David Lampton: U.S.-China Risk Management Mechanisms

Editorial’s Notes: The Carter Center and the Chinese People’s Association for Peace and Disarmament jointly organized a virtual dialogue to commemorate the 42nd anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-China relations. David M. Lampton, Senior Fellow at the SAIS Foreign Policy Institute and Professor Emeritus of China Studies at Johns Hopkins University, is one of the speakers at the webinar called “U.S.-China Engagement: Past Achievements & Future Adjustments”. (Click HERE to Access the Full Webinar.)

Good to be with you all. I want to thank all of the sponsors. I would ask that Barbara Smith, please give all of our highest respects to President and Mrs. Carter. I think we all owe virtually, at least on the American side, our careers and the 40 years of peace that we’ve enjoyed to President Carter and his colleagues, and of course, Deng Xiaoping and many others on the Chinese side.  So, please convey our highest respects to the president.

I would start out by saying I think our current moment requires honesty. I think the best friends of the relationship are those who speak most frankly. We all share a similar objective here, so please forgive my frankness. I first want to raise three background considerations to this topic of “risk management” and how we move US-China relations forward in a constructive way.

One consideration is that former President Trump got 74 million votes in our election. Whether Trump is in office or not, Trumpism persists. This is a very real force in our politics that, at least from my perspective, you can’t wish away. There is not going to be an overnight solution or overnight progress or easy restoration of some status quo ante before the Trump era ever began.

The second consideration. President Biden, as Ambassador Baucus just pointed out, wishes to cooperate with China on solving global issues. I heard a statement by the Administration today that climate change in particular is the core of our national security concerns. I was actually quite surprised how starkly and centrally that issue was placed on the national security agenda. President Biden is, I believe, very sincere about cooperation with China, including working together on nuclear proliferation, public health, climate change, and global economic management. So I think there’s full acceptance of the proposition that there are cooperative dimensions to our relationship and they are important. 

A third background consideration is that China is increasingly confident. China, it seems to me, needs to manage its expectations and be careful. I remember for so many decades, my Chinese friends said to us Americans, “Be patient we’re changing, but be patient.” Well, I guess I would reverse that advice for my Chinese friends—“Be patient with us American at this moment in US history.”

Now, with these background considerations in mind, I’d like to talk about what I think is a central challenge in our relationship and what we might do about that. I also want to raise what I see as a central opportunity moving forward.

So what is the big problem? I think we are in a period now, rather like the early stages of a cold war dynamic. I am not trying to draw an equivalence. But, if we think about the last cold war we had problems all around China’s periphery, all 360 degrees of it.  It was Korea. It was Vietnam. It was Indonesia and Central Asia, Xinjiang, and Tibet. During the Cultural Revolution it was sometimes in Hong Kong. We even had problems in India. And what we see once again is when our bilateral relationships deteriorates, the conflict level along almost all of China’s periphery goes up. That’s going to draw the US in and it’s obviously going to involve China as well.

So, I think we have to think about how we’re going to manage all these problems along China’s 360 degree periphery. That’s a lot of problems. And a lot of people are talking about competition. But speaking of it as a competition sounds more benign than it is. All I would point out is that in history there is no such thing as “benign competition” on China’s periphery. So we’ve got to manage it.

How are we going to manage this “rift zone” (as Carla Freeman calls it)?  I think Beijing and Washington need to respond as rapidly as we can. And that means in the first year we need to restore strategically oriented dialogue. With all due deference to the important S&ED and all the various versions of dialogue of the Obama and Bush eras, I think we had a lot of dialogues.  But, maybe we need fewer and smaller dialogues, better dialogues, more strategically focused dialogues held on a frequent basis.

In other words, we need better, not necessarily more, dialogues in the right area. I think we need to also develop crisis management mechanisms. Not only could conditions in the Taiwan Strait rapidly escalate, but the Korean Peninsula could, the South China Sea could, even the East China Sea. So I think we need to redouble our efforts to establish crisis management mechanisms–do so sooner rather than later. 

Now, I want to raise a central opportunity. We are all products of our own personal history. I think one of the most formative things that happened to me is that, in 1979, I went to China with our then health, education and welfare secretary, Mr. Joseph Califano. He signed two agreements because in our bureaucracy health and education at that time were in the same department. And they were two different bureaucracies in China. Hence we signed two agreements.

But the point is those two agreements still provide the framework for our cooperation in health and education. And I would like to see us revitalize cooperation in these areas. This is just my proposal, not necessarily endorsed by anybody else. Maybe China sends its minister of health to the US and we send our secretary of education to China. I don’t care which one goes which way, but we really need to get serious about restoring cooperation in these two areas—it would be manifestly in our respective self-interests. And I hope that China will be receptive to the US getting its CDC personnel back in China. I hope China will be helpful as it can possibly be to the WHO team that’s in China currently. I know it’s sensitive, but we’ve cooperated on viruses before as we did in 2013 on the flu (H7N9) and later on containing Ebola (2014-15). And there’s absolutely no reason we can’t cooperate again. 

So I guess what I would say is let’s get management mechanisms in place for our strategic rivalry/competition. Let’s be very careful on managing those “rift zone” issues. And then let’s move ahead vigorously in establishing cooperation in the areas of public health and education. Our presidents, they may endorse it, but not necessarily very soon travel to each other’s countries. But, we can certainly get our secretaries and our ministers moving back and forth or otherwise interacting. I would urge that we take this course at the earliest possible moment. Thank you.

Q&A Session

Q: Lately, as we noticed that the White House press secretary said that the United States is starting to form an approach of patience in its relationship with China. In December last year, Biden’s nominee for defense secretary Lloyd J. Austin IIIalso talked about patience towards China. It was interesting that he was simultaneously praised and criticized by proposing the idea. What does patience mean for the relationship from the U.S.’s perspective?

David M. Lampton:

First of all, I don’t speak for the Administration and I would ask myself the same question. But, as I said in my remarks, the U.S. itself needs to be patient because its own primary objectives are on the domestic side–the pandemic, and the restoration of our economy. And indeed, this is the first time I’ve ever said this in a discussion with Chinese, we are concerned about our own domestic stability in some fundamental ways. So, let’s not elevate China and the problems we have with Beijing so high that it diverts us from our domestic problems. Remember Deng Xiaoping essentially wanted, for many reasons, to improve relationships with the U.S., not least so he could deal with China’s sizable domestic problems, internal problems, after the Cultural Revolution. Well, while Deng and Biden’s situations aren’t identical, they have siliarities.

Also, I wouldn’t presume to speak for the new Biden Administration, but I think we hope that you will be patient in dealing with some of these issues that we know are very sensitive to you. Certainly, the Taiwan issue has been mentioned a couple of times. But also your problems with Japan. Also, we hope you are patient with respect to India. So the way I would choose to understand this word “patient” is that maybe we need to both be patient with each other.   

Q: Dr. Lampton, your proposal for the reconceptualization of the bilateral education relations is spot on, from the audience. Actually, I attended the program called IVLP in 2015, the International Visitor Leadership Program. I heard from the staff in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing that the program is still in place, but the Fulbright Scholars Program in China was abolished by the Trump Administration. So, there was a lot of concern from Chinese students and scholars whether the education or cultural or academic exchange from the two sides is still working. Will there be more obstacles for the two sides, or will there be more support from the Biden Administration to further the exchanges of the two sides?

David M. Lampton:

Well, I should make it clear I am just giving my own views and not those of the new Administration. So if you accept my views as my views, I’ll give those to you. 

On the Fulbright Program, I think that was a blunder by the previous Administration. As I said I can’t speak for the Administration, but I think there’s widespread support to get that kind of thing restarted. But, I would ask you a very pointed question. If the U.S. proposes to restart it, will China agree? There has been some distrust of U.S. educational programs that involve wide dissemination of American ideas in China. So, I wonder if in some sense we ended a program that isn’t 100% supported in China at the leadership level. I know that in American academia, and in the American research community, there would be widespread support for this program, maybe not 100%, but it would enjoy widespread support. But will China agree to restart? So, I have a question for you. I hope that’s an early area that we can both move ahead on.

In terms of problems in the education area, there is this whole question of research universities’ intellectual property. I’ll give you an example. There’s a recent case at MIT about a professor and the terms and transparency with which he was working with China’s Thousand Talents Program. And that involves sizable amounts of money and that case will work out in courts. I have no opinion on the merits, but this whole issue of intellectual property protection and related security-related research and technology, I think that’s getting to be a worse and worse problem. 

Also, on the Confucius Institutes in the U.S., there are quite a few institutions that stillhave them, but I don’t think there’s going to be a big appetite on American campuses now to at least to create new institutes, partly because of potential funding consequences for research universities that are mindful of U.S. government policy in the security area. So, I think this strategic military conflict, all of this is spilling over into our educational relations. Nonetheless, I think there are some early opportunities, and I would hope the U.S. would move rapidly, in consultation with China, to reinstate the Fulbright Program. I welcome that. 

And I would add just one last thing. Ambassador Zhou Wenzhong, you mentioned Graham Allison, and you said something about the 5Rs. Let me add a sixth “R”: Reassurance. China needs to reassure its neighbors because when your neighbors are reassured, we are reassured. So, all these threads are intertwined, but I would like to see us move ahead on this Fulbright Program.

Q: Dr. Lampton, both the Trump Administration and U.S. Congress have done a lot in the past two years on the American relationship with Taiwan. Do you think the Three Communiques that have been pillars in stabilizing the bilateral relationship between China and the U.S. are still in effect?

David M. Lampton:

The question started out as are the Three Communique still in effect? I think the answer to that question is “yes.” And I think that should remain the case, because frankly we don’t have an alternative structure. And so, I would say that they, the Communiques, are in effect and should stay in effect. Where I see pressures for change coming from is that Congress is more active. There are now three hundred plus pieces of legislation and resolutions working themselves through Congress. So, Congress is much more active and it is not controllable really by this, or any, Administration in many respects. I would personally see the change in the U.S. to be in the domain of the 1994 guidelines [changes introduced in the waning days of the Trump Administration], as affecting how we implement and conduct the three communiques. The question is, what kinds of things would be seen to confer excessive officiality on Taiwan, and what other things would be more acceptable? And I think management of the changes you are seeing are really in how we’re implementing or how we might implement things. I would personally encourage my government to be extremely careful. I think this is very, you would say, “敏感”, sensitive. But I don’t think that really captures it. So, until we’ve got an agreed upon replacement for the three communiques, that is the foundational basis we do have, that’s a plausible basis, but we are going to have to be very careful on how we implement the Communiques. I’ve got my concerns. But, and this goes with Ambassador Zhou’s point, yes, the weapon sales controversy he described under Reagan in 1982 is accurate, but the U.S. position was always premised on Taiwan being able to defend itself in a sense and not vulnerable to undue pressure from the PRC. As you’ve modified and enlarged your PLA, worries become understandable, Indeed, your military is bigger for everybody, including Taiwan. So the growth of your military really was not anticipated to the degree that it occurred so rapidly and effectively. And also, we have to be frank–China’s putting more pressure on Taiwan, and of course Taiwan’s internal politics are changing in directions that are more worrisome to you. So I would urge my government to be more careful on the Taiwan issue than Trump, but, I think you need to be careful, too! You should not assume that the U.S. has too many problems. It would choose to become more involved if peace broke down, so I think this is something that could go out of control very rapidly.