Presidential succession, end of dollar-based commodity pricing among possible ‘black swan’ events for US in 2022: former diplomat
Published: Dec 21, 2021 07:23 PM Updated: Dec 21, 2021 07:33 PM
Charles W. Freeman Jr. Photo: Courtesy of Charles W. Freeman Jr.

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

Editor's Note:
A war over the Taiwan island would be an utter disaster for all concerned, said Charles W. Freeman Jr. (Freeman), a former senior US diplomat who has witnessed the establishment and development of China-US bilateral relations. Freeman warned that interest groups and individuals hostile toward China have now achieved control over the US' policy on Taiwan and urges all concerned to think hard about how to avoid a war in which victory would be difficult to distinguish from defeat. In a written interview with Global Times (GT) reporter Yu Jincui, Freeman shared his insights on a string of issues including whether the Biden administration could prevent interest groups from kidnapping the entire China-US relationship over the Taiwan question, his concerns over US diplomacy and his predictions for upcoming black swan events in 2022.

GT: In your opinion, which field is more likely to witness a black swan event in 2022, relations between major powers, the economic areas impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, or something else?  
A black swan is an unpredictable event - one that is beyond what is normally expected of a situation and that has potentially severe consequences. Such events are characterized by their extreme rarity, severe impact, and the subsequent insistence by many that they should have been foreseen. I am sorry to say that a war involving major powers and a global recession brought on by the current pandemic are now all too plausible. So, they would not qualify as "black swans."
Here are my candidates for "black swans" the next year or two: a breakthrough to nuclear fusion that enables a rapid replacement of the hydrocarbon fuels responsible for global warming; a presidential succession in the United States with Kamala Harris succeeding Joe Biden; the destruction of a space station by orbital debris; the end of dollar-based commodity pricing and its replacement by an internationally agreed substitute; a return to Palestinian and Afghan-based Islamist transnational terrorism. With the exception of fusion power, I sincerely hope none of these occur.

GT: In our previous interview in May, you said "President Biden is locked into the Trump policies." The mid-term election will dominate US politics in 2022. Is there still a chance for Biden to seek some breakthroughs with his China policy? In which areas do you think he will or should try?
Mr. Biden and his party seem to be at an increasing disadvantage in next year's midterm elections. I do not foresee him breaking free of the Trump legacy on China or much else.

GT: US hawks and pro-Taiwan forces continue to push the US-Taiwan relationship to get close to the red line, while at the same time, China has made its bottom line of safeguarding national sovereignty and not allowing Taiwan independence very clear. Based on your observation, is the Biden team capable of preventing interest groups from kidnapping the entire China-US relationship over the Taiwan question?
The evidence suggests that interest groups and individuals hostile to China have now achieved control US policy on the Taiwan issue. The combination of political trends in Taiwan and the evolution of US Taiwan policy is increasing the risk of war, as Beijing sees diminished hope for peaceful reconciliation with the Chinese across the Straits and Washington hardens its stance. Few wars are rational. A war over Taiwan would be an utter disaster for all concerned. Whatever its outcome, it would end Taiwan's democracy and prosperity and embitter US-China relations for a very long time. If it produced reunification, it would take decades to pacify Taiwan and obtain popular support for the change in its status. If it ended in Taiwan's separation from China, it would leave behind it a state of war in the Taiwan Straits and between Beijing and Washington. All concerned must think hard about how to avoid such a war, in which victory would be difficult to distinguish from defeat.  

GT: The US challenges of China's core interests often lead to frictions in China-US relations. Given rounds of competition between China and the US since the Trump administration and the fact that the US needs China's cooperation over multiple domestic problems, to what extent can the US respect China's core interests and weaken its hostility toward China?
Popular American hostility toward China is based on a combination of well-founded concerns about certain aspects of Chinese policy and behavior and widespread misperceptions of contemporary Chinese realities and objectives. At least to some extent, the same seems true of Chinese hostility toward the United States. Neither side can hope to coerce the other into cooperating with it. In my view, were the United States to set aside its current accusatory and disrespectful rhetoric about China, this might enable the two countries to explore means of working together or in parallel to achieve objectives that would serve the interests of both. But the relationship between our respective political elites is now so distrustful that improving relations will require serious efforts by both sides to change the terms of engagement.   

GT: You said at the beginning of 2021 that the US needed to avoid defining its China policy as a fight against authoritarianism and to focus instead on renewing its competitive capacity given its "unprecedented state of domestic disarray and demoralization." Almost one year on, is the US still on a wrong path? Is the American political system still supple and flexible enough to make necessary adjustments?
The ideological confrontation between China and the United States over "democracy" has the two countries talking past each other with very different definitions of that Western-born political system. The Chinese definition has no credibility among Americans, though it may appeal to some in third countries. The American definition, which is the traditional one, is discredited by the parlous state of democracy in the US and by the widespread dissatisfaction of ordinary Americans with the current state of affairs. The argument over democracy is an unproductive aggravation to both sides. Both would do better to concentrate on improving their domestic "democracy," however they define it.

GT: What's your biggest concern over US democracy? In an age where populism is pervasive, can US democracy overcome divisions or will it be weakened by populism?
I am very concerned about the erosion of respect for due process in the United States. "Due process" is the defining element of "procedural justice," which ties the legitimacy of outcomes not to their popularity but to the fairness of the process that produced them. It insists that the means determine the validity of the ends, not the opposite. And yet this core value of US democracy is no longer universally respected in our country. This leads to irreconcilable differences among Americans and to controversies that no one can quell. The unwillingness of some to accept the results of elections is not the only illustration of this unwelcome change in normative values in America. Tolerance of diverse opinion and the right of people to express unpopular views are essential to democracy. Both are under attack in the United States. 
American history shows our country to be resilient, so I expect this counterproductive situation eventually to be corrected. But this will take time and the organization of efforts by our citizenry to reaffirm the precepts of our constitution and the rule of law.