Wednesday night, April 3, at the Harvard Kennedy School’s JFK Jr Forum, we had a lively discussion about China, with former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and me as moderator. The huge turnout – the event was ticketed and held before a capacity crowd – attests to the intense interest these days in almost everything related to China.
A video of the panel is now available online. Or, you can find the storied version on Twitter if you don’t have an hour to replay the entire event.
The Forum’s timing was also fortuitous because Rudd, who had just left Beijing a few days earlier, had recently penned what I consider a must read piece on U.S.-Sino relations in the current issue of Foreign Affairs magazine. In it, Rudd calls the American pivot to Asia entirely appropriate to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the region, but he says now is the time for both Washington and Beijing to take stock and reach some conclusions about what kind of world they want to see.
At the Forum, Huntsman and Rudd, veteran China-watchers and Mandarin speakers, found a remarkable degree of consensus on the need for the U.S. to dispense with all the meaningless bilateral “working groups” and low-level “dialogues” that now crowd the annual calendar. Instead, both men argued for the need for regular summits between the two leaders, President Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping. Right now when the two presidents get together, it’s usually a rushed meeting crammed onto the agenda on the sidelines of another international conference – the G-20, or APEC, for example. Only when the two top leaders meet, in a regular and ongoing fashion, can some of the mistrust in the relationship begin to dissipate and some of the major global problems be addressed.
What are some of the areas where the U.S. and China might find space to work together? Climate change could be one, the panelists decided. And containing North Korea, following its current bellicosity, threats and bluster, could be another. The current Chinese Communist leadership doesn’t really have the kind of close ties with Pyongyang’s new ruler, Kim Jong-un, as older Chinese revolutionaries like Mao Zedong, who called China and North Korea “as close as lips and teeth.” I analyzed those fraying ties between the two “frenemies” in a piece for The New Republic magazine a few weeks ago. (Huntsman probably had the night’s best line: “North Korea is like the crazy uncle that shows up on Thanksgiving.”)
The panel agreed that Sinophobia could be a problem here in the U.S. As Huntsman said, it’s easy for an American politician to get a cheap applause line at a town hall meeting by shouting typical China-bashing rhetoric, harping on currency or trade. But explaining the nuances of a complex relationship takes time and effort, and better relations are likely to grow from more people-to-people contacts, including American governors, mayors and county executives exchanging views with their counterparts, Chinese provincial officials.
China’s rise is inevitable – the country’s economy is likely to surpass that of the U.S. in the next decade or so in overall GDP (though not in the all-important per capita). And this will be the first time since George III that a non-Western, non-democratic, non-English-speaking country has risen to such a position of global economic dominance, as Rudd says in his Foreign Affairs piece.
To deal with China rising doesn’t mean we forget our values – we stand for democracy, human rights, political and economic freedom. We need to enunciate those clearly. But it does mean we should try to understand China better. And that means learning something about China’s history, its culture and worldview.
As for me, I’m going to start right now hitting my Mandarin language textbooks again!