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June 21, 2021
An interview with David Firestein, President and CEO, George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations; Dr. Da Wei, Deputy Director, Center for Security and International Strategy, Professor, School of Social Science, Tsinghua University; and Xiao Lianbing, Secretary General, Center for International Exchange, Communication and Cooperation, Guangming Daily
1. “Bring the United States and China Closer Together”
Xiao Lianbing: David Firestein, you are the president of the George H.W. Bush Foundation for US-China Relations. Tell me what the Foundation has done since the outbreak of COVID-19? Professor Da Wei, what do you think of the work of the Foundation from the perspective of a Chinese scholar?
David Firestein: President George Bush was very interested in the relations between the two countries. In 1974, he served as the director of the US Liaison Office to China. He understood how important the relationship between the United States and China was, and he showed great vision in this regard. U.S.-China relations were a lifelong passion for him. President Bush along with his son, Neil Bush, orchestrated a number of conferences on the topic of U.S.-China relations that occurred every couple of years and President Bush was personally involved in the first five. The founding of the Bush China Foundation in 2017 by Neil Bush, with the blessing, support and active involvement of his father, was an effort to create a platform to give expression to President Bush’s lifelong interest in China and the U.S.-China relationship and do work that would build bridges and greater trust between the two nations.
The main work that we do today is to bring the United States and China closer together to try to solve problems in the relationship and to generate greater levels of understanding and trust between these two countries. We do this while honoring President George H. W. Bush’s vision for the relationship, which is a vision of working together to solve problems and collaborating across a wide range of issues in the world. President Bush fundamentally believed two things about the U.S.-China relationship: Number one, that it’s the single most consequential bilateral relationship in the world; number two, virtually no global problem can be solved in the absence of us communicating and cooperating. Our Foundation exists to continue to give expression to those views of President Bush and we’re very proud to be able to do that.
The Foundation established the U.S.-China Coronavirus Action Network, or U.S.-China CAN in April 2020. It was a very successful effort that was geared toward bringing to bear American generosity toward China at the time that China was really bearing the brunt of COVID-19, and then ultimately to do the same thing in reverse and help facilitate Chinese generosity toward the United States at the time that COVID-19 was really starting to take hold in the United States. We have partnered with a number of different organizations to facilitate the transmission and donation of masks and other types of personal protective equipment, as well as technological know-how, and best practices and experiences.
Da Wei: The Foundation impressed me most in two ways. First, it has the courage to speak out and take actions in developing China-US relations. In recent years, China-US relations have encountered unprecedented difficulties. Advocating China-US cooperation seems to have become more difficult in the United States. Nevertheless, the Foundation is still committed to speaking out for a healthy China-US relationship and making unremitting efforts, and this takes political courage. Second, the Foundation has brought a state and local perspectives to China-US relations. As the Foundation is based in Bush’s hometown of Texas, it has impressed people through its fruitful work by gathering a large number of people in American political, academic, business communities as well as overseas Chinese who live and work far from the beltway of Washington DC. It is not only Washington that sets the tones for US policies toward China; a healthy China-US relationship entails exchanges at all levels between the two countries, and the Foundation has played an important role in this regard.
Facing the unprecedented pandemic, the Foundation does not talk the talk, but walk the walk. In early February, 2020, when the epidemic hit China hard and as the country ran into shortages of medical supplies such as masks, the Foundation purchased 550,000 medical masks from the United States and sent them to China. I remember Mr. Firestein said in an interview that “we have supported each other through thick and thin”. The abbreviation of “the Coronavirus Action Network” is CAN. I believe if all walks of life can follow the steps of the Foundation, starting with small matters, then the overall relations between our two countries “can” be stabilized.
Xiao Lianbing: What do you think of China’s fight against the epidemic and the cooperation between China and the United States in public health?
David Firestein: With COVID-19 being a new challenge that we have not met before, efforts made by every country were not ideal in the early stage of the epidemic. After the initial stage, China has implemented a series of effective measures and the Chinese people have made great sacrifices to control the epidemic. Today, what we see in China is the result of these sacrifices: China stands out to be the only major economy that has recorded positive growth in 2020. In the future, both countries should make full use of our strengths in science and technology, bioscience and public health, working together to deal with the impact of COVID-19 on the whole world.
Da Wei: China has done well in both epidemic control and economic development, which is worthy of the pride of every Chinese. Whereas countries around the world are still facing arduous tasks in this anti-epidemic fight, we must not let our guard down because vaccination takes time and the virus may evolve. With the epidemic being a global crisis, the victory over it can only be secured when all of us stand in solidarity as no single country can win this battle alone.
2. “The U.S. should get along with China in a more pragmatic and less ideological approach”
Xiao Lianbing: The year before last, at the seminar held in China, Mr. Neil Bush spoke about his thoughts on China-US relations over the past few decades and pointed out that the United States was also the big winner. In your opinion, in what ways will China-US relations benefit both parties?
David Firestein: I absolutely agree with Neil’s assessment that the development of U.S.-China relations over the past few decades has been good for China, America and indeed the whole world, especially in our trade and economic relations. It is true to say that there have been some very serious areas of contention within the bilateral relationship—areas that are still unresolved, and that will probably always be unresolved. There have been very intense disputes around trade recently. Even taking that into account, the fact is, America’s prosperity in the last several decades was fueled to a very substantial degree by the U.S. trade relationship with China and the ability of American companies to work with China, to collaborate with Chinese partners and to generate greater efficiencies in their production processes, which translated into high quality products being made at prices that consumers were willing to pay. It’s the notion of comparative advantage. China served as a manufacturing platform for many American and global companies and as a result, tremendous advancements were made in every sector of the global economy. Further, the U.S. and global stock markets grew in explosive ways over last few decades. I am saddened, because a lot of folks look back today and question whether engaging China economically or facilitating China’s entrance into the WTO was the right thing to do. Neil, I, and the Foundation will always believe that what happened over the last few decades has been on the whole very positive for America, very positive for China, and very positive for the world.
Da Wei: Indeed, both countries have greatly benefited from China-US relations over the past few decades. Strategically, the Cold War was escalating and the international situation was very tense when China and the United States established diplomatic relations in 1979. As the Cold War ended, China and the United States shared the dividends of peace and development, and China has achieved leapfrog development in the past few decades. Economically, I agree with David that China’s exchanges with the United States are mutually beneficial. China has utilized American capital, technology and management expertise, while American companies have made high profits in China, and global consumers have also gotten an access to high-quality and inexpensive products made in China. The deep integration of China and the United States, two economies of huge scale but in different stages of development, has promoted the deepening of globalization. Without sound China-US relations in the past few decades, globalization may still come but it would definitely not reach the height where it is today.
Xiao Lianbing: What are your concerns about the status quo of China-US relations?
David Firestein: There’s no question that the U.S.-China relationship has deteriorated dramatically in the last several years. The profound lack of trust we see in the relationship today is bad for America and bad for China, as well as for the world. I’m troubled by the state of the U.S.-China relationship today and it is going to take quite some time to get the relationship back on track, but I think that is a cause that’s worth fighting for. People of insight in the United States want to see a more pragmatic and less ideological approach on the part of the United States to its relationship with China. I certainly embrace that perspective. The U.S. needs to look at China with a level of dispassion and strategic thinking. We need to recognize that there are issues in the relationship where the differences are irreconcilable, however, it is also true that there are areas where we can fruitfully work together and advance our own interests. I’ve long been an advocate of the idea that the United States should engage with China, not because it is altruistic, but because it is good for America to work with China where needed on issues of common concern.
What we have in the United States today is a sense that it’s a zero-sum dynamic governing the U.S.-China relationship, but that is not universally the applicable framework. The United States ought to aim for a U.S.-China relationship that is functional, constructive, results-oriented, mutually beneficial and politically sustainable.
Da Wei: China-US relations have deteriorated markedly since 2018. Both sides believe that the other side is hostile; many believe that confrontation and competition between China and the United States are more acceptable than before; and these are extremely worrisome changes. Sometimes people feel that it doesn’t matter if the China-US relationship “suffered setbacks” from time to time, as long as no conflict shows up. But looking back at history, we will find that great power politics is like a gigantic ship; once sailing in a wrong direction, it will be difficult to stop and turn around. There are many tragedies in international politics, resulting from a series of misjudgments instead of careful planning. Throughout history, those falling into the “Thucydides Trap” always believed they could “hit the brake” when necessary. The truth of fact is, after unknowingly passing a certain critical point, brakes braking will be too late. We all have to learn from these lessons of history.
3. “The United States and China will not plunge into a Cold War”
Xiao Lianbing: Will there be a Cold War between China and the United States? Do you have any suggestions for stabilizing China-US relations?
David Firestein: I do not think we will end up in a Cold War-type scenario for a variety of different reasons. First, unlike the Soviet Union, China in my judgment is not seeking to export its system to the rest of the world. Second, China is much more economically integrated with the United States than the Soviet Union ever was. Even after about three years of the trade war, China is still the third largest trading partner of the United States. Third, fundamentally, the United States has scores of allies, while China has no alliance relationships of similar caliber, so there will not be two Cold War-like blocs. Ultimately, concerns about a Cold War are unfounded.
To the question of how we stabilize the relationship, there are a few things that we can do at present. First and foremost, engaging in some confidence-building would be a smart and timely thing to do. Such measures could include restoring the two consulates that were shut down toward the end of the Trump Administration, the Fulbright program, other academic and cultural exchanges between the United States and China. Perhaps even more fundamentally, the United States and China should eliminate all of the tariffs that were instituted during the Trump Administration. Lastly, we need to change the rhetoric and get back to language that I think is more carefully calibrated on both sides.
Da Wei: I also believe that the China-US relations will not drift into a “new Cold War”, but it does not mean that China-US relations will not be in danger. What I want to emphasize is that history may resembles, but it never repeats. It is inaccurate to describe today’s China-US relations with the word “Cold War”. Just now, David has pointed out the three major differences between today’s China-US relations and the US-Soviet relations during the Cold War, with which I totally agree. It is difficult for China and the United States, who are interdependent on each other, to repeat the history of Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. However, I think there is another side we need to be aware of too. The Cold War was largely peaceful at least between the two superpowers. But if China-US relations are not handled properly, a real military conflict is possible. We may also face a more dangerous and painful situation that haven’t been faced by the United States or the Soviet Union, because they did not have issues like industrial chain decoupling, cyber security and artificial intelligence. If we look at today’s situation with a Cold War mindset, we may fall into “self-fulfilling prophecies” which leads to larger conflicts; or underestimate the danger we are facing, thinking that issues that did not occur in the Cold War will certainly not occur between China and the United States. Both of these attitudes are wrong.
To stabilize China-US relations, one of the top priorities is that the two countries resume official dialogue mechanisms as soon as possible. No matter how divided opinions may appear to be, it is beneficial for the two governments to sit down and talk with each other. And no matter how the bilateral relations evolve, the bottom line that must be held is that there should not be a complete decoupling in economic relations and people-to-people exchanges.
4. “It is dangerous and one-sided to define China-US relations as strategic competition”
Xiao Lianbing: China puts forward the spirit of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation between our two sides and hopes that the two can focus on cooperation, manage differences, advance the healthy and stable development of China-US ties, and join other countries and the international community for world peace and development. What is your comment on China’s proposition?
David Firestein: It’s not surprising that, with countries as different as the United States and China, there are tensions and disagreements over a wide range of areas. So, the aspiration that President Xi has laid out is absolutely commendable, which is something that we ought to work toward, while still recognizing that at present there are immense challenges on the bilateral agenda. First, we need to stabilize the relationship and get to a place of functionality. Then, I think we can start talking about higher level goals. Da Wei: In the past eight years, China’s position on China-US relations has been consistent. Indeed, this vision entails concrete actions. For example, for there to be “non-conflict and non-confrontation”, the Chinese and American military need to embrace more crisis management mechanisms and confidence building measures. In order to achieve “win-win cooperation”, China and the United States need to achieve a new equilibrium in their economic and trade relations and people-to-people exchanges. On the one hand, the two sides can maintain close contacts; and on the other hand, both peoples feel comfortable and secured.
Xiao Lianbing: What do you think of the China-US High-level Strategic Dialogue held in Alaska in March, 2020 and China’s talks with John Kerry in Shanghai, the US President’s climate envoy?
David Firestein: The meeting between the senior officials was something that needed to happen and it achieved a couple of important goals. First, there are two senior officials on each side that have a chance to sit down together and discuss a number of different issues and get to know each other in these new capacities. It is important that these officials dedicated some time to building a relationship. Second, this helped establish a foundation for future meetings. While the meeting was generally characterized by outside observers as very contentious, my feeling is that you have to start somewhere. I think this meeting laid the foundation for further engagement that can be perhaps even more focused on substantive issues in the relationship. We have already seen some of that happen subsequent to the Anchorage meeting with Secretary John Kerry, the president’s climate envoy in China recently. All of this could only happen after that initial meeting in Anchorage, so I don’t think we should just focus on some of the arguments at the beginning of the meeting.
Climate change probably tops the list, from a U.S. standpoint, of issues where the United States and China have to work together. Given that the United States and China are the two largest carbon-emitters in the world as well as the two largest economies, we must collaborate to be successful. The Biden Administration wants to see serious action taken on the climate during these four years. The visit of John Kerry to China is a good step in the right direction. They’re less politicized than others on the agenda. I expect that this will be one of the areas in which we see some of the most fruitful and results-oriented collaboration between the United States and China over the coming several years.
Da Wei: Nowadays, we live in an era of information explosion. As we keep an eye on all kinds of information every day, we have an impression that China and the US are highly hostile to each other. But if we carefully observe the actions of the two governments, we will see that despite the tense tension in the China-US relations, our leaders and senior government officials are resuming contacts and exchanges in an orderly manner. On February 6, Yang Jiechi, member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee, held a phone conversation with the US Secretary of State Blinken; on the morning of February 11 (the Chinese New Year’s Eve), President Xi Jinping had a phone conversation with President Biden; on March 18, senior leaders of the two countries met in Alaska; from April 14th to 17th, Kerry visited China; on April 22nd, President Xi Jinping delivered an important speech at the “Leaders’ Summit on Climate”. What I want to emphasize is that we have to grasp the key information in the vast oceans of information. The China-US relations are still in a difficult stage, but the governments are working hard to keep in contact and pull the wheels to spin. Each contact is laying a solid foundation for more important contacts in the future. As long as we continue to move towards each other, it is possible to stabilize, or even improve China-US relations.
Xiao Lianbing: The U.S. Congress is pushing for a “Strategic Competition Act”. What is your take on it? And what kind of role does the U.S. Congress play in such bilateral relations?
David Firestein: With respect to the Strategic Competition Act that is now before the United States Congress, there are some elements to it that I would agree with and some elements to it with which I disagree. An example of what I agree with in the legislation includes the idea that the United States needs to enhance our own ability in technology, infrastructure, investment, and a variety of other sectors in the economy. Our goal is to be able to compete more effectively with a very formidable competitor, China, and with other competitors in the world. I also think that the notion of re-establishing cultural and academic exchanges, and also some of the language on condemning anti-Asian hate are positive elements of this legislative package. But there are some aspects of the bill that are very problematic, including the notion that the U.S. federal government should encourage firms to take supply chains out of China. Such government interference into private sector activity and telling private companies how to operate would represent a retreat from the free market principles on which our nation was founded. In my judgement, it would be a huge mistake.
Da Wei: Once the U.S. Congress passes a legislation, its influence will not just last for a certain administration, but for decades. In this sense, I am quite worried about this legislation because it is actually establishing a framework and setting the agenda for US policies towards China. As the name of the act shows, the U.S. Congress is trying to define the US future policies towards China as “strategic competition”. Once the bill is passed, whether the future US administrations are willing or not, they are bound to examine China-US relations from the perspective of “strategic competition”. In my opinion, although there is competition in China-US relations, it is dangerous and one-sided to define such relations in this way.
5. “The Foundation will work to build a bridge between the two countries to bring the two countries closer, deepen understanding and build greater trust”
Xiao Lianbing: David Firestein, how do you feel about the changes in China over the past few decades? What projects will the Foundation carry out this year?
David Firestein: In the preface to the publication of his China diaries in 2007, President Bush wrote that he loved the Chinese people and that he wanted to see the United States and China form a big partnership and friendship that would benefit not only each other but also the world. We at the Foundation seek to give expression to that vision that we should build bridges between the United States and China and bring the two countries closer together, build greater understanding and build greater trust.
Since I first visited China in 1984, about 37 years ago, I have seen firsthand the monumental changes that have occurred in China in a variety of different ways. The changes of Beijing and other cities across China are astonishing and indicative of incredible progress. At the same time, there has been a great change with respect to the Chinese way of life. The pace of life in China is much faster today than it was when I was first studying in China in the 1980s. The Beijing and the China of today are very different from that because new technologies have created an incredibly fast pace of life and ease of quick communications.
I certainly look forward to getting back to China as soon as that is practicable from the standpoint of COVID-19. In my recent professional work, I’ve tended to travel to China about three times a year on average. I know that Neil and all of our staff team look forward to reengaging with people in person rather than interacting just over Zoom or Wechat. We are excited about the work ahead and about getting back to communicate with others face to face.