US-China relations have entered a new era of competition. To help figure out how to navigate this swiftly changing and deteriorating relationship, the 21st Century China Center at the School of Global Policy and Strategy hosted their opening talk for the inaugural UC San Diego Forum on US-China Relations titled, “Finding a New Equilibrium: Insights on US-China Ties from High-Level Practitioners.” The talk featured two former national security advisors from both Democratic and Republican administrations—Tom Donilon, chairman of the BlackRock Investment Institute, and Stephen Hadley, principal of RiceHadleyGates LLC, as well as Consul General Zhang Ping, Chinese Consulate in Los Angeles. China Focus presents three viewpoints on the talk.
Watch the talk here.
(All opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not represent 21st Century China Center or UC San Diego.)
I hope the rest of the forum can make more of an impact than the opening panel.
Two former National Security advisors for both Democratic and Republican administrations and the Chinese Consul General for Los Angeles make for a balanced panel, but has questionable influence in current decision-making processes. In the United States, Stephen Hadley and Thomas Donilon have invaluable experience and insight, but unfortunately Trump seldom listens to advice from those outside of his administration. On the Chinese side, it is hard to imagine that a diplomat posted overseas for the sake of promoting party values plays a large role in policy decisions, especially in an organization as top-down as the CCP.
The three men were fairly unified in their opinion that the decline in US-Chinese relations were from a fundamental difference in ideology. Hadley and Donilon both mentioned the increase in Chinese assertiveness—from the South China Sea to Hong Kong (which was not discussed nearly enough in this conversation.) Zhang Ping, taking the place of Ambassador Cui Tiankai, voiced concern about the “America First,” zero-sum game approach of the Trump administration.
There was a feeling of reciprocity—both sides blaming the other for aggression—while defending their own actions as a response to this aggression. At one point, Hadley even mentioned that the “sleeping dragon,” typically attributed to China, was actually the United States—likely an effort to create a cool soundbite—but also highlighting the similarities in the course of actions both countries have taken.
I would love more than anything to be proven wrong, but when you consider the power that Xi and Trump have over their foreign policy, it becomes almost impossible to shift away from this aggressive stance without heavy losses or a change in leadership. Hadley echoed this sentiment and brought some attention to the root of the issue within the United States. For the United States to become such a regressive and selfish player in the global arena stems from a fear of globalization. It mobilized voters in key states in the US and elected Donald Trump, leading us to where we are today.
Without considerable and mutual concessions on both sides, it might be impossible to deviate from this collision path. The unity of the CCP makes it hard to change opinions from the bottom up. However, the United States is much more susceptible to pressure from influential individuals or action networks. Hopefully, the participants from the United States can come together and create a unified plan to restore balance between the two countries—with this administration, or the next.
The timing of this talk is interesting as China recently released its first national defense white paper since 2015, and the document confirms China’s foreign policy is increasingly assertive and militaristic. Stephen Hadley spoke of China’s swift rise from a country many Americans considered a benign economic competitor, to one perceived as a legitimate geopolitical threat. China’s rise to the center stage is marked by increased economic and political aggressiveness, evidenced through projects like the Belt and Road Initiative and the establishment of China’s first two international military bases in Djibouti and Gwadar (two geostrategically contested choke points in the Indo-Pacific.)
The last National Defense white paper denied any intentions of expanding China’s force projection capabilities. However, this new white paper stresses the role of the military in protecting the security and rights of Chinese citizens, organizations, and businesses overseas. This suggests the bases in Djibouti and Gwadar could be the opening salvos of an attempt to expand China’s force projection and further secure vital sea lines of communication.
Thomas Donilon described this ascent as an abandonment of Deng Xiaoping’s “hide your strength, bide your time” strategy. Hadley—citing a rising strategic panic among US foreign policy elites—further suggested Chairman Xi stepped forward too soon, and unintentionally “awakened a sleeping dragon” in the US. I would push back on this a bit, and suggest this heightened aggression can be attributed to the decades long cycle of fang shou (squeezing then relaxing) which involves periods of increased aggressiveness interlaced with strategic relaxation of tensions.
Donilon said the US must rely on its extensive network of allies and noted the current administration let these relationships deteriorate as it pursued “America first” strategies. Indeed, one way China rose to its current position is by taking advantage of gaps left by the US in the provision of international public goods in places like Africa and South America.This failure to maintain relationships extends to European allies as well, and China has capitalized as companies like Huawei and COSCO invest in places like France and Greece, despite protests from the US.
Ambassador Zhang Ping’s negative response to the word “allies” should be considered as well. He likened alliances to a “cold-war mentality”. Whether or not one agrees with this sentiment, the moment highlights the growing gap between the US and China’s foreign policy language. As China begins to alter the strategic paradigm, it will be critical for Americans to understand these differences in connotation to facilitate productive conversations.
What struck me the most was how in sync Donilon and Hadley sounded. Although they worked in very different administrations, they hit a lot of the same points and had much more to agree on than disagree. While both had criticisms of China and especially Chairman Xi, neither are particularly known as Sinologists and their most impassioned remarks were not focused on China but rather the US. There were many subtle and not so subtle criticisms of the current administration’s approach.
The criticisms were made toward Trump’s misguided focus and his flawed approach. For the first, both Donilon and Hadley stressed that it was not the trade deficit or other trade-related issues that were so important in this growing competition but rather the struggle to dominate the next generation of world changing technologies like 5G and AI. On the second, they strongly questioned Trump’s diplomacy and slapdash application of tariffs. They preferred Trump work more closely with our allies and multilateral institutions. Donilon even bemoaned that leaving the TPP may have been America’s greatest mistake in Asia since Vietnam.
Absent from most of the talk was a discussion on values. The US speakers did not have much to say about the completely different political systems of the two countries. While Hadley mentioned the problems in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and both emphasized the increased assertiveness of China and “economic nationalism,” they had little to say about China’s authoritarian, Marxist-Leninist political ideology.
Zhang Ping, on the other hand, his comments would not be out of place in a communist party conference. He lavishly praised Chairman Xi, calling him a “great leader with great vision that will lead the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” then underlining that China will take a different path than the US—socialism with Chinese characteristics. Ironically, while Zhang drew the clearest ideological lines, he spent a lot of time accusing the US and claiming it was the Americans who had a “cold-war mentality” and a “zero-sum game” view of the world.
Both the Chinese and US representatives had criticisms for the other side but it seemed most of their speech was concerned with a domestic audience rather than bridging the gap between the two sides. Donilon and Hadley argued for changes in US policy while Zhang did what he had to do as a member of the CCP: follow the party line.
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