijing, Taipei, and Washington, have spent the last four decades kicking the can down the road rather than coming to grips with the realities imposed by geography, history, economics, and the shifting balance of power. I think we are nearing the end of the road. All three parties face difficult, risky choices. To my mind, a cross-Strait accommodation would best serve the interests of all three. The question of Taiwan's relationship with the rest of China is one that only the two sides of the Strait can answer. There is no made-in-America answer to this question, but I hope the Biden administration will do its best to promote an atmosphere conducive to cross-Strait dialogue aimed at resolving it.

GT: You served for years as one of the US' top diplomats. What's your view over the future of the US ambassador to China for the next four years? In your opinion, what abilities and professionalism should the new ambassador have? And what should be the focus and goals? 

I am always mindful of the words of an editorial in the 1857 New-York Daily Tribune (for which, as you may recall, Karl Marx was a European correspondent). Criticizing a nominee for ambassador, the editors wrote, "Diplomacy is the sewer through which flows the scum and refuse of the political puddle.  A man not fit to stay at home is just the man to send abroad." My country has a bad habit of appointing amateurs to positions that require expertise. Given the deplorable state of US-China relations at present, I hope President Biden will select an ambassador for proven competence, not wealth, political credentials, or domestically appealing pugnaciousness. Skilled work requires a skilled workman and there is a great deal of work to be done to repair Sino-American relations. 

GT: Biden vowed to restore US global leadership and make the US stronger by seeking closer cooperation with allies. After four years of Trump's presidency, how do you evaluate the current US global leadership? What impact will Biden's efforts to strengthen US global leadership have on China? 

The US historically led by example and aspiration, not fiat or the denigration of others. As a patriot, I hope for a return to this tradition as well as to a foreign policy based on realism rather than delusion, of which there has been all too much in recent years. I expect the need to consult with allies, partners, and friends on China policy, and to accommodate their interests to have a positive, moderating effect on the policies of the new administration. My sense is that most such countries are not satisfied with the current stance of either China or America, do not want to choose between the two, do not want to be caught in the crossfire between them, and would like to see both make best efforts to return to the path of mutual accommodation they trod for four decades. We are entering a world that neither China nor the US can dominate. We need the cooperation of other countries, even small countries. We must both rediscover the merits of polite consideration of the interests and self-esteem of others and lead by appealing to them on this basis rather than offending them.