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Creating Ties Between American and Chinese Legislators

Dennis Hertel
April 18, 2011
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U.S.-China relations are on more stable footing since the January summit between President Barack Obama and President Hu Jintao, which helped reduce the tension that developed in U.S.-China relations during 2010. Yet, months after the summit, with many issues left unaddressed, it is clear that U.S-China government-level relations must extend beyond theoccasional high profile, well-orchestrated meeting.

In order to develop deeper, stronger ties between leaders in the U.S. and China we must not focus solely on the pageantry of presidential dinners and international forums, which are as much theater as they are politics. We must prioritize the development of deeper connections between the hard-workinglawmakers in the two countries, who have their fingers on the pulse of public sentiment.

Individual legislators have a huge advantage over heads of state – they can meet with foreign representatives without creating a media spectacle where every speech is dissected from all angles.  They are able to have honest, unfiltered discussions about their visions for their specific constituencies as well as their countries.

If we want to effectively strengthen the U.S.-China relationship, while reducing the possibility of future misunderstandings, we should do everything in our power to promote exchanges between members of the U.S. Congress and members ofChina’s National People’s Congress, the country’s highest state body and only legislative chamber.

As a former Congressman and as the president of the 600-member U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress (USAFMC), I can attest to the effectiveness of legislative exchanges. Our organization, chartered by Congress, but funded privately,already sponsors and operates unique Congressional Study Groups with the legislatures of Germany, Turkey, and Japan. I hope that China will soon become our fourth partner in this important endeavor.

A Congressional Study Group provides the opportunity for lawmakers from China and the U.S. to speak candidly with each other about matters of mutual importance that range from the current economic global crisis to ensuring stability and security in the shipping lines that crisscross East Asian waters.

Once established, a CSG can include periodic roundtable discussions on Capitol Hill featuring visiting dignitaries from the other country, Annual Seminars in both countries, Study Tours, and events geared toward senior Congressional staff.

The CSGs are more than forums for discussion; they are forums for action. In April 2003, on the day when Iraqis brought down Saddam Hussein’s statue in Baghdad, a group of American Members of Congress participating in the Congressional Study Group on Germany arrived in Berlin for meetings with the German Bundestag.  On the second day, during a private meeting with Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, the group was informed that President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Gerhard Schr?der had not spoken to each other for months because Schr?der had strongly criticized the Bush Administration’s Iraq policy in prior German election speeches, and was asked to help rebuild ties. Despite Germany’s leadership in NATO and close alignment with the U.S. on many foreign policy issues, the leaders of the two countries were not in contact.

Informed and concerned after the meeting with Fischer, the group reached out to the White House upon their return to urge a reopening of dialogue between the two leaders. Within a week, a phone call was made, and the leaders of the U.S. and Germany were talking again.  Thanks to the existence of the CSG, the foreign minister was able to pass on a message that led from interaction to action in only one week. That is what deeper government-level relations between countries can lead to.

There are many reasons to develop this type of relationship with the National People’s Congress. China’s president and premier, by law, must be serving in the NPC at the time of their selection.  The NPC, while not having the pure legislative power of the U.S. Congress, has evolved in the last two decades to become a legitimate forum for moderating the policy differences between the different interests in Chinese society.

During a joint press conference by presidents Obama and Hu in January, Hu noted that the two leaders had agreed “that China and the United States need to establish a pattern of high-level exchanges featuring in-depth communication and candid dialogue.” Hu added, “We also agreed to encourage all sectors of our society to carry out various forms of exchange activities.”

I wholeheartedly agree with the move toward greater communication, and the USAFMC plans to spend 2011 developing a plan to deepen ties between the legislatures of the U.S. and China.

Dennis Hertel is the president of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress. He represented the state of Michigan in Congress from 1981-1993.

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