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China and the US: Looking for Common Interests

Jim Steinberg
January 6, 2012
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Speaker: Jim Steinberg, former US Deputy Secretary of State, Dean and Professor  of Social Science, International Affairs, and Law at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Syracuse University

Date: November 16, 2011


Interviewer: Well, Mr. Steinberg, as we know the United States is going to have its presidential election next year. How would you describe US-China relations in this context and what are some of your expectations on China-US relations in the coming year?

Steinberg: Well I think what we’ve witnessed over the last several years is intensification of US-China engagement across the full range of issues that are of common interest to both of us. President Obama and President Hu have met either nine or ten times depending on how you count, since President Obama took office. And over that time they’ve discussed issues of bilateral relations, regional issues, of global issues whether it’s the economy or the environment or dealing with global crime and terrorism, or dealing with the common challenges of creating jobs and economic opportunity. I think we clearly have some challenges in the relationship but the two presidents have set a tone of trying to develop a relationship of strategic mutual trust of working together to mutual benefit and I think that spirit is a very important one because it helps us both find areas of cooperation and also manage our differences when we have them.

Interviewer: Will that change because of the coming elections?

Steinberg: There are always issues during elections. I think it’s always very hard to predict how it will come out. I think that the only the thing we can say is that if we look over history I think we’ve found a lot of continuity in China-US relations, a recognition that we have important interests in common, that both countries are better off when we work together and we’ve seen this over the last 40 years, as we’ve seen the improvement of US-China relations. It’s not to say that there wouldn’t be differences, particular on economic issues which are of great concern to Americans right now. But I think one can feel a certain degree of confidence that because of our common interests, because we are two countries which have good stake at working together, that there is a good tradition in history of working together to try help keep that going and a lot of continuity over time irrespective of who’s president of the United States.

Interviewer: I noticed you used the term “mutual reassurance” in those vocations while describing US-China relations. Could you explain what this term means?

Steinberg: Scholars have very much focused on the fact that historically, there had been difficulties when a country such as China becomes stronger and more capable – so-called rising powers. Under those circumstances there’s always a risk of rivalry, competition and perhaps even conflict. So in order to avoid repeating these bad experiences of the past we need to find new ways to deal with the inevitable tensions and difficulties that come with changes in the international system. The idea behind reassurance is to try and find ways in which we can be respectful of and supportive of China’s growing capacity, growing role in the world in ways that make clear that China does not seek to do it in a way that threatens others. This is a way of building confidence, as our two presidents have said, of building mutual strategic trust, which is critical to managing this very difficult change in the international environment.

Interiviewer: As we know, economic cooperation plays a key part in China-US relations. Some programs are being made quite successful despite differences existing between the two countries. For example, some US-based multinational corporations have been quite successful in the China market. And China on the other hand has become the third-largest export market for the US. So in your opinion, how can these two countries, well what are some of the ways these two countries can work together to foster some further cooperation.

Steinberg: I think we all understand that enhancing our economic engagement can be a win-win for both countries. It creates economic opportunities in both countries and it creates opportunities for them to deal with. Not only is it creating jobs and a future for our people but dealing with some of the challenges of our time, like clean growth and dealing with the environment and creating energy security. So we recognize that there is obviously a certain degree of friction in any kind of economic competition even within an individual country there is competition among the different firms that are trying to do the best that they can. But if we see this as an opportunity where economic growth advantages both countries where we are sensitive to the concerns of others, that China takes steps to reorient its own growth strategy, to enhance domestic consumption, to create a more balanced strategy, while we try to tackle some of our own economic challenges of managing the deficit and sustaining our own growth path for the future.

This can create opportunities on both sides. We have to do it in a fair way. We have to make sure our firms can compete in a fair way on a level playing field, that will protect and respect the rule of law, that will protect intellectual property, that will find ways to respect the international rules of trade. But that can benefit both of us. I think our two presidents have made clear that we need each other. And the world needs us – to grow successfully, to open our markets, to find ways to create technological innovation and economic opportunity.

I believe that its going to take a lot of work but we see in an ongoing way things like the meetings of our presidents, the meetings of the JCCT, our joint commerce and trade bodies which are coming up in just a few days. These are all ways to look at the concrete problems, to see if we can iron out the differences and create economic opportunities for everybody. Not just bilaterally but also regionally and globally.

Interviewer: People have noticed issues like cyber security, nuclear weapons and space might shadow on China-US relations. In your opinion, how can these two countries work together to make sure that these issues do not trigger any mistrust in the US-China relations overall?

Steinberg: You’re right these are areas of great concern and each of them hold within them dangers. We each have our own legitimate right to pursue our own security but we need to do it in ways that don’t appear the threaten others. So each of these areas whether its space, or nuclear capability or cyber issues, do have the danger of not only posing potential dangers to the other side, but also creating an environment of mistrust. So the first thing we need to do is enhance dialogue on these issues.

One of things that I am most proud of during my time as deputy Secretary of State, is helping to inaugurate a new dialogue between the US and China that are dealing with some of these sensitive issues, the so-called Strategic Security Dialogue. And when I was deputy I had the chance with my counterpart to start those conversations just last year. And so as we move forward, I think it’s important to begin with dialogue and then hope to find concrete ways to build confidence to reduce mistrust, to build reassurance, as I’ve talked about before, not that we’re going to necessary solve all these problems but the more that we’re able to talk to each other about each others concerns, to try to identify ways to reduce the mistrust and suspicion, the better chance we have to deal with these very sensitive and important issues.

Interviewer: And apart from economic cooperation, what are some potential areas you’d like to see further collaboration on between United States and China?

Steinberg: Well I think the first and most important perhaps is on the environment. I think we both have huge stakes here. I think the people of China are increasingly aware of the risks and danger to China’s own future of global warming, of environmental damages, of water pollution and air pollution and the like. These are shared interests and shared challenges where we can work together, we can collaborate on research, we can find new ways of developing new technologies and deploying them in our economies to create a greener and more sustainable future. I think that should be very high on all of our lists.

I think we have to deal with global challenges like the problems of disease, pandemic disease where we all could be threatened by the outbreak and strengthen our public health systems and work with other countries to help them make sure that we have a healthy planet. We can deal with problems of global crime; international criminal organizations that take advantage of both our countries and exploit our people. To deal with the problems of piracy the way we are working together in the Gulf of Aden, for example, to deal with the Somali pirates.

To create new opportunities for educational exchanges. As you know I’m now back at Syracuse University. I’m going to be meeting today with my colleagues in Tsinghua to talk about how we can strengthen educational cooperation and exchange programs between our countries. So we have a tremendous set of issues on which we can collaborate together. Our interests are shared in many ways. How can we help other countries achieve economic development and an opportunity for their people. There’s a great range of areas where we can strengthen cooperation, not just between our two governments but between our two peoples.

Interviewer: Speaking about people to people exchange and university life, how do you find academic different from your political life?

Steinberg: Well, it’s a little more relaxed I have to say. But what I find especially important is that more and more I am convinced that the future of our planet, the future of bilateral relations between US and China, the future of a peaceful and prosperous Asia Pacific depends not just on people who are pretty far along on with their careers like me but the next generation. So I especially appreciate the opportunity to work with young people, not just Americans, but young people from all around the world. We have many Chinese students at the Maxwell School and I’m grateful for that because not only do we get to talk about the future and the future challenges but we begin to think about how do we avoid the mistakes from the past, learn the good lessons from the past and apply them to the future to create new opportunities and new ties between people. And I feel that optimism and that sense of tackling the challenges that young people bring makes life in a university especially rewarding.

Interviewer: Thank you very much that’s all the questions that I’ve got.

Steinberg: Thank you very much, it’s been a pleasure being here

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