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40 Years of U.S. – China Relations – Former Assistant Secretary Susan Thornton

Speech By Susan Thornton, former Assistant Secretary of State, at the Carter Center and Emory University Symposium on “The United States & China at 40: Seeking a New Framework to Manage Bilateral Relations”

January 16-19, 2019

Atlanta, Georgia

Many of our discussions here have focused on the importance of the last 40 years of US-China relations.

With the benefit of even further hindsight, I believe this period will stand out to historians as one of extraordinary importance and strategic creativity and risk taking.

And here I’d like to take the opportunity to highlight the wisdom, foresight and initiative of the leaders of the time who made it possible.  For I think it is very important for all of us to recognize that without those human agents driving the decision making, we might all be living in a very different world.  It is easy for leaders to succumb to popular pressures, to the politics of inertia or fear.  It is much harder to lead, cajole and push systems in new directions for the sake of future, uncertain, and yes, mutual benefits.

We are indeed blessed to have President Carter with us here today.  He saw the importance and he got it done.

I don’t have time to go into all the benefits to both countries and the world of China’s reform and opening and the efforts made by many American counterparts over the years to support those efforts.  They are considerable.  I’ll cite just one relevant fact: 70 years ago, 72 % of people in the world lived in poverty.  Last year, the same figure was 8.6%.  This is a remarkable accomplishment and the relevance of US-China relations to this is undeniable.

I hope, with the benefit of that further hindsight, that the period to follow this one is not recorded as one of extraordinary short-sightedness and strategic blundering, for I fear that it is on that precipice that we stand today.

Criticisms of last 40 years

Now, we face a panoply of commentators who claim that the US opening to China was somehow all a mistake.

The US side says that China has abandoned the deal that was made around WTO accession, that it is not interested in the continued opening to strengthening of the international system that was the implicit tradeoff for its gaining access to that system.  Some say that China is only interested in taking what it can get from that system for itself and otherwise in keeping itself outside of the obligations implied.  That it is intent on domination through subjugation or subterfuge, that it wants to displace the US and remake the international system in ways inimical to our interests and values.

The Chinese side says that it has not abandoned the deal, that Chinese have suffered greatly in the project to join the international system, that China is still developing and that within that context China has done its utmost to contribute to the international system and lists many examples.  China believes that the West, especially the US, is not really sincere about bringing China into the international system, noting that when China tries to take leadership in an area, it is criticized as trying to undermine the system or usurp the leadership role of the US.  That the US is insecure about its own relative decline in power in the international system, is blaming China and trying to slow, prevent or challenge its rise, a rise which has been the essence of the modern Chinese national project.

There are plenty of us involved in US – China relations who are familiar with the crises and frustrated expectations of the relationship over the years.  We are also familiar with the arguments and complaints of both sides.  But the fact is that the future of China’s trajectory in the international system and the future of the international system itself are both more uncertain today than they have been in the recent past.  This uncertainty is causing anxiety and tensions that have the potential to lead to grave miscalculations.  It is causing people to say that something fundamental needs to change about the US approach to China.  Indeed, the title of this conference is “Seeking a New Framework for Managing US-China Relations.”

We all know, as do our partners around the globe, that this is the most consequential relationship for the future of our planet and our children.  Future peace, stability and prosperity depend on our continued ability to navigate our differences and find common ground.

The fundamental challenge before us is whether or not we can reconcile the two visions that we each have of our place in the world.  Whether or not through continued arduous diplomacy we can work out a satisfactory balance that will allow us to continue a productive relationship that pays dividends for both countries and the world for the next 40 years and beyond.

I continue to believe that this can be done, and I think the record of the last 40 years of US-China diplomacy, along with the record of the last 70 years of construction of a rules-based international system, are testaments to the abilities of the Chinese and American people to find a constructive path forward.  Clearly, much has been accomplished, and those who claim that the results are negative or absent are either simply misinformed or irresponsible.

Our responsibilities at the current juncture are grave and there is blame on both sides for the predicament in which we find ourselves today.

Much ink has been spilled on the political problems of the United States, the current administration’s myopic view of broader U.S. interests and its general self-obsession, the failings of previous US administrations to curb the excesses in the current international system and the imbalances brought about by China’s entry into that system, etc.

Since we have a free and open and very critical media, I don’t think I need to spend more time on that today – everyone here can find their fill of this sort of analysis and criticism.

We Americans are nothing if not self-critical – at least most of us.

But I must say that I have rarely heard from the Chinese side any reflection on what part China’s actions might have played in leading us to the current circumstance.  I recall more than three years ago having a conversation with a very high-ranking Chinese official about my impression that China was turning away from opening and reform.  That official, who I knew very well, would only say, “China will never turn back from opening and reform.” I understand the response, but what I’m saying is that, faced with an abundance of negative evidence on this point, it lacks credibility.  The ongoing mismatch between words and deeds creates great suspicion that something else is going on and so you see where we end up.

Americans praise nothing more than honesty and directness, which is not always natural or possible in conversations with Chinese colleagues.  But now in this age of incessant and immediate communications, we need to hear a more honest appraisal of where the shortcomings lie and how they can be addressed.  It is just not credible to tell visiting American delegations that camps in Xinjiang are for teaching vocational skills and ethnic dances.  This is very damaging.  As someone said yesterday, self-reflection and criticism is a strength that will allow us to absorb dynamic shocks, which will surely come in this fast-changing world.

What Can We Do

Where does this leave us?

People are now talking about containment, new Cold War, decoupling of our economies and whether or not conflict is inevitable.  I frankly find all this to be hyperbolic.

People say we need a new strategy toward China.  Well, I have a news flash for you:  there is no other responsible or realistic choice other than to continue on the path of Robert Zoellick’s 2005 “responsible stakeholder” agenda.

People say China is no longer interested in being a stakeholder in the international system.  People say we tried to have China be interested in adhering to the rules of that system and to strengthen it and we failed.  This is nonsense.

China can and should reflect on the impact that its size and different system will have when fitting itself into the world and decide to compensate for that appropriately so as not to alarm the United States and the world.

It can recommit itself to joining and strengthening the international system and the US can recommit itself to ensuring that that process is fair, commensurate with international standards, norms and values many of which have been remarked on at this conference and many of which the US and China obviously share.

This is not easy and it is not immediate.  It is hard work and needs to be pursued with resolve, commitment, resources, organization and vision.

We did it once and I believe we can reclaim it.  People are very important and I want to say again how honored I am to be here in this good company of people who I know want to and will make a difference in this endeavor.  I hope you will work with the respective political powers in our two countries to set them on the correct course.

Susan Thornton is the Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. The remarks of Ms. Thornton reflect her own and do not constitute the view points of the U.S. government.