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"Shaping China's Choices: Some Recent Lessons for the Next U.S. Administration" - Thomas Christensen

Transcript of the Professor Thomas Christensen keynote address at the University of Southern California on October 13, 2008

October 27, 2008

On Monday, October 13, 2008, the USC U.S. - China Institute hosted a day-long conference on "The Making of U.S. - China Policy" that featured top government officials, organization chiefs, and scholars discussing key issues in the U.S.-China relationship and how policies toward China are made. Princeton University's Thomas Christensen provided the keynote speech. The transcript of this speech is below.

Click here to view the video of Professor Christensen's speech.

My goal today is really to start a conversation about US-China policy for the conference and to talk about why our Asia policy has been successful and why our China policy, as a part of that Asia policy, as a key part of that policy, has been successful and how I hope that whichever candidate wins the election, that policy will continue into the next administration.

I think that our success in Asia is quite remarkable and one way to look at it is to look at the three positive relationships we have with three major Asian powers at the same time. We have very good relations with Japan, we have very good relations with China and we have very good relations with India all at the same time and that might have been hard to imagine several years ago. I think that there is something else that is quite notable, I think that's what makes this period really distinct –that all those countries have good relations with each other at the same time, that none of this beneficial relationship with the United States has come at the expense of bilateral relations of those powers in Asia. Again, I think that would have been hard to predict.
In terms of US-China relations, they are very very good and I'll try to outline why I think our China policies have been successful. There is still a lot of problems, a tremendous number of problems in the US-China relationship, there were several years ago, there are now, and there will be several years from now. But what I want to invite you to do is to look at the US-China relationship as a movie instead of as a snapshot and see it as something that revolves over time and see if that movie is moving towards a positive direction or a negative direction. I think you'll understand if you look at the relationship historically and carefully, you'll see that it's moving in a positive direction.

The key for US-China relations is in my opinion is to encourage China to make positive choices and constructive choices with China's growing influence and that, I believe, has been the thrust of our policy and I think that's the reason our policy has been successful. Now how do you do that? The first part of the strategy is that the United States has to have a very strong presence in East Asia diplomatically, politically, and militarily. I think that's really a keystone of the strategy shaping China's choices moving forward. We need to have a strong military presence in East Asia, we need to have strong alliances and security relationships with our friends and allies there. I think that's very important as a foundation because everybody in China wants to have China's influence grow. There's a consensus in China, that China's place in the world should be more prominent over time and there's really not much of a debate. The question is, how does China pursue and increase influence? With a strong US presence and a strong set of relationships in the region, it is less likely that hawkish voices will win debates in China about how to increase its influence. Now I said about the security relationship and I wanted to emphasize early that I'm not going to talk much about the security relationship for the rest of my talk. That is in the backdrop, that is the foundation for our ability to influence China over time.

The second piece, the part that I will emphasize in my talk, is the diplomatic part. You want to shape China's choices by urging China to use its increasing influence in all spheres for positive goals that help stabilize the international space in a way that benefits China, benefits the United States and benefits the world in general. And that really is the thrust of our diplomatic strategy which is founded in (I believe its our diplomatic strategy) a series of dialogues we have with the Chinese about how the world works, how it stays stable and how to foster growth in economics, etc. across the board. The two most famous dialogues in that set of dialogues, which is a very robust set of dialogues, are the strategic economic dialogue led by the Treasury, and I see my colleague Eugene is here, that works on economic issues with the Chinese. At the State Department, there is a state dialogue, which is led by Ambassador Negroponte, the Deputy Secretary of State, and deals with security and political affairs. There are a lot of other dialogues under those two large umbrellas and they dress a lot of different questions and I think that that dialogue structure has been incredibly productive and I really hope that the next administration will keep those dialogues in place. A lot of people say we need to adjust things, but I don't think they know the cost that will be paid if some of these dialogues are removed. The dialogues are real dialogues. What do I mean by that? It's not just the United States telling China what to do. We actually listen very carefully to the Chinese and this is very important and is something that I hope will continue. China has a lot of diplomatic experience around the world. China has a different take on a lot of problems than the United States does as a large developing country and we have a lot to learn from China in these dialogues. And that's the spirit in which the dialogues take place. We listen to their concerns, they listen to our concerns and that makes it more productive and makes it less likely that people will see the advice that we give to China as somehow a Trojan horse designed to keep China down, which it is not.

What are some of the themes in the dialogues that I think make the dialogues constructive? The first is that the United States is not trying to contain the growth of China's influence and its something that the Chinese need to be reminded of on a frequent basis because of their history and because of their concern that somebody will try to steal away the mission that many Chinese share in their minds, which is to increase China's influence around the world. This is a theme that is obviously important in security dialogues to drive home that we are not trying to contain China's influence, but it is also important in the economic dialogues. And I would say that economic dialogues have a very positive effect on the security dialogues in this way because it's very clear in the economic dialogues that we are trying to help China make choices that will stabilize China's own economy and actually improve China's foreign economic relations over time. And that is very inconsistent with the strategy of containment.

The second piece is related to the first and flows very logically from it and it is that we don't see the growth of US and Chinese influence around the world as a zero-sum competition, as a zero-sum game. If China increases its diplomatic and economic footprint in Africa, Latin America, even in the Middle East, it isn't viewed in the United States by those who think of the relationship properly as a threat to US national interest. What the United States ought to do and has been doing in my opinion, is to try and shape China's growing influence in those regions so that China's policies toward Africa, Latin America and elsewhere are more in tune with the efforts of other in world to create stability and peace in those regions and not take actions that intentionally or unintentionally undercut any of those international efforts. So we don't view China's influence in Southeast Asia, Africa and elsewhere with envy and I think that's a very important thing to carry over into the next administration.

The third issue is that the US-China relationship is now much more variegated, much more complex than it has ever been in the past and it's much more about third areas in the world than it has been in the past and this is a very important aspect of our relationship with China in these past several years. In the post Cold War era, there was a heavy emphasis in the US-China relationship leading up to this decade on bilateral issues: Taiwan, trade, human rights and in the last several years, the relationship focuses more and more frequently on how the United States and China can coordinate our mutual efforts to tackle problems in third areas of the world whether these third areas be Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia, Africa, the Middle East, etc. I think this is a very positive trend not just because China is an important player in the world and we need to coordinate with China, but also for the bilateral relationship itself because it unpins that basic message that we want to work with you, we don't wish you ill, we want you to be more active in the world, but we want to coordinate our activities so that we can get things done together.

In practice, these principles are an effort to get China to share more of the burden, to make the international space more stable, to make long-term economic development a more likely prospect in various parts of the world. One of these areas is in Africa, where China has increased its influence economically and through aid policies. One of the things that I think we need to get done as a nation with the Chinese is to remind them that we are glad that China is involved in Africa, that China's economic activity there can bring development to the severity underdeveloped part of the world, but that we ought to be able to coordinate China's activities better with the major donors, with the IMF and the World Bank, so that our efforts are pulling in the same direction so that we get the most bang for the buck, or the most bang for the renminbe, it doesn't matter what currency, and we get the job done together and we create better stability and growth in those areas.

I think you can judge the success of our strategies by looking in the policy areas where we work the most intensely with the Chinese on and I think again, if you look at this as a movie instead of as a snapshot, you will see progress. Why do I keep returning to that theme to look at it as a movie instead of a snapshot? If you look at a snapshot of the US-China relationship at any time, you are likely to see problems. You are going to concentrate on problems; you are going to concentrate on the long list of big issues we have to either tackle together or in the bilateral relationship. I think that that's natural, but if you see it as a movie, you see China moving in its foreign policy in directions I believe would have been unimaginable several years ago today. The flagship example of such progress in China's foreign policy I believe is China's behavior in the six-party talks, helping the United States and the other members of the six-party talks to urge North Korea to move towards denuclearization. This is a huge strategic headache for all of the partners in the six-part talks, but we do need to do it together and I can tell you from personal experience that China has been very very constructive indeed in that six-party talks process and deserves the credit from the United States and from some of the other members of the talks because of the efforts it has made: being creative with proposals, helping break law jams when they occur and we had a real rocky ride recently. I don't know the inside baseball, the inside details of what happened in the last couple of weeks, but my guess is that China helped break that law jam, that would just be my guess from past experience and that's an important role to play and again, one that would have been hard to imagine several years ago today. UN Security Council resolutions with teeth putting pressure on North Korea in coordination with the United States, Japan, South Korea and Russia, hard to imagine.

Sudan, Darfur, which is an issue that gets a lot of attention in the press and justifiably so because there is genocide going on in Darfur and that is something that should concern us all. I can say that while I was on the job at the State Department, I personally saw a very sharp shift in China's policy towards Sudan, Darfur that I don't think is sufficiently recognized by the public's media coverage of this issue. When I was first on the job in July 2006, I could personally describe China's policy as telling the international policy that if you want to put pressure on Khartum, we are going to stop you, we are going to stand in the way and prevent you from doing that. By the fall of that year, China's policy started to change and China started to align itself more with the UN efforts, the Kofi Annan Plan. By early 2007, China was putting pressure on Khartum to accept the second phase of the Annan plan and in the Spring of 2007, China also agreed to send 300 plus engineers to Darfur, constituting the first non-African peace keeping force in the Darfur region, which was a very significant shift from where they were earlier. They also signed onto UN Security Council resolution number 1769 and again, this is a very positive revolution. There are still big problems, we think China can do more in Sudan, Darfur, we did when I was in the government and I think as an outsider now, that China can do more even though there's been a positive shift. There's consistent concern over the sale of small arms to the regime in Sudan while the problems in Darfur continue.

In Burma, a place where we had even less attraction with the Chinese arguably than wed did in Darfur, there still has been, if you view it as a movie, there has been somewhat of a positive change. China vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that was supported by the United States and China has not been nearly as forthcoming as the US government has wished at the time and I believe as an outsider that again, this is a place where China's policy could improve, but China made statements in the last couple of years about Burma that would have been hard to imagine several years ago today. China made public statements calling for reconciliation between the government and the democratic opposition and the ethnic minorities in Burma. This would have violated the traditional principle that China doesn't interfere in the domestic politics of countries with whom China has good relations. That's a long statement but I believe all parts are important. China doesn't intervene in the internal affairs of countries with whom China has good relations and China has had good relations with Burma, but I think the Chinese came to the conclusion that an unstable Burma was largely the result of domestic problems there and an unstable Burma is not good for regional security and for China's own interests. This is a good evolution in China's foreign policy, away from that rigid principle that I think limits China's ability to assist the international community in handling real problems, real security and real economic problems around the world and in a more positive direction in which China may be able to, over time, and again view it as a movie, to participate more in such efforts, to create more stability.

Iran is more problematic still and there have been quite a bit of cooperation between the United States and Iran to get three UN Security Council resolutions, sanction resolution, on Iran. My own opinion is that the process has been too slow and that China has sent signals to Iran the same time the international community put pressure on Iran that its behavior is somehow acceptable. Whether that is intended or not I don't know, but I can say that to sign new energy deals or to try to sign new energy deals at a time when the international community putting pressure on Iran sends that signal to the Iranian regime and I think that is unfortunate. So that is an area where there has been some progress, but the progress is really insufficient and I would put Burma in that category as well. Again, these are real challenges that existed before that still exist now and we have to continue to wrestle with them and the question is how do you wrestle with them and I think the format that I laid out, the approach I laid out, is the proper approach to adopt in wrestling with these problems.

In economic dialogues, we have a vast array of them, I counted fifty plus at one point, I can't name them all off the top of my head and you wouldn't want to hear them anyway, but I told you about that big umbrella dialogue of the economic dialogue led by the Treasury and I think we have some real economic problems with China that need to be addressed on a constant basis and I think we have done a relatively good job in the approach we have adopted. Again, there are a lot of problems, but we've seen some progress in some key areas. We have to deal with the problems of export subsidies, weak IPR enforcement, and the undervalued currency in China. I think all these things are important. Any economist will tell you that it is natural that the United States has a big trade deficit with the United States, that's just a structural problem, not a problem, it's a structural fact, it's a bilateral trade deficit and they'll also tell you that bilateral deficits themselves are not such a big deal from an economic perspective. But it is my belief, and I think it is the belief of the United States government, that the bilateral deficit with China is artificially large, that it could be smaller, and it could be smaller in ways that would benefic U.S. producers and that things should be done to reduce it. I would argue that things have been done, a combination of dialogues, WTO measures, bilateral trade measures when necessary have produced a lot of results. Again, you don't get a lot of coverage in the media. In terms of the currency, there has been about a twenty percent reevaluation of the renminbi against the dollar since 2005 and that has had significant results arguably. There has been other efforts that have also sparked of US exports to China and if you look at the years between 2001 and 2006, our exports to China grew five times faster than our exports to the rest of the world. In 2006, our exports to China grew significantly faster, I believe it was about twice as fast, about a 36 percent growth in exports from China. And there are the current trends, our exports to China are growing faster than our imports from there even though the trade deficit remains quite large. I think it's a positive trend. We've also had cooperation in air routes, there will be a doubling in air routes between China and the United States and I think a lot of people in this room will benefit from that doubling of air routes directly. There have been nuclear energy sales, which is good for environmental reasons and also for US businesses. We've had cooperation on food and product safety, which I think is really important because food and product safety issues are clearly issues where both the US and China share the interest of solving the problems. There is no clearer issue where both countries benefit from a better situation, where we benefit from importing safer products and they benefit from their reputational value of exporting safer products and they consume these products at home, so they benefit from that process as well. We need to work on these issues together rather than separately and I believe that dialogue cooperation, technical cooperation, is a better way to go than cutting off products and trying to harm the basic fiber of the US-China economic relationship.

I'm going to conclude by talking about problems I see out there that we really need to address and one of them is human rights and religious freedom. We've really worked hard on this issue consistently when I was in the government and I don't see the progress we would really like to see in the last few years. We addressed this problem like we've addressed all the problems with China. We tried to tell the Chinese that if they adopt the suggestions that we are offering, that they will be more respected abroad, which is a consensus goal in China, and that they will be more stable at home. And again, this is not a Trojan horse to make China weak, it is a suggestion that should make China stronger. A freer press, more civil liberties, a more civil society should be consistent with the goals stated by President Hu Jintao that he wanted a more harmonious society. We started a new human rights dialogue in that spirit, not a new one, we restored the old human rights dialogue in that spirit in the Spring of 2006 and I think the meetings were very good at laying out our positions in a broad range of issues in that spirit, but we haven't seen the results on the ground that we would like to see. We hope there's be a lot more progress a lot more quickly in human rights and religious freedom in China.

There's the issue of military modernization and the lack of transparency in that military modernization and that lack of transparency is a solvable problem. We can engage the Chinese from our DOD and engage the Chinese military and talk to them about what they're doing, why they are doing it, what doctrinal issues might be occurring, so this isn't some kind of mysterious, unsolvable problem. We have started dialogues with the Chinese military to solve the problem. The flagship example of the lack of transparency was the anti-satellite test in January 2007, which came as a surprise to the world, which really damaged China's reputation in the security front in a way which I think many people in China understand at this point. There have been some hopeful signs in this dialogue of transparency, so it's not a bad story. This has been apparently cut off because of the arms sales to Taiwan and the arms sales to Taiwan is something I support, is something I don't think should effect that dialogue. In fact, the whole policy towards Taiwan on the mainland drives home the importance of a dialogue on security affairs. The Chinese military buildup across from the Taiwan on the Taiwan Strait has been a force of instability in my opinion and in the government's opinion. They really need to rethink this policy, particularly with a new administration in office in Taipei, about the military threat and also the lack of flexibility toward Taiwan as it tries to increase its international space and its meaningful participation in various international organizations. Even in organizations where statehood is a requirement for membership, Taiwan can play a very important role in technical meetings and etc. and increase its international space. There are some hopeful signs on this score. There has been cross-strait dialogues, which I personally welcome and the US government has welcomed and there's a big reduction in tensions compared to last year, but there really hasn't been much visible change that I can tell on the military front or on China's willingness to allow Taiwan more international space and I hope that will change over time because that will have implications not just for the near term, but for the 2012 elections in Taiwan. If a moderate strategy in Taiwan doesn't produce tangible results for the Taiwan public, they may return to support a more radical policy in the future that would be destabilizing. The US policy has been clear, I stated it in September 2007 and I support that outside of the government just like I did inside the government that what we really want to do is to have a strong moderate Taiwan. We don't want a Taiwan that unnecessarily pokes the mainland in the eye, creating problems in cross-strait relations and then problems in the US interests, but we want Taiwan to negotiate from a position of strength and only come to agreements the Taiwan public would support, so there's really no contradition between a US policy that abides by the Taiwan Relations Act and provides Taiwan with the defensive werewithal to protect it from being coerced into policies against its will and US policies encourage Taiwan to take a proactive, positive approach towards the mainland on the diplomatic side and to have improved cross-strait relationship on the political and economic affairs. In my opinion, the ball is largely in the mainland's court right now and how they can take advantage of this moderate strategy with Taiwan and not to overreact in things like the US arms sales to Taiwan.

I'll just end by saying one thing that I think the Taiwan relationship is really a microcosm and the US policies towards cross strait relations, which is probably the better way to put it, US policies towards cross-strait relations is really a microcosm for a proper, overall strategy towards China in general. I think the United States needs to have a firm hand, the United States needs to have its partners like Taiwan be dealing with the mainland from a position of strength so that nobody on the mainland can think it can acquire China's goals, these are the various actors be it Taiwan and others, to coerce or to force, but rather has to opt for a strategy of diplomacy, economic engagement, and persuasion for China to increase its influence. I think that at the same time, the US has to encourage actors around the region of East Asia and around the world to engage China in those economic and diplomatic relationships that are positive, so that that strategy is rewarded in China and so that the consensus view in China that we need to get ahead can be achieved in a peaceful and positive way.


After two years as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia, Thomas Christensen has just returned to his duties as professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. His many publications include Useful Adversaries: Grand Strategy, Domestic Mobilization, and Sino-American Conflict, 1947-1958 (Princeton, 1996) and influential articles such as “China: Getting the Questions Right” (The National Interest). In the years prior to his serving in the State Department, Prof. Christensen often served as a consultant to various U.S. government agencies. In 2002 he received the U.S. State Department’s Distinguished Public Service award.