January 17, 2019, Atlanta
Wu Xinbo is Dean of the Institute of International Studies and Director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University
JAMES CHAU: We have just come from a lunch where the speaker warned that the bilateral relationship is deteriorating, with severe consequences for the future. Drawing on your own insights, what does that future look like?
WU XINBO: Two of the biggest regions in the world are now entering a state of major transformation, which may take a long time to complete. We are currently at the beginning of this process. We see the change in this relationship not only in the atmosphere, but also in the substance. In terms of the mutual perceptions towards each other, I think people in two countries view the other side more negatively compared to before. As a matter of substance, the two countries now have serious disputes on the economic dimension, security dimension, and political dimension of this relationship. This is quite rare to a certain extent, because in the past, we would also run into problems in the relationship – sometimes on the political side, sometimes on the security side. But this time, the situation is more comprehensive. The overall relationship seems to have run into a structural dilemma. The question for the future is really whether we can still maintain cooperative relationships with competition as part of this picture, or else this relationship will move to be more confrontational as a result of competition. So, thinking about the future really tests our imagination because this is the first time since the normalization that we are facing this kind of situation.
JC: As I speak with you, I noticed that you're wearing a lapel pin with the two flags of China and the United States together. For the past 40 years, this has been one of the great stories of contemporary history: how these two countries have established a global future that's more secure and healthier than before. Earlier you mentioned feeling that this is just the beginning, and that there are more transformations to come in this relationship. Should we just adjust ourselves to a new sense of normalcy and abandon the one that has been the pillar for the past four decades?
WX: Well, I think there are currently different trends driving this relationship. So, we should not allow this relationship to be just carried forward by various trends. The people in our two countries should make sure that this relationship will not only be stable for the next 40 years, but more importantly, cooperate with one another, so that it will serve the interests of the two countries as well as the interests of the entire world. Now, in the US, the administration does not have much interest in globalization and global governance. The current US administration tends to view relations with other countries, including China, in a narrowly defined and bilateral context. And this is why it has chosen to pursue a more unilateral-based approach to relations with other countries, including with China. If we do not have a broad perspective of the US-China relationship, it is very difficult to introduce elements of cooperation in multilateral settings at a global level. And as a result of that, you will pay more attention to the competitive side of this relationship without thinking about the broader picture. So, to get back to your question, yes, we should work hard to make sure that we always put this relationship in a broader perspective. And always against a backdrop which reflects global needs. If we can do that, then we can keep competition in perspective. When people focus more on competition, we should remind them and ourselves to never forget that there is a great potential for cooperation between our two sides.
JC: You describe this current administration as being one that is not interested in globalization, but at the same time, the current leadership in China has been rewriting the multilateral story. You have Bo’ao (Bo’ao Forum for Asia), BRICS, Community of Nations, Belt and Road, the BRICS Bank, and more and more. Is China simply going to spot an opportunity in the absence of the United States and seek other partners? And where could those partners come from potentially?
WX: I think globalization has come to a stage in which emerging economies are going to play a larger role simply because they are becoming more important in the global economy and they have more resources to contribute to globalization. So, we should understand China's growing role in globalization and global governance in that context. Having said that, I still believe it is very important for China to promote globalization in two ways. One is to continue to work with the U.S. and other developed countries because to some extent the U.S. is still indispensable to this process, given its role in international affairs and especially given the role of the U.S. economy in the world economy. So healthy globalization cannot proceed without an active role from the United States. On the other hand, China will also continue to work with emerging economies – India, Brazil, Mexico, Indonesia – because they are becoming more and more important. If this is going to be a process based on two pillars, we have to make sure that the two pillars will match each other as they move forward. So, even though in recent years China has paid more and more attention to cooperation with emerging economies, I think China-U.S. cooperation remains essential and crucial to the healthy development of globalization.
JC: On that point, I want to go beyond the bilateral relationship to the bigger meaning of this relationship in how it impacts humanity. If we look back at the decision in 1979 to normalize diplomatic relations, it was to bring more than a billion people together on opposite sides of the planet to help unify the dream for a better tomorrow. With that in mind, do you think China has the capability as an emerging nation to make a true impact in this dream for a better tomorrow? We still live in a world dominated by the Bretton Woods system. We still live in a post-World War Two structure where the world, as the United States sees it, is very much in its own image?
WX: Let me put it this way. Over the last four decades, China has been a major beneficiary of the international system, especially on the economic front. For China, it is very important that we are working with other stakeholders to continue to maintain and preserve the current international order. That's for sure. On the other hand, of course we understand there are many deficiencies with the current international system which need to be repaired, improved, reformed, and even supplemented. China should also work with emerging economies and the developing world to push for the necessary improvement and reform of the current international system, and whenever necessary and possible, we should also help create new institutions that will supplement rather than replace the current international institutions, especially in international financial and economic dimensions. I don't think this is going to be a process in which China can make the decision and shoulder all the burdens alone. It requires China to work more skillfully not only with other emerging economies, but also the developed world, particularly the United States. In this regard, a new challenge is going to be how China can work with the Trump Administration, which has become more suspicious of the current international system and has also become more reluctant to shoulder its responsibility for global governance. It is quite a big challenge for China.
JC: There is an identity crisis emerging here. Young people around the world are struggling to find their place in a rapidly changing global structure. What would you say to young Americans and young Chinese about their place in the world today, and how can they prepare themselves for the future?
WX: We must realize that the world is changing very rapidly. We need to keep an open mind to these changes, and not try to evade or resist the tide of change. We should recognize that this is an interdependent world. It is a challenge for young Americans to see competition from China and India. What they can do is better prepare themselves to meet this challenge. As for young Chinese, they must learn how to work with others, to be open-minded, and to learn from others. On the future the two countries: how can China and the U.S. co-operate in the 21st century – not only to bring prosperity to the world, but also peace and security? As China is becoming more prosperous, more capable, and more self-confident, it is quite a challenge for Americans to learn how to live with a China which may be different from the one they are familiar with. And as for young Chinese, as they feel more self-confident, they must learn how to work with others, to be open-minded, and to learn from others, including young people in the United States.
JC: Two very interesting sides of a coin that you just described. You’re not just a leading authority on the bilateral relationship, but of course you're also a leading educator as Executive Dean at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. As such, you shape young minds. What do those young minds say to you? What do they think about the U.S.?
WX: Frankly, students at Fudan University find it harder to believe that the U.S. is in a positive state of affairs. Looking at the current government shutdown that has been record-breaking, one can’t help but ask, “What happened with the political system? Why can’t the two parties compromise for the national interest? Why doesn’t the U.S. political system work as well as it did in the past?” Students also find some of the Trump administration's foreign policies, especially on the economic front, against the traditional way the U.S. conducted relations with other countries and with other multilateral institutions. The U.S. has become more nationalistic, more protective, and sometimes even more irrational. People are trying to decide whether this is just a transitory situation or if it will be the new norm for the United States. When they come to me with these questions, frankly speaking, I cannot answer with full confidence.
JC: You seem to have a good sense of understanding for your students. You have a great eye to history as well, and not just in the last couple of decades, but far before that. You wrote a book, Major Powers in China, which looked at the make-up of China at the turn of the 20th century. Could you have predicted what’s happening in the United States now? Could you have predicted what seems to be a new turning point in this relationship?
WX: History always take turns, sometimes in very unpredictable ways. Over the last century, we have seen ups and downs in China’s national history: Japan’s invasion of China, the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Cultural Revolution, and in 1979 the start of Reform and Opening Up. For the United States, I would say to some extent, this is its first major test since the end of World War Two. Before the advent of Trump, I think that the US was moving along a trajectory laid out by leaders post-World War Two. Trump may be the first US president since World War Two who has decided to turn inward, if not for an isolationist agenda, certainly for a more protectionist agenda. This will have huge ramifications, not only for US relations with other countries, but also for the U.S.’s international standing. I think this kind of change to some extent came as a surprise because, though we understood the U.S. would be entering a more turbulent era after the 2008 financial and economic crisis, but the change in policy has happened so quickly and dramatically since Trump has come into office. Frankly speaking, that change went beyond my expectations. So today I believe I need to spend more time thinking about the U.S., not on the East and West coasts, but rather the US in the heartland, and what really happened in the Midwest that reshaped Americans’ mindset about their relationship with the outside world. So that remains a challenge. Whether or not the U.S. will come back to its normal situation remains an open question. But I sincerely hope that the U.S., in the not too distant future, will become more outward looking, more metropolitan, more internationalist, and more cooperative in its relations with other countries, including with China.
JC: The end of the Second World War and the period that immediately followed that marked a dismantling of the then British Empire, the breakdown of colonization. And there you really saw the United States beginning to accelerate very quickly forwards, which benefited not just Americans, but a lot of people outside the United States as well. Coming up to 2019, will there be a power sharing agreement? China is still far behind in certain respects to fully replace the United States, but will the United States have the capacity to give a little space to China if it continues to grow?
WX: I think the U.S. is divided over this question of whether or not it should be more accommodating to a rising China. If you look at the case of the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) that was created by China in 2015 when Obama was president, the U.S. responded to this initiative with a very discouraging attitude. Basically, the U.S. tried to block China from establishing this new multilateral financial institution. I think behind that is a mentality that the US does not want to share power with China in the area of international finance. As we all know, Obama failed to block China’s initiative. The other question is whether people in this country learned lessons from that. Some may have, some may not have. So today, when I'm reading the debate in the U.S. about how to deal with a rising China, I think the primary base behind the U.S. attitude is maintaining U.S. primacy, vis-a-vis a rising China. One solution is that you should try to slow down and, if possible, disrupt China's rise. So, the current trade war between China and the U.S. can be partly explained by this kind of thought process. That is something worrisome, because frankly speaking, if the US aims to slow down or even interrupt or disrupt China’s rise, the U.S. will pay a very high cost, given the high degree of economic interdependence between our two economies, and that will lead to a lose-lose situation. I think Americans need to think very hard on how to make the best use of the rise of China, to help promote the U.S. economic rules, rather than trying to contain a rising China, where the U.S. will pay a high cost.
JC: Wu Xinbo, it's a great pleasure listening to your insights and thoughts at this very challenging time for everyone.
WX: Thank you.