My invited participation to a two-day international conference on “China-US Relations under the Obama Administration,” held May 7-8 at Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou (Canton), was one of the most rewarding experiences in my academic career. The informed, frank and often critical sharing of views by Chinese and American scholars was in the finest tradition of the academy. The first days proceedings were in English and the second day in Chinese, with two students serving as my translators.
American and Chinese scholars expressed conflicting opinions on issues like Taiwan and the Dalai Llama. Even though the U.S. official position is “One China,” the Chinese felt the issue of Taiwan involved the “core national interest” of Chinese sovereignty that the U.S. did not fully appreciate. Some Chinese scholars argued that the Beijing government should respond stronger to such affronts as arms sale to Taiwan and the Dalai Llama’s White House visit with President Obama, which they viewed as disrespectful toward China as a growing world power. One declared, “We respect America’s core national interests.”
My address focused on the question of whether the U.S. now has a “grand national strategy” toward the world. I maintained that isolationism was America’s oldest grand strategy, followed in l947 by the strategy of containment toward the Soviet Union. Since the Cold War ended the U.S. has struggled to formulate a new national grand strategy. The George W. Bush administration attempted to implement a new muscular neo-conservative grand strategy, but the unpopularity and costs of the Iraq war undermined that ambitious endeavor. I argued that America presently has no grand global strategy, laying out a rough outline for one, with caveats.
The “realist” Chinese professor who commented on my presentation agreed, but asserted that as the number one power in the world the U.S. ought to have a grand strategy to guide others. He felt President Obama was “hostage” to the Bush administration’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, so Obama couldn’t walk away from prior policies, as some Chinese critics expected. He faulted Democratic Party liberals for not formulating a strategic vision as an alternative to that of the Republicans.
The discussions concerning whether China currently has a grand strategy were provocative, stimulating a variety of viewpoints. A foreign office official told an American interviewer, “Having no grand strategy is our grand strategy.” Chinese officials have proclaimed they do not seek hegemony or an exclusive G-2 relation with the United States. Another academic quoted China’s reform leader Deng Xiaoping, “Conceal one’s capabilities, bide one’s time,” which I depicted as a stealth strategy that concerned American planners with its ambiguities. A Chinese scholar stated that whether China should adopt a low-key or high-profile grand strategy was a tactical, not a strategic decision. But, he emphasized, low-key did not mean that China should not assert its interests vis-à-vis America, insisting upon a relationship between equals.
The question of whether “rising” China was capable of assuming a greater international leadership role was discussed, with some Chinese professors strongly suggesting the government should concentrate on domestic economic and social challenges. One Chinese scholar quoted an old proverb, “Store more food and be a king later.” Nevertheless, China has provided in recent years U.N. peacekeepers and anti-piracy naval patrols as their contribution to international collaborative efforts.
I made the point that the lack of transparency in Chinese foreign policy-making made it difficult for the United States and other nations to understand China’s goals. However, a Chinese scholar argued that while Beijing officials could ignore public opinion twenty years ago, increasingly the “organizational process” of formulating policies involves competing groups pointing to Chinese public opinion in support of their positions.
George Washington University Professor David Shambaugh, a China expert enjoying a Fulbright research grant in Beijing, delivered a summary of his research that identified seven competing constituencies in the formation of China’s foreign policy. I found his listing similar to the spectrum of foreign policy views in the United States. He identified Nativists (Marxist opponents of foreign investment), Realists—the dominant group (tough nationalists focused on China, not global governance), Major Powers School (stress dealings with the U.S., E.U. and Russia), Asia-Firsters, Developing Nations Group (work with other developing states), Selective Multi-Lateralists (anti-piracy) and Trans-Nationalists (global partnerships).
Several participants mentioned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s February 20, 2009, citation of a Chinese proverb, “when you are in the same boat, you should keep the peace on the crossing.” This was viewed as a realistic appreciation of how China and the United States shared many common interests, particularly economic, in the current era of globalism. She also lauded the new “mature relationship” between China and America: we acknowledge differences over interests but pursue other areas of cooperation.
My last visit to Asia was in l964 during the chilly days of the Cold War. Looking back at the conference, I reflected on how relations between China and America have dramatically improved since those grim days of harsh rhetoric, unflattering stereotypes and a bitter lack of contact with this large nation. This conference could have been held in the United States with the same candor, objectivity and pursuit of knowledge, but significantly it was hosted in the Peoples Republic of China. Clearly, America and China need many more dialogues like this as two of the leading nations in the world.
President Obama frankly declared during his visit to China that United States-China relations will shape the 21st century. Conferences like the one I attended at Sun Yat-sen University, as well as this week’s U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing, with Secretary of State Clinton and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner attending, provide the best opportunity for greater understanding, cooperation and progress toward peace and prosperity.