Looking Back on the Carter Center’s Conversation with Qin Gang

China’s new ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, addressed an expert panel in U.S.-China relations at an event hosted by The Carter Center and the George H.W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China relations in September, 2021. As reported elsewhere, Ambassador Qin’s speech unexpectedly revolved describing China’s system of governance as a “whole-process democracy.” Consequently, Qin’s remarks devoted more time to touting China’s virtues and accomplishments than to addressing areas of tension in the bilateral relationship and offering potential solutions. While attempting to determine whether China can be labeled a democracy may be interesting from an academic standpoint, such a discussion is unlikely to illuminate a roadmap toward a more productive U.S.-China dialogue.

Nonetheless, Qin’s responses to questions from expert panelists helped clarify China’s stances on various issues. Qin underscored several areas of acute sensitivity and highlighted several areas in which the U.S. and China could cooperate. These remarks helped deepen understanding of China’s goals and priorities, and could inform U.S. calculation and anticipation of China’s likely reactions to U.S. policies and conduct. Qin’s overall message was simple and consistent with China’s rhetoric in recent years. In short, China does not seek conflict with the U.S., but Beijing desires and expects the U.S. to yield to Chinese policy preferences in many areas in recognition of China’s increasing power.

Ambassador Qin’s stated red lines were familiar to longtime observers of U.S.-China relations. On the subject of the war of words that peaked with the rancorous rhetoric flying across the Pacific during the Trump years, Qin stated that China would accept objective and constructive criticism, but would not tolerate “slander, disinformation, or condescending lectures.” While this stance is reasonable as a topline statement, it can be difficult to understand what criticisms, if any, China would consider objective or constructive. U.S. criticisms of China’s human rights abuses are typically met with denials and tit-for-tat criticisms of the U.S.’ own historical and present human rights failures. Likewise, China has responded to U.S. and international criticism of its limited cooperation with investigations of the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic with denunciations of U.S. intelligence agencies’ impartiality and credibility, along with accusations that a U.S. military lab could be to blame for leaking the virus.

Overall, very little public criticism fails to raise China’s ire, leading one to wonder if it can provide a path to constructive dialogue. While productive dialogue requires that U.S. officials be able to express their views to their Chinese counterparts, efforts should be taken to calm both sides’ public rhetoric. Use of public criticism should be restricted to narrow circumstances in which offers a tangible tactical advantage or serves a wider purpose than trying to influence China’s behavior. Instead, direct statements from the U.S. could prove more effective if they came through non-public channels. In recent years, China’s increasingly vitriolic cybernationalists have increased domestic pressure on Beijing to respond to perceived provocations. Backchannel communications would remain unknown to the public, removing one of the motivators for heated rhetoric.

When asked about China’s response to the recent AUKUS deal which will supply Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, Qin stated that China has grave concerns. According to Qin, this deal increases tensions in the region, violates the U.S.’ stated positions on nuclear proliferation, sends the message that the U.S. has no regard for the rules-based international order, and creates a new arms race. While there is a reasonable argument that the AUKUS deal is a reaction to China’s own naval buildup, the fact remains that military buildup on both sides increases the risk of an unplanned encounter that spirals into conflict, especially as mainland relations with Taiwan grow increasingly tense.

Though China does not desire conflict with the U.S., American military officials have interpreted the combination of China’s growing military power and its rhetoric calling for reunification with Taiwan as a signal of Beijing’s intent to forcibly seize control of the island, which could lead to a U.S. military response. It should be noted, however, that reunification with Taiwan has been a stated Chinese goal since the Mao era. Additionally, in President Biden recent phone call with President Xi, he agreed to maintain the status quo regarding relations with Taipei as defined in the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA). He also “made it clear” to President Xi that, as stated in the TRA, Beijing and Taipei must resolve the issue of Taiwan sovereignty peacefully. Taking these facts into consideration, China’s more aggressive behavior towards Taiwan may be more theatre than threat. Both sides must focus on decreasing their military presence in the region and establishing more robust military-to-military communication channels to de-escalate potential crises.

Despite these areas of disagreement, Ambassador Qin brought up several potential opportunities for collaboration. While discussing the importance of mutual trust, Ambassador Qin suggested that one way to help reverse the trend of growing suspicion between the U.S. and China would be to renew cultural and educational exchange programs. Qin proposed that the U.S. could renew China’s Confucius Institute programs, and that both countries should accept more college students from their counterpart. Additionally, Qin stated the necessity of scientific and technological cooperation, particularly in the area of climate change mitigation. Both of these proposals are steps in the right direction and should be explored further. For these initiatives to succeed, both sides must be honest brokers. Ambassador Qin correctly asserted that in order to build mutual trust, the U.S. cannot break its word as it did by pulling out of the Paris climate agreement under the Trump administration. However, China must also abide by its word. The U.S. has understandable concerns about China’s credibility based on Beijing’s failure to abide by the terms of the Obama-Xi agreement in which both sides pledged not to steal intellectual property for economic gain.

Despite valid reasons for mistrust on both sides, neither the U.S. or China should allow past missteps to block them from present and future progress. Although some attempts at cooperation have met with failure, even relatively recent history yields several noteworthy examples of cooperation despite difficulties. For example, despite American misgivings, several high-level reviews including a U.S. Senate investigation of China’s Confucius Institute (CI) programs found no evidence to support claims that they “facilitate espionage, technology theft, or any other illegal activity” or that they took funding from the U.S. federal government. It is also important to note that CI programs are not directly funded by the Chinese government. The results of American investigations clearly indicate that the benefits of CIs such as language education and cultural exchange outweigh any risks associated with their presence. Accordingly, the CIs that have been shut down in recent years ought to be reinstated with appropriate oversight rules to provide skeptics with peace of mind. Additionally, Qin stated that China would consider reopening U.S. consulates within China if the U.S. allows China’s consulate in Houston, which was closed in July 2020 without a specific explanation, to reopen. Unless the U.S. has clear evidence that the Chinese consulate in Houston represented a threat to U.S. interests, the consulate should be reopened. Chinese consulates in the U.S. and U.S. consulates in China can facilitate valuable business, cultural, and educational exchanges, building international ties that could help thaw relations.

As Qin suggested, the U.S. and China can and should collaborate in the global health and environmental technology spaces. China has already taken laudable steps to reduce its emissions, and the U.S. must quickly intensify its efforts to convert to sustainable energy sources. As the world’s two largest economies and homes to many of the world’s top scientists, the U.S. and China have greater potential to improve the world than any two states ever have. While some commentators have proposed that U.S. and Chinese green energy development should take the form of a competition, global emissions could be cut even more significantly if China and the U.S. worked together to build sustainable power infrastructure around the world. Ideally, most of this venture would take the form of international aid to sidestep the relationship’s historical sticking point of profit-motivated intellectual property theft. Where technological collaboration requires sharing of intellectual property, there should be robust provisions for neutral monitoring and arbitration of disputes, easily enforced mechanisms to prevent unauthorized intellectual property appropriation and stiff penalties for unauthorized use to discourage it. Providing the world with the tools to mitigate the climate crisis and stop the spread of disease is of mutual interest to both the U.S. and China, even if those tools are provided freely or provided at cost.

Ambassador Qin stated that he hopes to see a turning point in U.S.-China relations in the relatively near future, and that in a recent call with President Biden, President Xi stressed the need for mutual respect and collaboration to overcome mutual challenges. However, Qin’s remarks made it clear that China wants and expects the U.S. to give ground in recognition of Beijing’s increasing power, yet remains reluctant to make concessions to American priorities. Both sides must come to terms with the fact that neither country will be able to achieve everything it wants, especially not in the near future. The U.S. will likely never agree with China’s stance on territorial disputes, just as China will likely never adopt American views on human rights. In the near term, both sides must prioritize decreasing tensions and ensuring stability in the Indo-Pacific above all else, even if that means temporarily tabling other issues of importance to each country. Collaborating where possible today will help cool tensions and enhance mutual understanding, thereby putting both countries in a better position to come to mutually acceptable understandings concerning each country’s core concerns tomorrow.