China's Critical Importance

For Harvard’s Institute of Politics, I co-authored a piece with former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman, who will be at the IOP as a visiting Fellow this week and attending my China Study Group Wed. April 3.
In the piece, we discuss the nature of the U.S.-China relationship as one defined by multiple, overlapping layers of engagement and mistrust, and one which will require careful and sustained high-level attention over time.
Our piece appeared on the IOP blog, and I’ll also reprint it here.  As always, I welcome any comments, or email me at:

Jon Huntsman and Keith Richburg Discuss the Critical Importance of China
Authored by former Utah Governor, former presidential candidate and former China Ambassador Jon Huntsman and Spring 2013 Resident Fellow and former Washington Post journalist Keith Richburg.
It’s been often repeated that the U.S.- China relationship is the most important of the 21st century.  And most Americans implicitly understand that China is now a key global player whose economy rivals are own.  In fact, according to the most recent Pew Global Attitudes Survey, 41 percent of Americans now see China as the world’s leading economy, compared to 40 percent who still see the U.S. in that role.
But that recognition of China’s rising clout doesn’t mean we fully understand the complexities of the relationship, or are yet ready to carefully manage it.
Understanding starts first with a recognition that the U.S.-China relationship is defined by multiple, overlapping layers of engagement and mistrust.  Our economies are now inextricably intertwined through mutual trade and investment. There are deep and growing social, cultural and educational ties – witness the number of Chinese students and professionals coming here, including to the Kennedy School, and the number of young Americans studying Mandarin Chinese in our high schools and universities as well as in mainland Chinese schools.
And our commercial ties go well beyond the level of our national leaders; American governors, county executives and mayors now travel regularly to China in search of trade and investment opportunities, and are forming strong links with Chinese local officials in the cities and provinces far from Beijing.
But the deepening ties must not obscure the continued and profound mistrust, often born of misperceptions and a mutual lack of understanding.  The Chinese warily see our announced pivot to Asia as purely military in nature, and an attempt to encircle China and contain its inevitable rise.
We likewise view China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Seas as a kind of belligerence, born from China’s new economic clout and perhaps a perception from Beijing that the U.S. is now financially weakened and military drained.
None of this means that conflict is inevitable or even likely. The U.S. and China are likely to remain competitors but not necessarily antagonists.  But it does require careful and sustained management of this complex relationship.  That means, among other things, identifying strategic areas where we our two countries can cooperate, while recognizing frankly and openly the areas where we will continue to differ.
And it also means the “pivot” should be not just a military re-positioning, but contain a positive agenda for the Asia-Pacific region, like free trade agreements with our friends and allies.
All of this is long, hard work. Results won’t come quickly or without fits and starts.  But the payoff would be immense – nothing short of a more peaceful, stable and prosperous world.