Ryan Hass on His New Book “Stronger”

Ryan Hass is a senior fellow and the Michael H. Armacost Chair in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings, where he holds a joint appointment to the John L. Thornton China Center and the Center for East Asia Policy Studies. He is also the Interim Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies. He was part of the inaugural class of David M. Rubenstein fellows at Brookings, and is a nonresident affiliated fellow in the Paul Tsai China Center at Yale Law School. 

From 2013 to 2017, Hass served as the director for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the National Security Council (NSC) staff. In that role, he advised President Obama and senior White House officials on all aspects of U.S. policy toward China, Taiwan, and Mongolia, and coordinated the implementation of U.S. policy toward this region among U.S. government departments and agencies. 

Prior to joining NSC, Hass served as a Foreign Service Officer in U.S. Embassy Beijing, where he earned the State Department Director General’s award for impact and originality in reporting. Hass also served in Embassy Seoul and Embassy Ulaanbaatar, and domestically in the State Department Offices of Taiwan Coordination and Korean Affairs. Hass received multiple Superior Honor and Meritorious Honor commendations during his 15-year tenure in the Foreign Service.

The Carter Center intern, Kathryn Putz, conducted this interview on Hass’s new book, “Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence.”

In your new book, Stronger: Adapting, America’s China Strategy In An Age Of Competitive Interdependence, you coin the term “competitive interdependence” and propose it as the most promising guide for U.S. foreign policy towards China. To give our readers context, can you elaborate on this concept and explain how it will advance America’s interests amidst a rising China?

Sure. Well, first of all, Kathryn, thank you for having me for this interview. My basic premise is that competition will be the defining trait of the relationship, but interdependence between United States and China will be inescapable. The relationship will be competitive for the foreseeable future for a variety of reasons, the first of which is that we just have different governance and economic systems and those differences are going to place stress on the overall relationship. Both the United States and China have regional and global ambitions. We both see ourselves as leaders and that will create certain tension at different points. And there are just fundamentally many issues where our interests are at odds with each other, whether it’s on human rights and values issues, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, et cetera. At the same time, United States and China are both going to be impacted for good or ill by the actions of the other.

We’re the two most capable countries in the world. We both have major economies, large populations, global interests, and major militaries. Many other countries have some of these attributes; no other country in the world has all of them like the United States and China does. And there’s also a dense web of relationships between our two countries. Just looking narrowly at economic issues, there’s $700 billion and two-way trade every year. There’s also over $400 billion of sales by American firms inside China, selling into the Chinese market. Both countries also are deeply integrated in knowledge production. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where one side rises while the other one falls. Neither side is going to fully be able to impose its will upon the other at acceptable cost or risk. And both sides are going to require the contributions of the other side in order to address many of the 21st century challenges that confront both of us, whether it’s eradicating COVID-19, or global economic recovery, or wrapping our arms around issues related to climate change.

So the basic point I’m trying to drive  through this book is that the United States and China are going to be stuck with each other – whether we like each other or not – into the foreseeable future. And this interdependence should bound competition for both sides and keep it within a tolerable range that does not tip the relationship into runaway hostility.

Throughout your book, you mention conversations you had with Chinese government leaders while serving as a diplomat at U.S. Embassy, Beijing. Can you elaborate on one that was particularly enlightening and speak a bit to how those experiences abroad informed the foreign policy views you offer in the book?

Well, I have been fortunate over the past decade to be able to participate in a series of conversations with Chinese counterparts at basically every level of the relationship. I have been a political officer on the ground in Beijing and I have accompanied our president to meeting with China’s president. And while it’s hard to generalize these conversations, the main impression I’ve been left with is that getting to know Chinese counterparts really is important for humanizing the enterprise of diplomacy and for managing a really complex and contentious relationship. I’ve never reached a point of considering any of my Chinese counterparts as beer drinking buddies. It isn’t really that type of relationship. But I have developed a healthy respect for a lot of the Chinese counterparts that I have dealt with over the years. They work hard, they’re fierce, they are relentless, and they work within a system that doesn’t allow a lot of tolerance for mistakes or room for freelancing.

So I guess the two main takeaways that I have from those experiences is that meeting consistently with counterparts helps to humanize them. It exposes the fact that the Chinese are dealing with many of the same problems we are and are grasping for answers to many of the same challenges that we’re confronting. It’s a lot harder to fall into the view of thinking of the Chinese as having some intricately designed master strategy for world domination that is being ruthlessly executed point by point. The more that you spend time around these people, the more you understand that they are feeling their way forward on a range of issues just like we are.  

The second takeaway I have is that the one common thread of every problem that has been managed and every problem that has been solved in U.S.-China relationship over the past 40 years has been that it has been done by officials that have invested the time to get to understand and know their counterparts and recognize what their limitations and objectives are. This same pattern even held during the Trump era.

The one negotiated agreement that was reached in the four years of the Trump administration was the trade deal. The trade deal was the outgrowth of a series of intensive negotiations between Ambassador Lighthizer and his Chinese counterpart, Liu He. So I hope that that lesson can be carried forward. There are real challenges in the relationship that are going to need to be dealt with. The best way to deal with them is forthrightly with Chinese counterparts.

Some political economists hold that economic growth requires inclusive institutions, such as strong infrastructure or higher education. Such institutions are arguably more likely in the world democracy than in authoritarian countries. Yet China, which is authoritarian, has enjoyed decades of rapid economic growth. Do you think continued growth under the current political and economic system is feasible? And if not, what needs to change?

Well, I would never write off or discount the sheer determination of 1.4 billion people, one fifth of humanity. The Chinese have demonstrated tremendous capacity for innovation and development over the past 40 years. They’ve lifted more people out of poverty faster than any other society in human history. But at the same time, I wouldn’t assume that China is going to continue rising on a linear trajectory indefinitely into the future. The Chinese economy has a lot of challenges and headwinds that it has to confront. One of them is debt. China’s debt to GDP ratio has doubled in the past decade. And this is significant because it reduces the amount of resources that are available for China to buy its way up the value chain as Taiwan and South Korea did at similar stages of development in the past.

Another challenge is demographics. China’s society is aging rapidly. Right now, there are around eight workers for every retiree. By 2050, there’ll be two for every retiree. And so workers are going to have to carry a heavier load to carry their population than is the case now. There’s also a challenge with productivity. The Chinese have squeezed out a lot of the productivity gains from urbanization, from build out infrastructure, from bringing in foreign companies and technology into the country. And so it’s going to be tougher for them to generate productivity gains. And then there’s the final issue of rebalancing an economy where there is such a heavy and high savings rate right now.

It’s going to be difficult to persuade Chinese households to stop saving for a rainy day unless and until a real social safety net is built. And unless Chinese families stop saving for a rainy day, it’s going to be hard to transition the economy to a more consumption-based economic model. And so the Chinese have a lot of challenges that they’re going to have to contend with.

In your book, you stress the need for American policymakers to overcome their blanket opposition to Chinese foreign policy. How do you propose Washington strike a balance between encouraging China to be more globally ambitious and pushing back on key U.S. security commitments such as Taiwan?

Well, it’s a profound question. I don’t know if there’s an easy answer to it. If there is, I haven’t discovered it yet, but the points of departure that I would identify would be clarity and consistency. We should invite China and encourage China to take on greater burden in meeting global challenges. In most instances, when China contributes more, it reduces the burden on the United States to address the global challenges. And there are many challenges that the United States simply is not going to be capable of solving on its own. But there are certain areas where China’s actions could implicate vital American interests and we’re going to need to be direct in dealing with those. If China seeks to limit America’s access – diplomatic, military, economic, or otherwise to Asia – we’re going to have real problems. If China seeks to limit America’s access in other vital regions of the world, we’re going to have real problems.

If China tries to challenge the credibility of American security commitments to Taiwan or to our allies and partners, we could find ourselves in a collision that will serve neither side’s interest well. And if China takes aggressive actions to try to erode or undermine the international system that has been built up over the past several decades, that will place a lot of stress on the relationship. So, Kathryn, I don’t know of any one sentence answer to a question as complex as the one that you raised. But I do think that clarity and consistency can help us find a way forward in this relationship.

During his presidential campaign, now-President Biden commented that China is facing many challenges and cannot steal the American lunch. President Xi recently said the time and momentum are on China’s side. Of China’s vulnerabilities, which do you think is the most critical that will make it impossible for Beijing to overtake the U.S.? And by the same token, what is America’s weakest link in its epic competition with China?

Well, it’s a great question. I think that they’re, starting on the Chinese side, I think that there are a couple of challenges that the leadership is going to have to contend with. One is avoiding the temptation to pursue self-sufficiency as a solution to China’s vulnerabilities. Shutting China off from the global technology ecosystem will be hugely disadvantageous for China and for Chinese firms that are seeking to compete in the world market. Another challenge is nationalism. As economic growth becomes less certain, and ideology has less of a cohesive effect on Chinese society, at least outside of the 90 million members of the Chinese communist party, the Xi administration seems to have relied more heavily upon nationalism and national pride. And it’s a risky proposition because it pushes policy in the direction of muscularity and assertions of national will, particularly on questions relating to sovereignty. And that can create friction points, not just between United States and China, but between China and many of its neighbors.

China, for over 40 years, pursued a pretty patient approach of steadily reforming and opening, maintaining a benign periphery, not accepting undue burdens on the international stage, and maintaining a generally stable relationship with the United States. Now, at this moment, all four of those foundational elements of China’s rise are coming up for question. And so China’s leaders will have to contend with how to move forward in this new era. I think they confront a pretty complicated horizon. For the United States we have our own challenges. Many of them are very visible and not just to us inside the United States, but to people around the world. But if I had to identify one challenge, it would be the challenge of hyper-partisanship inside the United States.

When our politics becomes tribal, it’s really hard to get things done. If the United States proves incapable of solving its own problems, it will dim as a source of inspiration for others around the world, and our influence will atrophy as a result. So each of our countries confronts real complex challenges, but given a choice, I would still take America’s challenges over China’s any day of the week.

In your book, you write that strengthening America’s domestic environment in order to outpace and outshine China should be our most urgent priority. What are some concrete policies that would foster this greater domestic power? And do you think that such policy changes are possible moving into the Biden administration?

Well, to take your second question first, I do think it’s possible for the United States to make progress. I remain optimistic over the long-term about United States potential. I think that the self-correcting nature of America’s governance system provides it with a unique advantage. What I try to argue in the book is that the United States really should try to nurture its own sources of strength. We can control those. The greater capacity we have to nurture these sources of strength, the more advantage we will have in addressing challenges that China poses to us. The primary sources of strength I see are things that only the United States can control. These include our domestic dynamism, our alliance network around the world, which is historically unrivaled, and our global prestige.

To try to strengthen our domestic dynamism, there are a lot of things that we can do. Rebuilding the consensus around the idea of openness, serving as a source of American competitive advantage over China is one. Strengthen our social safety net, access to opportunity, improving education, access to healthcare, investing in research and development, and at basic as well as applied levels, returning that investment to historical norms. If we do those things or even move in the direction of them, I think that it will unlock a lot of capacity in the United States.

On the global stage, I think that America would do well to revive its historical position as a convening power for catalyzing global actions to solve global challenges. And we are already beginning to see that in the Biden administration. President Biden recently hosted the Quadrilateral Summit with leaders from Australia, India, and Japan. He will host a climate summit on April 22nd, and the Biden administration has already announced plans for a democracy summit as well. And so these muscles are being revived after a period of atrophy. And then in terms of our alliance network, the more that we can approach them as integrated platforms for addressing 21st century problems, I think the more purchase they will have with our partners around the world. So it’s a long way of saying that I think that there’s a lot that can be done and should be done to strengthen America’s position. The types of things that I’ve identified are things that the United States has control of.

Scholars have said that U.S.-China relations are at their lowest point in decades. U.S. engagement policy toward China has been declared dead by top American officials. Do you think real meaningful cooperation between the U.S. and China is possible given these circumstances?

My short answer is yes, but it’s not going to be easy or natural. There’s no light switch that gets turned on or off. Over time the United States and China are going to need to relearn how to compartmentalize issues in the relationship. The best way that I think that we’ll be able to do that is by pursuing a  dispassionate and mature relationship where we each consult with each other, coordinate with each other, and where necessary, competes fiercely with each other. And I think that we can do all of these things simultaneously. We’ve demonstrated the ability to do so in the past. It wasn’t that long ago that our two countries were working together to deliver the Paris Climate Accord. Our two countries were locking arms to eradicate Ebola in Africa. We were working together on a sanctions regime for North Korea.

We did all of those things against the backdrop of a very contentious relationship where there were acute concerns about human rights developments inside China, real sharp concerns about South China Sea, about cyber issues, Taiwan. But we both recognized that we were capable of working together when it served each of our own interests at the same time as we challenged and competed with each other in areas where our interests were at odds. So, if we were able to do it before, I remain confident that we will be able to do so again.

Many argue that the U.S. is at a turning point in its dealing with China, able to either take a softer or more alarmist approach. You argue that traveling the path of alarmism and defining China as an enemy will have significant negative impacts for America’s national interests and global influence. Can you elaborate just a bit further on the risks of turning China into a “hostile adversary,” as you write?

Yeah. I mean, my basic argument in the book is that the United States is the stronger power in the relationship. We need to remember that and act like it. We don’t need to anxiously step in China’s way in order to protect ourselves. If we do our business well, we will compete just fine with China. And some people argue that China sees us as an adversary, so we should return the favor. But my view is that diplomacy isn’t schoolyard politics. You don’t dislike someone because they dislike you. You don’t treat someone badly because they treat you badly. You do your own thing and you pursue your own interests. And I do not think that it’s in our interest to have a purely adversarial relationship with China. Now, we can only control our part of this relationship. It’s a dynamic two-way relationship. So, China will certainly get a vote in this, but my vote certainly would be not to just blindly accept the idea that adversarial antagonism is the only way forward in the relationship.

And there are a few reasons why I think that we should work to see if it’s possible to pursue a more constructive relationship. The first is that, if we were to fall into outright hostility with China, it would cause us to have to mobilize to counter the threat. If historical patterns repeat themselves, it would lead to a big spike in defense spending, which would crowd out funding available for other priorities. It probably also would lead to a surge in racism, anti-China, anti-Asian racism, which would be deeply problematic for me. I’ve already been alarmed by the level of racism that we’ve seen over the past year towards Asian-Americans in the United States. It offends me and upsets me and it just completely undermines what America is. But the second reason is if we were to treat China as a hostile adversary, it would cause us to see every Chinese action as a threat that needs to be countered everywhere in the world at all times.

And that’s an inefficient ineffective use of American power. I would much rather see us playing offense, advancing our own affirmative agenda and vision for the world than constantly reacting and trying to slow down China’s efforts. If we were to pursue a hostile posture, it would isolate the United States from its friends, none of whom at the moment are willing to subscribe to a counter-China bloc or join the United States in seeking to treat China as an enemy. It would put enormous strain on the global economy, and it would cause China to respond in kind in ways that I think we would not particularly welcome. So, the point that I’m trying to drive at is that the United States doesn’t need to harm China to help itself. But we also shouldn’t presume that accommodation is the answer. If the United States accommodates China, I do not expect the Chinese to reciprocate.

I expect them to test our boundaries and our willingness to push back in ways that could be destabilizing and unhelpful to the long-term relationship. So, my argument is that we need to get comfortable with a relationship that is competitive, even as we understand and recognize the interdependent nature of that competition. And so I think that the framing that Secretary Blinken recently used, where he talked about China as a competitor, adversary at times, but also a partner or collaborator in addressing problems, is about right. It helps us see the relationship in its full spectrum rather than sort of reducing it to a monochromatic lens where it’s just one or the other.