Goldman Sachs predicts that the United States will be replaced as the largest economy by 2027, whereas the World Bank projects said transition will take place in 2020, positioning China as the top economy of the 21st century. Despite the fact that the annual income per capita of the citizens of this country is 3,600 dollars, far below the 37,800 average in Japan –or 42,240 for U.S. citizens– the truth is that, as a whole, China contributes one-third of world growth despite recurring crises since 2008. This positioning as an economic and, therefore, cultural and political protagonist demands a rethinking of U.S. relations with regards to an economy alien to Western tradition, not to mention the first non-democratic leader in modern history. The following conversation was recently hosted by the Institute of Politics and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. The former U.S. Ambassador to China, Jon M. Huntsman, and the former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, were participants in a round-table discussion regarding “China Rising.” We offer excerpts from said conversation with the authorization of the IOP.
* * *
A Cooperative Relationship
Jon Huntsman: The U.S.-China relationship is now into forty-plus years. It has never been smooth sailing, we have to recognize it for what it is and world order is changing. China is a rising power; it is seen through the prism of fear by a lot of Americans as opposed to an opportunity factor. This is the most important relationship for the 21st Century. It is cooperative. We are pretty much married. Divorce is not an option, so we just have to make it work. The hard part is to define the reality of where we are in history and the pathway going forward that is going to maintain prosperity and security in the world. That is going to take work on both sides, particularly with the emerging generation.
Conflicts Between China and the U.S.
Kevin Rudd: What I regard to be the central question for the first half of the 21st Century is: Can we, in our collective wisdom, manage the rise of China without seeing conflict with the United States? Preserving a peace and building a common prosperity, I believe we can. If China emerges as the world’s largest economy, which I regard as probable, then the historical significance of this cannot be underestimated. It would be the first time since George III was on the throne that you have a non-Western, non-English speaking, non-democracy as the world’s largest economy. This is not a small thing. Therefore, which would be the rules of the global and regional order as China becomes more central to the global power equation? At present, the dialing of our strategic mindsets is a pretty decisively in a negative trajectory, a negative direction. If we look closely at the official literature emerging from the political class in both capitals, there are real differences of strategic perspective and strategic interest.
Therefore, the new mindset is: how do we consciously build strategic trust between China and the United States through a program of regular summitry between the two countries’ leaders which is task oriented, which is focused on areas of real potential cooperation? Could we build the basis for long-term strategic trust? I think that is possible, and would require leadership in both capitals.
Strategic Areas of Mutual Effort
Jon Huntsman: We have to recognize that the most profound change in the U.S.-China relationship over the last forty years is the fact that we have become global. How can we re-calibrate our dialogues in our diplomatic interaction to accommodate the fact that there is not a whole lot that plays out in this world–whether it is debt in Europe or the island issues in the East China Sea or the South China Sea or health issues in Sub-Saharan Africa–that do not somehow play through the U.S. relationship?
The challenge today is, how you recognize it as a global relationship, and begin to redefine our messaging and our agenda? Our modes of interaction are dated and, I think, highly effective. For example, the strategic economic dialog which seeks to corral a lot of our bilateral issues. The challenge for me as Ambassador was how to manage a hundred different working groups. Everybody wants to have work in the US government; if we do not have a working group, we lack credibility. Therefore, reorienting this relationship to one that is less top heavy, more nimble, more focused on the regular interaction of the heads of state is needed; a relationship where the interaction is pure, sincere, and in some cases, spontaneous. Trust is built, friendships are developed and maintained and it is not on the margins of global concerns. The world would expect that the most prominent issues would be nuclearization in Iran, North Korea, economic issues, the South China Sea, etc. However, I think beyond those issues that typically make the top three or four billings on the agenda, we are missing some huge opportunities in areas of science, for example. Both countries have some of the finest research infrastructure some of the best minds, yet we have not figured out a way of really harnessing this power into doing something with it for the well being of the world. We are not even scratching the surface in terms of what this relationship is capable of.
Kevin Rudd: It is the General Secretary to the Chinese Communist Party, president of the country, who makes those decisions: therefore, regular summitry, by which the two leaders spend serious time with each other. Initially with relatively open agendas, in order to build a level of personal trust. Then, becoming more focused on a working agenda, whether it is the WTO, whether it is climate change or non-proliferation. Bilaterally, the big one is cyber security, or the expansion of free trade in Asia and the Pacific under the Trans-Pacific partnership. But the chemistry of this tool has to be through summits.
Areas of Cooperation and Trust
Kevin Rudd: Will China in the future continue to adhere by the global rules-placed order which we have had characterizing and underpinning international systems since 1945? Big question. If we ask the Chinese this in Beijing and speak to their think-tanks, they will say, “We do not like the rules of the current rules-placed order, but we do not have an alternative order to recommend.” The key question as I see it is, how do you get China and the United States cooperating directly on those elements of the current rules-based order which aren’t working?
Jon Huntsman: Let me just build on that for a moment. Two things will be critical to making the progress that I think is possible between the United States and China. First, we need to get back to thinking bigger in terms of the ultimate goal. What is the promised land? There is no grand design, there is no strategy, so consequently, we are spinning our wheels. We have always done better as a relationship in pursuit of something aspirational that conjoins or our shared interests, whether it was Cold War politics in fear of the Soviet Union or in the ’90s, more immediately, the WTO recession for China that kept us busily engaged in something that they wanted and something that we thought was good as well.
We are missing that aspirational piece and whether it is a major trade initiative or a scientific undertaking or an environmental undertaking, it has to be thought through and put in place. Without that, we fall victim to the headlines which are never positive, and it becomes a “tit-for-tat,” and that is kind of the way the relationship is running today. Secretary of State John Kerry hasn’t gone to Asia yet this month. He’s gone to Europe, the Middle East, and he is going back to the Middle East. Shouldn’t he be going to China?
Kevin Rudd: The United States is a global superpower. There is a thing called the Middle East and it’s not a happy place a lot of the time. As a China guy, I kind of get that, and Europe still exists, so I don’t think that’s where the criticism lies. I may be proven to be wrong. As I see this juncture in history, we are ultimately not simply passive victims of undetermined forces in history inevitably leading us in the direction of some conflict. You make active choices to shape your future. I think there is enough there on the table at the moment, in terms of possibilities, for these two leaders to meet in what history has given us as a pretty unique historical window.
Jon Huntsman: We have had examples of that in the past, where things have actually worked at a more strategic level earlier in the relationship. When there is disfunctionality in the way in which we interact, I think we are taken advantage of. We are diminished and disadvantaged at the negotiating table because we do not have our act together. I do think for purposes of a longer-term, broader vision economically, and for greater certainty on the security side, they would welcome that kind of dialogue. However, it would have to be structured properly, based on trust and confidentiality.
Jon Huntsman: What if things get out of control on the Korean Peninsula? This is not a remote possibility if there is a conventional provocation across the parallel from North Korea. In South Korea, we are looking at a high probability of a conventional response; we are looking at the possibility of escalation. Therefore, we need to be looking at what happens next on the telephone between the President of the United States and the President of the People’s Republic of China. We need a strategic balance of trust to draw upon in those sorts of circumstances, as missiles are dialing down the level of strategic tension that currently characterize the East China Sea of Japan and the South China Sea with Southeast Asia.
The U.S. and China Cyber War
Kevin Rudd: Let us use a slightly more neutral term: “cyber conflict” is underway. You have seen all the commentary from American firms in recent times. This is, I believe, potentially a significantly disabling element in the China-U.S. relationship, and China’s relationship with a number of other countries around the world as well. The real question is, what do you do about it?
Jon Huntsman: I do not know how you define war in the context of “cyber” but I would have to say that there is a serious skirmish going on, and where that goes will really be up to both sides. They need to define the rules of the road and the red lines around cyber intrusion. There is clearly an espionage side, and then there is a commercial side. The governments are going to engage in a certain level of poking back and forth around national security targets. It is not assumed that private citizens, civil society companies are going to be the targets of massive theft, and that’s where we are today. It is a widespread problem, and finding solutions is the hard part. When you sit down and try to have a conversation with the Chinese counterparts on this, you get “we are not responsible,” so it’s good for China in the sense that it’s asymmetric, there’s plausible deniability, what’s not to like about the whole cyber side? But then it is also, “well, here are the targets that you hit yesterday.” So where do we take the conversation?
China’s Natural Alliance with North Korea
Kevin Rudd: Let us try and look at the world through Chinese eyes. I think that is a useful discipline. Firstly, China is directly concerned about what happens if the North Koreans do something across the parallel, such as a bomb or the sinking of a South Korean warship. What will South Korea do in response to any such North Korean provocation this time? China is right to be concerned about that, because the prospects for escalation are significant, and also, the Chinese are intensely literate about the dynamics of South Korean politics. They understand that newly elected President Park may have limited room to maneuver on this question.
Secondly, through this appalling series of declarative statements which become, frankly, like a rerun of a bad 1930s movie–and have nothing to do with the language of normal 21st Century diplomacy by any nation-state anywhere in the world today–is that other states in the region, like Japan and other U.S. allies, are working very actively on ballistic missile cooperation against the contingency they actually face: an incoming attack at some point in the future.
There is a third factor weighing upon the Chinese consciousness as well, and that is, with friends like North Korea, who need enemies in the world of diplomacy? North Korea does enormous damage to China’s global diplomatic brand, and if we are going to line up friends like North Korea, Bashar al Assad, as well as from time to time various people who have run Sudan in the midst of the Darfur actions by the government in Khartoum, then China is suffering reputational damage around the world.
These three factors are now known in the Chinese leadership. For the first time, there is a big public and certainly an intense private debate about change or the possibility of change in China’s North Korea policy. I think it is one of the reasons why this sort of summit level meetings we mentioned from the very beginning have moved from “important” to “urgent,” in order to create a level of strategic trust with the United States.