Much has made of Trump’s shake-up of foreign policy norms even before he’s officially taken office, whether it’s connecting with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, having his daughter sit in on meetings with both Japanese PM Abe and Turkish President Edrogran, or launching misspelled Twitter rants in China’s direction.  I’ll be the first to admit that after Trump’s call with Tsai, I was somewhat elated that someone had recognized how impressive Taiwan’s efforts had been to create an open and democratic society in a little over 20 years.  For someone who has been an amateur Sinologist his entire life, I was also startled that I liked that the two had spoken.  I was startled because I, like many in the foreign policy establishment, had taken the official “One China” policy as a given for maintaining regional stability and had never contemplated challenging it in any sort of way for fear of what the consequences may be. Yet, with his phone call, Trump called China’s bluff and the world did not end.  However, I cannot give him credit for being any sort of visionary possessing a coherent world view or adherent to any discernible tenets of foreign policy.  I think it was purely accidental that this phone call started a dialogue about what the “One China” policy means and to what ends both sides will go to maintain a fiction that has served everyone well for nearly 30 years.  One only has to look at Trump’s subsequent actions to see that this seeming stroke of brilliance was not pre-meditated on his part (his staffers may be a different story) and does not reflect a President-elect with a strategy or plan for advancing U.S. interests abroad.  His follow-up tweets and interview on Fox News that he could use Taiwan as a bargaining chip to extract concessions on trade from China demonstrate that he understands nothing about U.S. – China relations and Taiwan’s place in the middle of that power dynamic, but merely took a phone call from someone congratulating him on and inflating his ego for winning the election.

Where does that leave U.S. – China relations when Trump assumes office next month?  If we try to extrapolate the type of foreign policy he and his team are going to conduct once in office, it might be instructive to examine his reaction to China’s seizure of an underwater drone off the coast of the Philippines.  Upon hearing about the incident, he blasted out a tweet calling the act “unpresidented” and once it had been settled that China would return the drone, he then tweeted to “[l]et them keep it!”  While there is seemingly not much to go on here, the worrisome takeaway from all of Trump’s commentary on U.S. – China relations, commentary being a generous word to use to describe his tweeting, is that the man does not have a clue as to what he’s doing and the people surrounding him are encouraging this no-nothing behavior.  At worst, Trump and his team believe unpredictably poking China like a third-grader to provoke a reaction is the best approach to calibrating U.S. – China relations and advancing his “America First” agenda.  This approach completely ignores the nuances of U.S. – China relations and the search for common ground on issues like climate change and North Korea that the Obama administration worked so hard to achieve.  While U.S. – China relations are anything but easy or predictable, it is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the global order and will only continue to become more so as China continues to rise and the U.S. seeks to maintain its influence in the Asia-Pacific.

I have argued here before and perhaps now believe it even more, but the U.S. needs a new grand strategy when it comes to the Asia-Pacific region.  Recent history shows us to be reactionary throughout the region, whether it’s stationing more U.S. troops in Darwin or carrying out more multilateral military exercises to respond to a rising China or slapping even more punishing sanctions on North Korea after their latest missile test.  Rather than reacting, we need to be proactive to create a regional architecture that promotes peace and prosperity in the region for everyone, including China.  Even the TPP, which would have gone a long way towards laying one part of the foundation for such an architecture, was flawed in that it kept China outside.  The U.S. decision to remain outside of the AIIB was another such decision that was more a reaction to China having created the institution rather than actually thinking about what the U.S. could do to shape it as a founding member.  Unfortunately, we now have a President and his attendant team taking power that barely knows the meaning of the word strategy when it comes to foreign affairs, let alone something that requires more forethought and nuance like a grand strategy for the Asia-Pacific region.

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The Real China?

December 1, 2015

“Where is the real China?”

Since I’ve been here, I’ve been asked variations on this question from the American teachers at our school for which this stint in Shenzhen is their first time in China.  I struggle to come up with a good answer because I am not sure I actually know the answer.  Depending on the day and my mood, I recommend checking out Beijing for a good contrast between the old and new China with a bunch of government formality thrown in for good measure.  Or maybe I extol the history in Xian with its terra cotta warriors and ancient city walls still standing.  Or even Yangshuo (阳朔) for its beautiful scenery and Yongding (永定) with its tulou (土楼).

Maybe Shenzhen is actually the best representation of the real China. 30 or so years ago it was nothing more than a 50,000 person market town through which the Guangzhou – Hong Kong through-train passed.  Now it’s a metropolis of over 15 million people, depending on how many of the surrounding towns you include in that count, and home to an endless supply of high-end malls, one of China’s two stock exchanges, and extreme wealth on display throughout the city.   This dramatic transformation, which at this point has been noted by anyone who has spent time here or in any number of China’s other Tier One and Tier Two cities, is almost a given when speaking about China. However, the teachers for whom Shenzhen represents their introduction to China, something rings hollow about the city and the experience.  It’s not that it’s not pleasant or convenient, but it almost feels too easy and not what they expected of China.  But I have to wonder what they expected China to be if not a temple of consumerism and capitalism with very little in the way of apparent angst about the country’s problems and where it’s going.

Just an aside to note that I must give props to my dad for bringing to my attention Andrew Jacobs’ “Notes on the China I’m Leaving Behind“, which was published in this past Sunday’s New York Times.  In short, it’s his take on where China is at after spending almost eight years on the ground.  It means more to me that my dad brought it to my attention because I’d like to think that it’s my being here on the ground that caused him to stop and read it whereas if I wasn’t here, there might have been the chance that he would have skipped over Jacobs’ piece.   Thanks, dad.

Jacobs notes this disconnect between the shiny veneer of consumerism and deeper problems that lurk beneath this surface.  He writes, “[T]he Communist Party, largely through fear and intimidation, seems to have trained much of the population to channel their energies into the pursuit of consumerism.”  This sentence gets to the heart of what is so strange about China, especially to Americans who are so used to the constant bombardment of negative news that makes it hard to enjoy Black Friday or Cyber Monday.  Most Chinese people seem rather oblivious to the problems around them, including a slowing economy, rapidly degrading environment, disadvantageous demographics, and the detention of anyone who dare challenge the regime.

Shenzhen is even more of a conundrum because it should embody the idea that the further one is from Beijing, the less reverence they have for the government and its policies.  That actually may be true to an extent in Shenzhen, which is richer and freer than most other parts of China, but the vacuum that exists from seemingly not caring about social and political matters is what makes the city feel so strange.  Its proximity to Hong Kong and relatively porous border only heightens the strangeness. Shenzheners cross quite regularly between the two cities, but it’s mainly to shop in Hong Kong because of its better selection of Western good and lower prices.  Yet, Shenzheners bring little else back with them except bags and suitcases full of purchases.

To an American like myself who goes back and forth quite frequently and have been doing so for over a decade, I still marvel at the feeling of how different Hong Kong is from the moment I step off a plane, train, or boat. I don’t know for certain, but would guess that most Chinese people crossing the border just see the city as a giant shopping mall.

Foreign Policy is running a special series on education and the relationship between the U.S. and China.  Zara Zhang, a Chinese student at Harvard, writes about her experience there and acting as a bridge between the U.S. and China.  Her experience at Harvard is a fascinating read, especially as someone who has taught top university students in China.  Among her many observations, one stood out for me at the end of her piece, “If China will one day become a more democratic and open society, it will probably be a result of the effort of this large group of culturally hybrid individuals whose heads are now used to Western thinking — but whose hearts are unchangeably Chinese.”

I have thought about this point a lot and I think it’s what any Western country that hosts a large number of Chinese students at its high schools and universities thinks, too – that by welcoming Chinese students into the halls of Western education, they’ll be imbued with ideas of freedom and democracy and bring those ideas back home to clamor for change.  The question that is not answered is whether those ideas will be subsumed upon returning home once those same students start working and realize that the current system is better set up to reward those with degrees from top universities.   Another way of thinking about it is this – will coming home and joining the existing system prevent these idealistic students from carrying out the reforms they may have been so excited to see through when sitting in a classroom in New Haven, Melbourne, or Oxford?  I don’t know the answer, but I would like to see where the Zara Zhang’s of China are in ten years’ time.

Jacobs’ point that the government has so successfully turned people’s frustrations and desires for change into a force for consumerism could mean that even successive generations with more exposure to people and ideas from outside China might not be enough to correct the social and political problems that China faces if it’s to make that jump from purely an economic juggernaut to a true global power.  For those who wonder if Chinese people actually care about these social and political problems, Jacobs makes it clear that there are people who are disgruntled, but they’re powerless against the huge tide of people who would rather shop than think about what ails their country, especially since there are a lot fewer restrictions on spending money than doing other things.

And for those looking for the real China, if you’re in a city like Shenzhen, you’re probably experiencing it every day.  Just walk to any one of the many malls on a Saturday afternoon and wander around taking in the people milling about and there you have it.  Happy shopping.

 

The China Bubble

November 15, 2015

Let me start off by saying that what happened in Paris yesterday is one of those events like 9/11 that defy an adequate description.  All that we can do is let all those affected know that our thoughts and prayers are with them as they make sense of these barbaric and senseless attacks.  What’s strange sitting here in China in one of the country’s largest cities is the lack of any outward awareness that the attacks had taken place.  Now I did not go to the newsstand outside my apartment complex and look at the headlines, nor did I check out CCTV news to see if it was being discussed on television, but I also did not notice any more of a police presence in the streets or in public spaces.  If you look at today’s Global Times, the English-language newspaper published by the government’s People’s Daily, you’ll see mention of the Paris attacks, but it shares billing with a landslide in eastern China.  I guess when you already live in something of a police state, there isn’t much of a need for additional police on the streets since surveillance is already undertaken on such a massive scale.  Even the control center in our school here probably rivals what’s in place at secondary airports around the world.  The number of screens for one building was astonishing and we’re merely talking about keeping tabs on students.  While we take the safety of our students seriously, I think this high-tech room came part and parcel with the building in which we happen to have our school, which was built by our Chinese partner here.  My point in all of this is that China is already theoretically well-policed with cameras everywhere, the Internet scoured for unsavory posts by an army of censors, and everyone registered with the government so that their whereabouts are always known.  I say theoretically because its surveillance system has not been tested in ways like Paris, Madrid, or New York have been tested.  When there is an attack in Xinjiang allegedly perpetrated by Muslims frustrated with Chinese rule, we don’t actually know how the government goes about finding its suspects because there is never mention of a video capturing the incident or interception of cell phone or internet chatter about planning the attacks.  I guess I wonder how robust China’s security apparatus really is and how much of it is mere bluster with the government just creating suspects to fit a convenient narrative.  My only experience with surveillance in China was when I was living in Guangzhou and someone wiped out my bank account by obtaining my ATM password.  I roughly knew the date and time when this happened, so I went back to the bank figuring that with the 20 cameras in the tiny ATM vestibule, they’d be able to find the perpetrator.  Guess what the bank told me?  Those cameras actually didn’t work, but were just for show to deter criminals.  It was one of those moments where I just shook my head and only later started wondering how many of the other cameras around the city were just for show.  Even today when I see a camera mounted on a street light or outside of store, I wonder if it actually works.   Aside from the cameras at our school, without proof, I am not that sure.  So I am currently in a police state and theoretically I should be safe here, but China is relatively untested when it comes to terrorism outside of attacks from Tibetans and Uighurs protesting Chinese rule. As China continues to rise and seeks to play a bigger role on the global stage, it’s going to get entangled in countries far from home and one can only wonder what happens then.  Hopefully we defeat this scourge of terrorism before anyone here has to find out.  Yet it’s odd being here in what I call the China bubble when a tragedy occurs like what went down in Paris.  Without the Internet and ties to my friends and family back home, I would be hard-pressed to find out anything from my immediate surroundings about what’s going on in the world at large.  It’s frightening sometimes to think about how easy it is to render a population unaware.  Even in the States where people don’t always pay attention to the news, anyone in a major urban area would notice an increased police presence.  China seems to sometimes exist as if it’s cut off from what goes on outside its borders.

Forward, Not Backward

October 11, 2012

It’s been over three months since my last jaunt to China and part of me yearns to be back on the ground in the thick of things given how much has happened since I’ve returned – the government has finally set a date for the once-in-a-decade leadership transition (November 8th), Japan and China are rattling their sabers more loudly than ever over a bunch of rocks in the East China Sea supposedly sitting on abundant natural resources, the Chinese people are protesting in a more sustained and forceful manner over issues raging from the aforementioned Sino-Japanese dispute to environmental and labor issues, and Gu Kailai and Wang Lijun have been victims of the theatrical spectacle that has been Bo Xilai’s downfall.  Definitely exciting times in China.  Throw in a slowing domestic economy, a restless population in Hong Kong, and an American presidential election where China has once again turned into a scapegoat for candidates trying to falsely prove to voters they have the balls big enough to contain China and you have enough material for a ten-act play that would only barely scratch the surface of the complex forces at work in that part of the world.  Yet here I am in my bubble known as New York wishing I could just wander the streets of Guangzhou or be in a classroom in Linyi and just feel what is transpiring over there.  Instead I have to read all I possibly can and apply my own experiences and knowledge to try and make sense of what is going on over there.

I am an American and no matter how much time I spend in China, I will never be an insider.  Thus it’s probably more productive for me in the long run to figure out how to use what I have learned over the years to effect positive change in the U.S. – Sino relationship going forward.  Though I struggle with how to exactly do such a thing.  I have been lucky over the years to have been asked to teach in Chinese universities, attend conferences, provide testimony in front of a Congressional commission, and study both modern China and Mandarin.  What do I do now?  I watch an American foreign policy engaged in a tug-of-war between trying to cling to a past where America called the shots and everyone else stood at attention (case in point, see Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s Wall Street Journal op-ed on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East published on October 1st) and recognizing that America is one player among many that can no longer dictate how other nations conduct both their domestic and international affairs.  I think Aaron David Miller’s piece on FP.com responding to Mitt’s op-ed is spot-on when he writes:

The past twenty years of failed American policy on peacemaking and war making in this region [the Middle East] reveal the costs of failure and what it’s done for our image abroad.  This has nothing to do with being a ‘”declinist” or not believing in American ‘”exceptionalism.'” We are exceptional, but part of that uniqueness lies in understanding that the wisest policies are those that find the balance between the way the world is and the way we want it to be. Great powers get themselves into heaps of trouble when they commit transgressions of omniscience and omnipotence by thinking they know everything and can do everything, too.

Extrapolate Miller’s thoughts on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East to any other hot spot in the world and this principle of recognizing a balance between how things are and how we would like them to be can be applied.  Our approach to China should also hew to this principle of finding a balance, but instead we get a policy that appears to be reactionary and ill-informed.  Threats of labeling China a “currency manipulator”, slapping tariffs on Chinese goods, and standing in the way of Chinese investment in the name of political expediency ignore the reality that China has arrived as a power and America must learn how to live with that reality rather than try to set the clock back 20 years and invoke policies that apply to a world that no longer exists.  I have traveled and lived around the world and I will be the first to admit that as a privileged liberal arts college student, patriotism was the last thing on my mind.  Today I find myself more proud to be an American and an ambassador for the ideals and values our country is supposed to represent, but I also recognize that our power unfortunately has limits and we must think long and hard about how we maximize our impact upon the rest of the world.

Admitting that America has limits does not make me any less of an American than Mitt Romney who implores us that “[I]f the 21st century is to be another American Century, we need leaders who understand that keeping the peace requires American strength in all of its dimensions.”  I find such a call to arms more alarming than rousing, one dimensional as opposed to multi-dimensional.  It’s an over-simplistic approach to a world that is not a simple place to begin with.  Romney seems to mistakenly and rather naively believe that if we restore America’s economic strength and expand our military’s budget, we can start “shaping” events in the Middle East and beyond.  If only it were that simple – create robust economic growth and maintain a spendthrift military to restore order and sanity in the world on America’s terms.  Mind you that Romney has not put forth any policies to make those two pillars of his foreign policy a reality except for promising to expand the military’s budget, but that’s not my main point.

Putting aside Romney’s lack of specifics for a second, it’s this hubristic and one-note approach to American foreign policy that is most problematic.  We don’t live in a unipolar world where America merely needs to reclaim her mantle and we certainly don’t live in a world where a one-note approach predicated on solely restoring America’s greatness is going to do anything to move the needle in that direction for us.  The world is a nuanced and complicated place, which almost makes it sound manageable when reduced to two seemingly simple adjectives.  However, the only way to tackle this type of world is with a proactive foreign policy.  Proactive does not mean throwing our military might around the world and shoving our values and ideas down other people’s throats.  It means listening and understanding what we’re up against and maximizing the tools at our disposal to create a framework where America’s tangible and intangible support is valued and sought out.  Being a bully is not the way to get people to ultimately listen to you because once the bully hangs up his boxing gloves. it’s as if he never existed and the playground will revert to the chaos that preceded the bully.  The same goes for the world stage.  America cannot merely bully with its military and dollars without understanding where other regimes and their people are coming from and ascertaining what we’re up against before blindly throwing our might around.  Once we begin to understand, we need to begin crafting a framework that builds relationships co-opting our existing allies and cultivating new ones based on mutual respect and understanding.  It’s not an overnight process and it’s certainly not easy, but it requires us being proactive and getting out in front of events rather than merely reacting to them.

Where does China fit in a proactive foreign policy?  Take the vaunted trans-Atlantic alliance that was the bedrock of Cold War-era foreign policy.  America had a grand strategy predicated upon principles that were transparent and engendered support from multiple parties.  Granted it was a seemingly simpler time with a bipolar world engaged in a Cold War divided between the Soviet Union and the U.S., but the important thing during that time was that American foreign policy was guided by a framework that actually required some forethought and was used to guide our actions around the globe.  One can argue that the framework was merely containing Communism, but that initial goal required carefully balancing relationships around the world and trying to use our resources in the most effective way possible.  We live in a seemingly more complex world, but that same forethought and commitment to clearly articulated principles is required, hence what I like to call a proactive approach. If we believe all of the pundits, we are increasingly moving into a new bipolar world with China and America each heading up a pole.  Even if we are not moving to a purely bipolar world, China is going to be an increasingly important power on the world stage and we are still left reacting to her every move.  This approach is the opposite of proactive.  We need to re-evaluate our relationship with China and try to better understand where she is coming from as a rising power, warts and all. and construct a grand strategy for working with her during her rise instead of just playing tit-for-tat on the global stage and coming across as a bunch of awkward adolescents trying to figure out the contours of their relationship.

Romney reiterated his foreign policy “ideas” in a speech this past Monday and it was a lot of the same.  He wants to restore America’s greatness and blamed Obama for making America weak.  Putting aside the election politics of the moment, one flaw on both sides of the aisle is a lack of thought and wherewithal for dealing with the world as it is today.  We respond to things, whether they be in the Middle East, Asia, South America, or even Europe.  Rather than trying to make America great by restoring her past glory, we should be thinking prospectively how to keep America great by playing to her strengths that reflect the reality of today’s world.  Perhaps my role in all of this craziness is to figure out how to bring my China experience to the forefront to continue helping  in some small way to bridge the gaps in understanding.

I never thought that I would be writing about 9/11 nearly 11 years after it happened and while sitting in Linyi, but here I go.  It all started yesterday when Ms. Jiang, the woman from Linyi University who is responsible for the international programs, picked us up for a farewell dinner.  She took us on a scenic tour of the city along the river and then down some side streets that I had not been down, including one that went past one of the best schools in Linyi.  Like most Chinese cities, there were quite a few plots of land cleared of old buildings and waiting for new ones to take their place.  As we were driving down the street, one of the plots still had debris from the previous building that had been demolished, including a large portion of the front of what looked like a two or three story market.  From the back seat of the car, John (one of the other professors from UNH), remarked to me that I probably had not seen anything like that (meaning the demolished building) since September 11th.  As soon as I heard his comment, I had a visceral reaction.  I tensed up, turned around, and told him that I thought his comment was highly inappropriate and not something that I expected to hear out of his mouth.  What was most remarkable was that he did not apologize or even act as if he realized that his comment had affected me deeply.  He just continued prattling on about how there were so few new buildings in New York and even went so far as to ask me where I was for 9/11.

Yesterday’s incident instantly took me back to that time.  I was living in Hong Kong at the time, working as an investment banker at Salomon/Citigroup, and it was evening in HK when the events transpired back in New York on what was a most perfect late summer day.  Being 7000 miles from home when something unprecedented of that magnitude happens is indescribable, so I am not even going to try.  What I can do is tell you what happened in my office in Hong Kong because of course we were working past 8pm on a Tuesday night as investment bankers.  As word of the attacks spread, most of us were either on the phone trying to connect with loved ones back in the States or watching the events live on big projection screens in one of our conference rooms.  The Hong Kong office of Salomon had quite a few Chinese nationals working there and they were also watching the events unfold back in New York.  When the first tower fell, many of these Chinese bankers began clapping and cheering as if their national soccer team had won the World Cup, like what was happening was some spectator sport.  One of my American colleagues was so angry at the combination of the towers collapsing and the apparent glee of the Chinese bankers that he punched a wall.  I also remember feeling angry and intensely American at that moment, scared of what this moment meant for the future of my country and wholly cut off from my Chinese colleagues.

John’s comment yesterday immediately brought me back to that moment when my Chinese colleagues were clapping and cheering as the first tower fell and I felt alone.  In all my time back in China since that moment, even when U.S. – China relations were at low points, when I would be asked where I was from and I replied “America” or 美国 (Meiguo, meaning beautiful country), the reaction was always largely positive.  I am not one for the sacred or taboo, but to joke about an event like 9/11 feels like crossing some invisible line.  Perhaps I am overreacting, but I just think back to that day many years ago when there was a feeling of glee from my Chinese colleagues that America had received her comeuppance and I wonder if that feeling still persists among Chinese people.  Having lived abroad relatively long periods, I have learned that many people are able to separate their love of Americans and all things American from their distaste for the country’s leaders and policies, something especially apparent during the Bush years.  But how sincere is this separation and what is to prevent distaste for one from seeping into the other.  Whenever I travel and live abroad, I try to be the best ambassador for the States that I can be, taking a balanced view to America’s policies and avoiding any of the typical “Ugly American” behavior.  Yet sometimes I cannot avoid this feeling of intense patriotism and the need to defend my country from unwarranted attacks, which is not something that easily jives with my liberal and largely unpatriotic tendencies.  The fact that John, someone who made the choice to leave China to raise his family in the States with a job in American academia, a comfortable existence in suburban Connecticut, and a son at a top American college would choose to make such an insensitive comment just baffles me.

The comment also raises the larger issue that I touched on before about whether the professed love of America by the average Chinese person is genuine.  It also raises the question about soft power, which I think is one of America’s greatest tools in its foreign policy arsenal.  American brands and culture are everywhere around the world and have pervaded even the most remote corners of the planet.  We all have a story about being in the middle of nowhere and then stumbling upon something that reminds them at home, whether it’s a song, movie, or product.  Secretary of State Clinton has made repeated comments about the strength of American soft power and its importance in the overarching umbrella of American foreign policy, but those more hawkish on American foreign policy tend to pooh-pooh this part of our diplomatic efforts.  Living and visiting China, I think it’s folly to downplay the importance of soft power.  If it was not important, China would not be trying to do the same thing and harness its soft power to extend its influence around the world.  It’s why Xinhua, the Chinese government’s news agency, opened its North American headquarters in New York’s Times Square in 2011 and announced plans to launch a 24-hour global English-language news channel.  When our main rival is seeking to project its own soft power around the world, I think it’s a clear sign that this part of foreign policy should not be ignored.

All of the various exchanges that American institutions and companies have established with Chinese counterparts are part of extending the reach of soft power and provide tangible and meaningful interactions for many Chinese people who only know about Americans from what they see in movies and TV shows.  Will more soft power eliminate reactions like those from my Chinese colleagues all those years ago when the Twin Towers collapsed?  Perhaps not completely, but such power will go a long to building links between people and tapping into that universal human feeling of sympathy and understanding.  As for John’s comment, he’s a nice guy and has been very welcoming, so I am not taking it personally, but I must admit that I did look at him a little differently when we met to go to class this morning.  I think my change in how I view him is merely because I am just incredulous that someone could make a comment like that, especially to an American who he knows has strong ties to New York.

I was fortunate to catch some of Sen. Hilary Clinton’s confirmation hearing live this past Tuesday and it made me really happy to see her back in the limelight and displaying her impressive knowledge of world affairs.  After the long and drawn-out primary battle between her and President-elect Obama, it was really nice to hear her on the same page as her former rival and her poise and confidence displayed during the hearings gave me hope that she can truly begin to rebuild our image around the world.

While I recognize the number of trouble spots around the world seems to grow daily, especially with the latest Middle East conflict thrown into the mix, I was disappointed not to hear more from Sen. Clinton or the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the future of U.S. – China relations.  I could chalk my disappointment up to a bias from spending the past five months in a classroom with Chinese students whose overriding concern about the incoming Obama administration was how he and his team would handle U.S. – China relations.  However, my disappointment with the lack of vision for U.S. – China relations goes back to the days when I was an undergraduate at Yale, where I had the good fortune to study modern Chinese history with Jonathan Spence and China’s market economy with Nicholas Lardy.  In much of the scholarly reading I’ve done related to China over the last decade, I was always struck by how short-sighted and black and white much of the literature has been.  Our own government’s policies towards China seem to mirror this reactionary and binary approach to U.S. – China relations.  To be over-simplistic, policy responses usually fall along the lines of military/human rights issues are bad and anything that allows American companies to profit from China’s rapid growth are good.  Thus, much of the talk about U.S. – China relations still revolves around Tibet, devaluing the yuan, trade disputes, and human rights violations. One possible exception to this approach were the Six Party talks concerning North Korea’s nuclear capabilities where the U.S. and China engaged as equals and were working towards a common, longer-term goal.  I am not saying that the aforementioned issues are not important.  They are, but the approach to dealing with them is often couched in a U.S. reaction to some policy decision rather than the crafting of a grand strategy framework laying out the approach to U.S. – China relations going forward.

In her statement at the confirmation hearing, Sen. Clinton mentioned China five times, two of those five times China was mentioned in the context of either Russia or other large emerging economies like India, Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia.  Here is her most substantive comment regarding China is as follows:

We want a positive and cooperative relationship with China, one where we deepen and strengthen our ties on a number of issues, and candidly address differences where they persist.  But this a not one-way effort – much of what we will do depends on the choices China makes about its future at home and abroad. With both Russia and China, we should work together on vital security and economic issues like terrorism, proliferation, climate change, and reforming financial markets.

I agree wholeheartedly with Sen. Clinton’s words of cooperation and goodwill, but what was missing from that statement was a commitment to developing a long-term framework for U.S. – China relations.  I just hope that soon-to-be Secretary Clinton and her team, including Kurt Campbell as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs begin to map out a proactive approach as opposed to a reactive approach to U.S. – China relations in the coming years.  While China is still considered a developing country, it is really becoming too big to ignore and the best approach going forward is going to be to figure out how to build a true partnership between the two countries.  

Best to of luck to Hillary and her team at State.