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Suisheng Zhao: Ideology, Thucydides Trap, and the Taiwan question stalemate the China-U.S. game
China and the U.S. are too familiar with each other to compromise, said the Professor at the University of Denver, but they can "desecuritize" various areas to ease the cycle of antagonism.
Professor Suisheng Zhao visited the Center for China and Globalization (CCG) to deliver a keynote speech titled "Can Communication Facilitate Accommodation in the US-China Relationship?" On Oct. 31, 2023. Afterward, he engaged in a dialogue with Dr. Mabel Lu Miao, Secretary-General of CCG, and answered questions from the audience.
Suisheng Zhao is Professor and Director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. He is also a founding editor of the Journal of Contemporary China.
The speech was broadcast by CCG domestically and remains on CCG's official WeChat blog. The audio and video recordings have also been uploaded to Substack here.
The speech and dialogue were given in Chinese. Based on the recording, CCG put it into English. The following transcript has been reviewed and edited by Prof. Zhao.
Can Communication Facilitate Accommodation in the US-China Relationship?
I am grateful to Secretary-General Mable Lu Miao for her introduction and gracious invitation. It is an immense honor to have this opportunity to rejoin CCG and engage in discussions about China-US relations. Secretary-General Miao has underscored the significance of this relationship, noting its importance for both China and the United States, as well as its complexities. Personally, having moved to the United States in 1985 and lived there for nearly 40 years, I have witnessed the evolution of China-US relations over the past three decades.
Prior to 2016, there was considerable concern about this relationship, yet it seemed to be in a cyclical pattern. Deng Xiaoping once remarked that the relationship would neither be exceedingly good nor disastrously bad, implying a series of ups and downs, peaks and troughs.
The downturns were primarily attributable to two factors. The first was a series of unexpected events such as the Hainan Island incident, Lee Teng-hui’s visit to the U.S., or the end of the Cold War. Following such incidents, leaders from both nations would regain composure and swiftly return to the status quo, continuing to move forward.
The second factor largely pertained to the U.S. presidential election cycle. A new president, particularly one from a different political party, would often criticize his predecessor, during his campaign, for being too lenient on China. Upon election, he would vow to adopt a tougher stance. Consequently, China became an unexpected focal point in China-US relations. Initially, a new president might adopt a hardline approach towards China, but once settled in the White House, they would quickly realize the significant economic and strategic value of China-US relations to the United States. Gradually, they would revert to their predecessor’s policies towards China, and even continue to progress beyond them.
However, the current state of China-US relations has reached a tipping point since 2016. In fact, as early as 2015, David M. Lampton indicated that the relationship was at a tipping point. This downward trend began during the latter part of Obama’s second term and continued through Trump’s presidency. President Biden, despite promising to change Trump’s policies towards China, has not only maintained them but has further intensified his approach. He has also rallied U.S. allies to join in confronting China.
The extended period of continuous tensions is not the result of a specific, sudden event. In fact, it represents a policy sustained by both political parties in the United States, regardless of the president in office; this policy has been continuous across the last three administrations. While the U.S. parties often find themselves at odds on numerous issues, their stance on China policy has been virtually identical. Many now describe this situation as a new Cold War. However, I prefer the term "prolonged crisis" to characterize it.
A key concern within this prolonged crisis was the lack of effective communication. Since 2018, high-level and working-level dialogues between China and the U.S. went virtually non-existent. Prior to this, besides strategic and high-level economic dialogues, there were over a hundred mechanisms for communication and exchange. However, these mechanisms were largely discontinued after President Trump took office. This discontinuation was not limited to communication mechanisms; high-level visits were also significantly reduced. The last cabinet-level, or ministerial level official from the U.S. government to visit was back October 8, 2018.
My current visit is to attend a dialogue session tomorrow organized by our center in collaboration with the China Association for Friendship. Coincidentally, I attended the same event that year with Ambassador Christopher R. Hill, who was our dean at the time. During our visit, we were briefed by staff from the U.S. Embassy, who shared their concerns about Secretary of State Pompeo's visit at that time, describing it as disastrous. Why was it disastrous? Pompeo was unable to meet with President Xi Jinping. His meeting with Wang Yi lasted less than an hour, during which Wang Yi spent the entire time chiding Pompeo. The U.S. Embassy staff described it as Wang Yi lecturing Pompeo like a schoolteacher, criticizing the U.S. for initiating a trade war and undermining China-U.S. relations. Moreover, Pompeo did not receive even a single meal during his visit, which was seen as a significant snub given China's reputation for etiquette. Following that visit, there were no visits by U.S. Secretaries of State or cabinet-level officials until Secretary Blinken's visit in June of this year, marking a five-year hiatus.
Just as official exchanges have encountered numerous issues, people-to-people exchanges also face significant obstacles. This was particularly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic, when people-to-people exchanges, including academic exchanges between the two sides, came to an almost complete halt. The suspension of high-level dialogue mechanisms and the impediments to people-to-people exchanges have led to numerous misunderstandings between the two sides, and negative news has been prevalent in both countries. The perception of China in the United States has deteriorated significantly, with public opinion polls consistently reaching new lows. Similarly, negative sentiments among the Chinese populace towards the United States have been on the rise. In light of these circumstances, there is growing concern that such a breakdown in communication between China and the United States could lead to misunderstandings and miscalculations, escalating conflicts and potentially resulting in war or violent clashes.
I recall that before Secretary Blinken's visit in June this year, individuals like Ray Dalio, who had such positive attitudes towards China, expressed concern that China and the U.S. are “beyond the ability to talk”, with each side encroaching upon the other's red lines. Another scholar [Stehen S. Roach] described the situation as "sleepwalking into conflict," with both parties heading towards confrontation in a state of obliviousness, harboring numerous misconceptions about each other.
In fact, my impression is that President Biden does not wish to be a president who engages in war with China. During his term, he prefers to avoid conflict. Consequently, the U.S. has made multiple proactive efforts to propose the resumption of exchanges and to restore high-level communication channels. China, on the other hand, has been somewhat reticent, attributing the entirety of the responsibility to the United States and indicating that unless the U.S. corrects its errors, there will not be significant progress in communication.
But the U.S. side was quite persistent in restoring communication. Then, in November 2022, during a meeting between President Biden and President Xi in Bali, they reached an agreement to resume high-level exchanges. The initial plan was for Secretary of State Blinken to visit China in January or February of this year, serving as a milestone for the resumption of communication. However, an incident occurred just three days before Blinken's planned visit: a spy balloon, as was called by the Americans, brought the high-level exchange to a halt. At the time, American public opinion was very negative, claiming that China had violated U.S. airspace sovereignty. Under these circumstances, the U.S. believed it was inappropriate for the Secretary of State to visit, hence the suspension of the visit.
Approximately two months after this suspension, the United States resumed communication with China, hoping to reschedule the Secretary of State's visit. If you look at news reports in China, they provide an interesting perspective. In all of these readouts, the same phrase is repeated: "At the request of the United States." It’s the Chinese way of saying, "If you invite us, we can consider it." In light of these circumstances, communication and exchanges between China and the United States resumed.
This resumption began with Secretary Blinken's visit in June, followed by visits from three cabinet-level officials. These visits occurred throughout the summer, spanning June, July, and August, and included the Secretary of Commerce, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Climate Envoy. Subsequently, a delegation from the U.S. Senate visited, and most recently, the Governor of California paid a visit from the United States. Last week, Wang Yi visited the United States, and it is reported that He Lifeng is also planning to meet his counterpart in San Francisco next month. There is a possibility that Xi Jinping will join in the summit and meet with the U.S. President.
Therefore, the dialogue and communication mechanism between China and the United States resumed in the latter part of this year. However, whether this resumption will lead to an actual improvement in relations between the two countries is still uncertain. In my view, China and the United States are currently sending mixed signals. I've been working on an article recently titled "Talk the Talk, Walk the Walk" because, in all these discussions, including the recent talks in Washington with Wang Yi, the atmosphere has been generally positive. While there were some minor hiccups at the beginning of Yellen and Blinken's visits, overall, the atmosphere has been pretty good.
When we talk about a good atmosphere, it means that both sides have expressed a desire to stabilize China-U.S. relations and keep communication channels open. China talked about stopping the decline and stabilizing, so these words sound positive. However, in my opinion, there's a significant gap between words and actions. While these communication mechanisms are functioning normally, both sides continue to challenge each other's red lines. For example, during the summer when high-level U.S. officials visited China, the U.S. took several actions that pushed the boundaries of China's core interests.
In August, after Secretary Yellen was visiting, the White House issued an executive order prohibiting U.S. investments in Chinese high-tech companies, including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and semiconductor technology — all of which are key fields. Moreover, U.S. arms sales to Taiwan reached a new high this year. And it's not just about arms sales — the U.S. invoked the Foreign Military Financing Act to transfer military equipment to Taiwan, a process similar to what the U.S. did for Ukraine; in these instances, the U.S. technically provided arms as assistance rather than engaging in sales transactions. This happened for the first time in September, and it involved a substantial sum, 80 million USD. This act applies only to sovereign state, so it directly challenges China's core interests.
Following this, there was the Trilateral Leaders' Summit between the U.S., Japan, and South Korea, which was clearly directed at China. During the G20 summit, which China’s top leader did not attend, the U.S. and India collaborated to create an economic corridor stretching from Europe through the Middle East to India, directly challenging China's Belt and Road Initiative. There are numerous examples like these.
China is in a similar situation, taking on a contentious attitude towards the United States. In the context of the triangular dynamic involving the U.S., China, and Russia, China has strengthened its ties with Russia. This was notably evident at the recent Belt and Road Summit, where President Putin was honored as a guest of significance, despite facing an international arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court that prevented his attendance in many other countries. The United States undoubtedly interprets this as a move directed against them.
China has significantly escalated its military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, especially following Lai Ching-te's visit to the United States. China has imposed sanctions on companies involved in arms sales to Taiwan, one of them [Lockheed Martin] based in Denver where I live. Furthermore, restrictions have been placed on the sale of certain mineral resources. All these actions are aimed at the United States.
So, both countries continue to pursue their own agendas, and these actions are not influenced by their communication and dialogue. Why does this situation persist? A common explanation is that both sides misunderstand each other's intentions or lack clarity about them. However, I disagree with this view. I believe it is quite the opposite. The issues between China and the United States do not arise from a lack of understanding or misjudgment but rather from both sides having a deep understanding of each other’s red lines. They know each other's red lines and realize that neither side is willing to compromise. If compromise won't yield any benefits, then neither side will compromise.
Where do these uncompromisable issues lie? I believe there are three major categories of issues that China and the United States cannot currently find common ground on.
· Firstly, the competition of ideologies and political systems.
· Secondly, there's the issue often referred to as the "Thucydides Trap," though I personally dislike that term. It essentially describes the structural conflict between an established power and a rising power, as articulated by Graham Allison.
· Lastly, the Taiwan question.
These three categories of issues are currently areas where China and the United States cannot find common ground.
In the early days of China-U.S. diplomatic relations, the U.S. did indeed aim to influence China, despite some Americans now claiming they never intended to do so. Historically, the U.S. has had something of a missionary mindset, seeking to reshape not just China but the entire world according to its values. However, during the period when China and the U.S. were normalizing relations, they set these issues aside temporarily. Therefore, the competition of ideologies and political systems did not become a significant problem back then. Even after the end of the Cold War, there was a belief that history had culminated with the triumph of the Western system, and there were expectations for China to follow suit. Deng Xiaoping's policy of "taoguang yanghui" [keeping a low profile and biding one's time] and accelerating reform and opening up further fueled these expectations. However, in recent years, these illusions have been entirely shattered. The competition between China and the U.S. is viewed by the Biden administration as a contest between autocracy and democracy, a perspective that China is unlikely to embrace. China may perceive this as a challenge and may even interpret it as an attempt to foment a "color revolution" or regime change. This fundamental issue of political security is something that neither China nor the United States can compromise on at this stage.
The second issue revolves around the relationship between a rising power and an established power, often referred to as the "Thucydides Trap." This topic has been discussed at length, and I must admit that I have grown somewhat weary of it. However, I now recognize its significance. In the past, when China's national strength was relatively weaker, managing China-U.S. relations was less challenging. The United States was even supportive of China's development. However, as China's power has grown, a shift in dynamics has occurred. China has stated that it once looked up to the United States but now sees itself on an equal footing, which some interpret as a condescending perspective. Between 2014 and 2015, some Chinese scholars proclaimed that it had comprehensively surpassed the United States in various aspects, including the economy and technology. This shift led the United States to perceive China as a challenger, a nation aiming to replace its global leadership position. Naturally, the United States, having enjoyed a comfortable position at the apex of global power for many years, is unwilling to relinquish it. They do not want to allow China to overtake them. In response, the United States has implemented various measures, which China views as attempts to contain its rise. This structural and power conflict between the two nations has made it challenging to find mutually acceptable compromises for an extended period.
The third issue is the Taiwan question, and I believe that both sides are currently unwilling to compromise. China's policy towards Taiwan, from my understanding, has displayed significant strategic patience for quite some time. China has been playing a long game, patiently anticipating a peaceful resolution. Deng Xiaoping once mentioned waiting for 100 years, and even Mao Zedong spoke of waiting for a century. Now, China acknowledges that passing this issue from one generation to the next is not a feasible option, and it's time to find a solution. Consequently, China has been expediting its preparations for a potential reunification by force. The primary obstacle to achieving this goal, as everyone knows, is the United States. This concern is not unfounded, as U.S. policy towards Taiwan has evolved over the years. Initially, the U.S. maintained a so-called "compromise" approach, adhering to the One-China Policy while emphasizing a peaceful resolution, not peaceful unification. The U.S. also stressed the importance of not unilaterally altering the status quo. However, over time, U.S. policy has shifted towards a stronger emphasis on preventing unilateral changes to the status quo by the mainland and discouraging the use of force. Furthermore, the definition of "changing the status quo" has evolved, with the U.S. becoming less critical of manouveurs by Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) but more critical of the military prowess from the mainland. In this context, U.S.-Taiwan relations have grown increasingly close, marked by record-high arms sales to Taiwan, numerous visits by U.S. officials, and various congressional initiatives — I have lost count.
Given these developments, the strategic ambiguity in U.S. policy towards Taiwan has largely eroded. President Biden mentioned four times that the U.S. would respond militarily to a Chinese military action against Taiwan as it would with a NATO member. And despite subsequent clarifications by the State Department that the One China Policy remained unchanged, it raised doubts and suspicions. Therefore, in the current standoff over the Taiwan question, both China and the U.S. are testing each other's red lines, and neither side is able to compromise, nor are they willing to compromise.
So, where do we stand now? My former mentor, Susan Shirk, authored a book titled "Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise," which has also been introduced in China. In this context, "overreach" refers to China's strategic overextension or what we could call a mismatch in its strategic goals and capabilities. On the other hand, the U.S. response to this is seen as an "overreaction." China's overreach can be defined as setting strategic objectives that don't align with its actual capabilities. China claims it doesn't want to challenge or replace the U.S., but the U.S. simply doesn't believe that.
I was recently in Washington, D.C., where there was a debate about whether China aims to "displace" or "replace" America, but honestly, these two terms don't make a huge difference. It's like a word game Americans play – they say, "We're not decoupling from China; we're derisking," but for the Chinese, derisking and decoupling are almost the same — it's about "de-China-ing." So, when China says it doesn't want to replace the U.S., it's practically the same as not wanting to displace the U.S. In the end, this leaves Americans with the impression that China's strategic goal is set on replacing the U.S., even though China currently lacks the capability to do so.
China is facing economic issues, domestic challenges, and various international problems. Therefore, engaging in a strategic competition to replace the U.S. under these circumstances can be seen as an overreach. On the other hand, the U.S. response to China is viewed as an overreaction. It lacks a rational understanding of the threat posed by China. The atmosphere in Washington, D.C., portrays an exaggeration of China's threat, whether in terms of ideology or structural power conflicts. This exaggeration is evident in Washington, and I encounter many American students who ask when China and the U.S. will go to war. I tell them that the likelihood of war between two nuclear superpowers should be quite low. However, many people still believe it could happen and that China wants to replace the U.S., which is an exaggeration in itself.
In the 1950s, Americans were debating "who lost China," but now they are debating "who lost to China." No president today is willing to allow China to surpass the United States during their tenure. President Biden has been very clear about not allowing China to surpass the United States “on my watch.” While it's currently quite challenging for China to surpass the U.S., the U.S. believes that China is determined to replace it. So, in response, the U.S. is taking many excessive actions, including in the trade war and technology war.
The most absurd overreaction, in my opinion, was the balloon incident in February. When the balloon flew to the U.S., China told the U.S. that it was a weather balloon. Whether it was a weather balloon or not, the U.S. insisted it was a spy balloon used to collect military facility information. They even used advanced jet aircraft to shoot it down. After retrieving the balloon, the FBI lab analyzed it and found that the balloon's sensor had never been activated. Then, last month, Mark Milley, the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who was about to retire, said it was not a spy balloon at all. He made it clear in a media interview that the intelligence community's analysis showed that it didn't collect any information on U.S. territory, let alone transmit that information back to China. Furthermore, the Chinese claimed that it was at a high altitude, above 60,000 feet, due to deviations in high-altitude air currents. This situation highlights the excessive reactions between China and the U.S., resulting in a scenario where neither side is willing to compromise, as I mentioned earlier.
In light of these developments, I personally believe that what China and the United States need to emphasize in their current relationship is "desecuritization." Currently, all issues are tightly linked to this ongoing strategic and security competition and rivalry.
For instance, U.S. Climate Envoy proposed during his visit to China that climate change be separated from strategic competition. However, China argued that climate cooperation with the U.S. cannot be isolated from the overall landscape of China-U.S. competition. On the other hand, the U.S. has securitized various trade and economic matters by connecting them to national security. So, despite the talk of shifting away from decoupling or creating “small yard, high fence”, the practical measures taken by the U.S. tell a different story. The U.S. has broadened the concept of security to encompass all domains.
Therefore, I believe that when it comes to security-related matters, China and the U.S. are well aware of each other's red lines. However, there are still many other non-security domains where both countries have significant gaps in understanding. This includes climate change, transnational crime, refugee crisis, and drug trafficking, which the U.S. officials emphasized during recent meetings with Wang Yi, even more than the Taiwan question.
In reality, there are still numerous areas for cooperation between China and the United States. Furthermore, negotiations and collaboration in these areas can lead to tangible outcomes. It's clear that discussions regarding Taiwan, the ongoing geopolitical rivalry between China and the United States, or ideological conflicts are unlikely to yield any productive outcomes. At this point, the emphasis should shift towards negotiations on practical and specific matters.
However, what concerns everyone, including myself, is that both sides are not only preoccupied with these issues where finding common ground is difficult, but also that the hawks on both sides are exerting significant influence. Despite recent expressions of more moderate viewpoints by some American scholars, their impact on decision-making circles is minimal.
The hawks on both sides essentially feeding ammunition to their counterparts, with the Chinese hawks loading the American guns and vice versa. This mutual reinforcement creates an exceedingly worrisome situation. To break free from this predicament, I believe that leaders on both sides must prioritize desecuritization. They should not only enhance introspection to identify areas of compromise but also make an effort to reassess each other.
It's crucial to recognize that China's development is, in fact, beneficial for the United States, and the healthy development of the United States is likewise advantageous for China. Currently, both sides seem to harbor hopes that the other will face difficulties and are willing to undermine each other's progress. This is deeply concerning.
I'd like to touch upon another aspect, which is the meaning of competition. A few days ago, during a conference in Washington, a Chinese scholar asked the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State, "How do you define winning and losing in the competition between China and the United States?" I find this question quite challenging to answer because the current dynamic between China and the United States isn't a Cold War scenario where two major blocs compete to determine winners and losers. In today's competition, the primary adversary for both nations isn't each other but rather themselves. Both China and the United States need to address their own internal issues. The United States' adversary isn't China; it's the United States itself, and similarly, China's adversary isn't the United States; it's China itself. Therefore, this competition should be healthy and constructive, focusing on self-improvement rather than attempting to defeat the other side.
At present, in their communication, both sides are striving for dominance, making it difficult to find common ground and reach compromises. As the Chinese saying goes, "Small countries are ruined by others, but big countries are ruined by themselves." No external force can defeat China, and no external force can defeat the United States. The true challenge lies within themselves. Consequently, in their interactions, both nations must find a path to problem resolution and change their communication approach to enhance their relationship.
A few days ago, I read an article by Wu Xinbo [Professor and Dean, Institute of International Studies, and Director at the Center for American Studies, Fudan University], and I wholeheartedly agree with one point he made. He said that current communication efforts haven't improved China-U.S. relations but have merely provided temporary relief, allowing certain conflicts to be brought to the forefront for discussion. To truly enhance this relationship, as I mentioned earlier, we need to prioritize desecuritization, alter our mindsets, and transform our communication methods.
That concludes my remarks. Thank you, everyone.
Dr. Mable Lu Miao, Secretary-General of CCG:
Thank you, Professor Zhao. Your lecture was truly impressive. In less than half an hour, you have clearly illustrated the China-US relationship as what you referred to as a "prolonged crisis" since 2019. And it's true. In the past few years, we haven't witnessed visits above the ministerial level. You started by saying that the tensions between China and the United States are fundamentally ideological disputes. As we progressed, it seemed to become a significant technical issue related to the Taiwan Strait, with underlying principles at stake. Finally, it may have boiled down to a matter of attitude. China's perception of the United States has shifted, and it's important to note that China has never held a condescending view of the United States. Perhaps there has been a strategic miscalculation, as you mentioned, but despite that, you emphasized the need for communication and dialogue, which is crucial. In conclusion, my main takeaway from today's discussion is the importance of continued communication and exchange.
Since we have some journalists with us today, I suggest we start with a brief exchange of ideas. I'll pose a question, and then they will have questions too. People's Daily, People's Daily Online, and possibly other media outlets have numerous inquiries to address. We have approximately 20 minutes to engage in this conversation, which promises to be quite interesting. As you mentioned, “talk the talk, walk the walk.” So, in light of the ongoing discussions at the Xiangshan Forum over the past two days regarding China-US competition, what precisely do you believe we are competing for? I'd like to hear your thoughts on the ultimate nature of this competition. As you mentioned earlier, you touched upon these three aspects and drew the conclusion of promoting "desecurity," which is to avoid unproductive discussions and instead focus on meaningful global public goods-related issues where we may find common ground.
However, many still wonder what exactly we are competing for. Therefore, as we go from Bali to San Francisco, what might be of more interest in San Francisco? What are your predictions?
Earlier, I mentioned three points: first, ideological competition; second, the structural competition between established and rising nations; and third, competition over core interests. In my view, these are complex issues without immediate solutions, and some level of competition is inevitable. However, we can temporarily set them aside and identify areas of cooperation where our common interests align. I believe this is the direction we should strive for to shift the current situation.
As you mentioned earlier, communication and dialogue play a pivotal role in this process. Personally, I've observed a significant lack of communication and dialogue during our recent visits, particularly due to the pandemic. We visited the United States last year in June and again this year. It's clear that high-level dialogues have been scarce since 2019, with only recent visits by three ministerial-level leaders. Conversations with Janet Yellen went relatively well, and Antony Blinken's visit was noteworthy. However, the pandemic has had a substantial impact on these interactions.
Furthermore, there have been numerous strategic misunderstandings between China and the United States, including the recent issue of China not responding to phone calls, which the Ministry of Defense has its own explanations for; they have their perspective on these matters. Therefore, I believe that a lack of communication and dialogue poses significant challenges, not only in diplomacy but also in the business sector, which operates as a symbiotic ecosystem involving both high-level figures and the general public. As you mentioned, the mutual reinforcement of hawks in both countries must have some underlying rationale. I believe that the absence of effective communication and dialogue is a major problem.
The lack of communication and dialogue is definitely a significant issue. However, I believe that both sides have a very deep understanding of each other's red lines. For instance, consider the situation you mentioned earlier, where China didn't answer the phone call. If, at that time, the Chinese Minister of National Defense had answered the call, how would the U.S. have reacted? I believe the Chinese Minister of National Defense would have mirrored Wang Yi's explanation - that it was just a weather balloon. However, the U.S. would likely not have accepted this explanation. So, whether the call was answered or not, American fighter jets would probably have taken action, resulting in the same outcome.
Therefore, I think the issue between China and the U.S. is not about mutual understanding or misjudgment; it's more about each side knowing the other too well. If I anticipate that making a concession won't lead to a reciprocal one from you, why would I make that concession? In this context, communication between China and the U.S. has become stuck in a stalemate. It’s kind of reminiscent of Mao's era, “talk the talk but fight the fight.”
Now, between China and the U.S., it's about the talk. We can engage in dialogue, and aside from some initial hiccups during Antony Blinken's visit, discussions have generally been productive. Despite some U.S. criticism concerning Janet Yellen's three bows and handshakes with He Lifeng, the overall tone of the talks has been positive. Currently, there's a shared desire to stabilize U.S.-China relations. The U.S. aims to establish guardrails and maintain open communication channels, and China is receptive to some of these measures. However, thus far, there hasn't been any substantial change in specific actions taken by both sides in response to these communications.
Regarding San Francisco, if President Xi does visit next month, I believe it will be challenging to issue any joint communiqués. Although many are discussing the need for a fourth joint statement, I think it's not something that will happen anytime soon; it remains a distant possibility.
I believe that sometimes the issue lies in the atmosphere for talks. The atmosphere at various levels within China and the U.S., including how matters are explained domestically and the broader political context, can impact how leaders perceive certain issues. I've always thought that it's essential for society as a whole, both in China and the U.S., to engage in multi-level interactions to create a positive environment. This is highly important. However, as you mentioned, contentious topics like ideological disputes are challenging and may not be quickly resolved. In such situations, it might be hard to find immediate solutions, so perhaps focusing on areas where cooperation is possible and emphasizing cooperation over competition could lead to more positive outcomes. What do you think?
Competition is an inevitable topic. Both competition and cooperation need to be promptly discussed. Competition between two major nations like China and the U.S. is unavoidable. However, it’s important to notice that competition has always been present in the past 50 or 60 years of interactions between China and the U.S. Even during the establishment of diplomatic relations, there were significant differences in ideologies and the Taiwan question. Still, both sides managed to find ways to coexist. In fact, the Three Joint Communiqués from that time serve as excellent examples. The two sides found common ground while adhering to their own principles without getting entangled in those principles. Thus they managed to move forward.
Nowadays, it seems that we've lost this approach, which says, “I'll uphold my principles and competitiveness, not allowing you to surpass me. I want to do better. You also need to improve your own affairs. I believe in my system, and although I may not like yours, I'll prove that my system is better, rather than demonizing yours."
So, in the midst of such a competitive atmosphere, during the first 50 years, China and the U.S. engaged effectively. However, now people are saying that engagement has failed. Now it's more about undermining each other. This contention has turned into mutual containment that is neither cooperation nor competition.
China and the U.S. should focus on the other side's strengths. But now it's all about fixating on each other’s weaknesses.
No, it's about seeking out both strengths and weaknesses. But, you see, as a normal practice, everyone has both strengths and weaknesses. I look at your weaknesses, but at the same time, I also see your strengths. It's like when two people get married.
Right, acknowledging differences, but we need to find possibilities. Yes, everyone is discussing these differences, and I think it's very realistic. You've also pointed out the current situation.
I have two questions, one on the political level: From your perspective in the United States, what expectations does the U.S. have if the San Francisco meeting were to take place? Additionally, if the meeting were to occur, what practical impacts do you foresee on resolving current international issues?
The second question is on the academic level. Because I graduated from the U.S. four years ago, I'm particularly interested in your perspective as a scholar. What attitudes do you think the young and middle-aged experts studying China in the U.S. hold towards China now? When I left in 2019, the sentiment was quite pessimistic. What topics are these young Chinese affairs experts currently focusing on, and what influence do you think this younger generation of experts will have on the decision-making circles in Washington, D.C. in the future?
If this San Francisco meeting were to happen, it would send a significant signal. It would signify that these two major nations can sit down together and their leaders can engage in discussions about various global issues. Currently, it seems like these two countries are at odds on almost every front. The U.S. supports Israel, while China supports Hamas. The U.S. backs Ukraine, and China supports Russia. Consequently, the world is in a state of chaos and confusion. So, if these two countries can come together to discuss these complex global issues, find common interests, and work toward them, many of the world's problems could potentially find solutions.
In my view, China-U.S. cooperation cannot solve all the world's problems, but there are numerous global challenges that cannot be addressed without their cooperation. Therefore, it's crucial for the leaders of both countries to sit down and address these problems, showing their willingness to tackle these global challenges and find common ground for solutions. I strongly agree with a statement made by Wang Yi in this context. He said that the development of China-U.S. relations should not be left on autopilot – of course, he was speaking about the San Francisco summit. It indeed cannot be left on autopilot. The role of leaders is paramount here. Leaders must have a clear understanding of these issues and be willing to sit down and find ways to resolve them. This, in itself, holds immense importance for the world. That's my perspective on it.
However, there is a notable difference between our generation of scholars and the younger generation. In our time, scholars like my mentor Susan Shirk and her contemporaries viewed China studies as a personal endeavor—a passionate and personally-involved effort aimed at helping China reform and open up, ultimately contributing to its betterment. So, from my personal perspective, even a decade ago, I could never have imagined that China-U.S. relations would evolve into the state we see today. Many individuals from my generation are now quite disappointed, me included. I won't go into specifics, but it's safe to say that we are deeply disheartened by the course of China-U.S. relations, to the extent that it has prompted introspection.
However, the younger generation of scholars has a different mindset. They see studying China or China-U.S. relations as a profession, a career, a job to excel in. Their focus is not necessarily on improving China-U.S. relations, but rather on performing their work effectively. Their work revolves around safeguarding American interests as Americans. Furthermore, these younger scholars have grown up in an environment where China has already risen and developed, cementing its status as a competitor and, in some cases, an adversary. They are prepared to deal with China accordingly. This younger generation stands in stark contrast to our generation.
It's worth noting that this sentiment is not exclusive to me; scholars of my generation who, like me, left China and have spent around 40 years in the United States, share similar observations. Scholars like us, particularly those of Chinese descent, possess a deep understanding of both China and the United States. As a result, we can play a pivotal role in bridging the gap between these two worlds.
Recently, David Shambaugh wrote an article in my Journal of Contemporary China discussing 70 years of China studies in the United States [The Evolution of American Contemporary China Studies: Coming Full Circle?]. In it, he highlighted the contributions of Chinese-American scholars, mentioning some names, including several of us and our contributions to understanding China in the United States. Scholars like us have approached the understanding of China in a very objective way, focusing on building bridges. However, in the present day, including among young Chinese-Americans, there are fewer individuals engaging in this field in the United States, leading to a shift in the overall atmosphere.
I have made another observation, though I'm not sure if it's entirely accurate. It appears that the current younger generation of China scholars in the United States are more focused on political aspects rather than in-depth research on a specific country. They don't necessarily approach it from a humanistic or historical perspective. They might feel that anyone can talk about China, considering China as a trendy topic for public speaking. This is in contrast to the older generation of China scholars who delved into Chinese culture, language, and conducted extensive fieldwork in China. The new-generation researchers emphasize social science research methods and prioritize the bigger picture. They often don't find the need to study the Chinese language and culture.
For example, like David Shambaugh wrote in his article, many American scholars are now hesitant to go to China. They are afraid to go to China. They thought the study of China, e.g. Chinese diplomacy, can be analyzed through reading Chinese publications without the need for on-site research. Scholars used to come to China and stay in a village, in rural areas for years. However, nowadays, very few people do that. People like Scott Rozelle from Stanford, who is a very old man, told me that people like him are becoming increasingly rare. Those who come to China for such in-depth research are like endangered species.
So, their approach to studying China is entirely different from the past, and this aspect is related to today's theme – that an altered mode of communication and exchange could genuinely affect the trajectory of China-U.S. relations. Additionally, obtaining a Chinese visa has become quite challenging. China does not grant entry to scholars who even mildly criticize China, and many scholars have expressed significant concerns and fear in this regard.
On the flip side, you know, Chinese scholars are also very afraid to go to the United States now. Many scholars have told me that when they go to the U.S., they feel very nervous. They worry about being detained in a small dark room or other possibilities.
One senior Chinese scholar was questioned for more than four hours at the airport on his recent trip to the United States.
Even a scholars so dedicated to promoting China-U.S. friendship was treated this way, so this is indeed a barrier to communication and exchange. I think what you just mentioned is very important. Perhaps the meeting of the two presidents from Bali to San Francisco is crucial. In Chinese, we call it "举旗定向" (raising the flag and setting the direction), and I believe this can help quiet down some of the other noises in the China-U.S. relationship. It's essential to seek some common ground, at least, and that's very important.
If President Xi wasn’t planning on going to San Francisco, he wouldn't have met the Governor of California and the Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.
This is also a gesture to promote a friendly atmosphere. I think the Chinese side is making active efforts in this regard.
People's Daily Overseas:
I'd like to follow up on your earlier points. In recent years, many Chinese citizens have been increasingly developing negative impressions of the United States. Their view of the United States has shifted from admiration to a more neutral stance. One of the reasons for this shift, as I understand it and have observed, is the growing number of social problems within the United States. These issues include the proliferation of drugs, illegal immigration, gun violence, and the emergence of crimes such as robbery this year, as well as issues related to racial discrimination. My question is, as someone who has lived in the United States for three or four decades, what are your personal feelings about this trend? From your perspective, does it seem like American society's governance is on a decline? You also mentioned the need for both China and the United States to address their domestic affairs. Given the current atmosphere of political polarization in the United States, do you believe they can effectively tackle these social issues? Lastly, regarding China-U.S. relations, how do you think the increase in these domestic issues within the United States might affect its policies towards China? Thank you.
I don't think the United States is on a decline. The issues you mentioned, such as gun violence, have been present since the country's founding. Gun control in the United States used to be even more relaxed in the past, and the number of shootings has never been low. Racial issues and societal polarization have also been part of U.S. history, and they were even more severe during the Vietnam War than they are today. This is the nature of American democracy—it's messy. The United States tends to try everything before finding the right path, as Churchill said, "You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they've tried everything else." However, this approach comes with a high societal cost, but the United States has always managed to find solutions to its problems.
So, when you mentioned that increasing polarization in the United States could lead to bigger problems, I've never felt that way. In my view, it's quite the opposite. The United States is experiencing what I would call "affluenza." The U.S. economy is currently thriving, and despite concerns about a potential economic downturn following interest rate hikes by the Federal Reserve, it hasn't happened yet. The employment rate is high, and there are job opportunities everywhere. In contrast, China has a high youth unemployment rate. The U.S. unemployment rate is around 3%, which is close to full employment. So, from this perspective, it's not a problem of decline in the United States but rather a case of the U.S. being too affluent and economically stable.
I think social media has played a role in exposing these issues in the United States.
Chinese social media only highlight issues that the United States has already brought to light and then hype them up. What's really going on with the United States? In my opinion, it's grappling with a sort of post-modernization challenge. They've become extremely concerned about protecting vulnerable groups, especially the homeless. Take Denver, for instance. Our newly elected mayor in Denver, as soon as he took office, unveiled his agenda to provide housing for all the homeless people. He purchased a major hotel in Denver to house the homeless population. More than that, he introduced a new program where each homeless person receives a sum of money, say, 30,000 or 40,000 USD per year, with no strings attached. They can take the entire amount at once or in monthly installments, and they're free to use it as they see fit. Some people use it to rent apartments and find employment, while others end up spending it on drugs. This is the issue.
Nowadays, as professors, what we frequently encounter in our evaluations revolves around DEI, which stands for diversity, inclusivity, and equality. In the United States, they seem to be fixated on these three concerns, and to be honest, it has become quite vexing. They place great emphasis on your skin color, your racial background, your gender—whether you're male or female, and your sexual orientation, whether you're transgender or something else.
So, it's an excessive emphasis on identity politics, isn't it?
Yes, it's “affluanza”.
Your point just now actually serves as an inspiration, and it's also a summary. Both sides, China and the United States, should encourage each other to do well—seeing the other side prosper and thive. Ultimately, it's not a zero-sum game between China and the United States, just as President Xi has repeatedly said. We must, in a broader sense, wish all the best for the other side.
It's about me striving to do better than you, not about me trying to make you do worse. It's not about whether you are doing well or poorly; it's about me aiming to excel and surpass you. This is what’s called healthy competition. Nowadays, it seems to be about worsening the situation for the other side.
So it's about focusing on being better, not being worse, right?
Exactly, nowadays, it's about race to make each other worse rather than striving to become better.
South China Morning Post:
Earlier, you and Dr. Miao both mentioned that in unofficial academic exchanges, there are certain difficulties and obstacles. How do you perceive the specific barriers that need to be addressed in promoting people-to-people exchanges? Additionally, you pointed out that scholars of Chinese descent like yourself can serve as bridges. You also mentioned instances where official relations affected people-to-people exchanges. Recently, we've observed an increase in bilateral Track 2 or Track 1.5 exchanges. I'd like to know your perspective on whether these exchanges, in turn, might influence official dialogues or the foreign policies of both sides, particularly in light of the hawkish stance becoming more prevalent. Could this lead to some changes?
It's a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation – which should come first, the improvement of people-to-people exchanges leading to better official exchanges, or the presence of well-functioning official channels that facilitate people-to-people exchanges? It's hard to say, as both sides influence each other. However, I believe that the most crucial factor is the official one. Some people have asked me about the importance of people-to-people exchanges, citing the example of ping-pong diplomacy and the notion that “a little ball moved the big ball”. I responded by saying, "Do you really believe that? Was it really a little ball moving the big ball?" At that time, leaders of both China and the United States had already decided to restore relations, and they used ping-pong diplomacy as a tool. It was not a little ball moving the big one; it was the big ball utilizing the small one. So, when it comes to Track 2 or Track 1.5 dialogues, a conducive official environment is a prerequisite for them to hold signifcant promise. Relying solely on Track 2 to move the big ball is challenging.
Now, regarding the recent attention China has given to Henry Kissinger, I find it amusing. He's 100-year-old, and most Americans don't even know who he is. For instance, a Chinese scholar traveling to the U.S. was detained by customs for a long time. When asked why he was going to New York, he mentioned he was meeting Henry Kissinger. The customs officer asked, "Who is Henry Kissinger? Can you spell out the name?" People don't know who he is. Treating him well and celebrating his birthday, will not improve China-U.S. relations–that's just naïve. And I believe it's impossible.
So, actually, right now, everyone is looking forward to the meeting in San Francisco. There's a saying in China now, “from Bali to San Francisco”, with direct reference to the meeting of the two presidents.
This is very important. If the leaders are resolute about steering China-U.S. relations onto the right track, then people-to-people exchanges, Track 2 dialogues, and Track 1.5 dialogues can only serve as icing on the cake.
But, Professor Zhao, you know, the whole world is watching these developments. There are clues, and we are all pondering because leaders may not communicate directly, but there are official reports, dialogues, and media coverage. Everyone is scrutinizing the details. I believe that a healthy China-U.S. relationship should be multi-level, multi-dimensional, all-encompassing, and three-dimensional, just like a normal relationship between two individuals. It's not just about surface-level pleasantries, but genuine exchanges.
Exactly, with economic interactions, political interactions, professional interactions, and various other forms of engagement at different levels. This multi-layered approach can mutually reinforce the relationship. With one leg, the relationship may wobble, but with two legs, it becomes more stable, and with four legs, even more so.
Yes, indeed. We are currently filled with high hopes for the upcoming meeting in San Francisco.
But I believe we shouldn't set our expectations too high because reaching compromises on the issues I’ve just discussed remains quite challenging at the moment. It's difficult for China and the U.S. to significantly improve their relationship in the short term. At best, they can stabilize and ease tensions. I don't see much hope for an immediate improvement in the relationship.
So now people are always using the word "stabilize."
Yes, "stabilize." I think the relationship has essentially stabilized for now. However, it hasn't shown signs of improvement beyond that. Instead, it remains in a prolonged crisis mode, as I mentioned earlier.
Recently, the European Policy Centre and the Center for China and Globalization (CCG) spearheaded the EU & China Think Tank Exchanges in Beijing, funded by the European Union. Find all the speeches and interventions in the following PDF.