News

China and the US: It's good to talk



24 February 2014

No two powers in history have, at least in the last forty years, talked to each other so much as the US and China. It has been the source of a massive industry of commentary and analysis. It has even been institutionalized in the US China Strategic Political and Economic Dialogue. Such a huge talk-marathon has spawned academic and governmental spin offs both in China, the US, and in the rest of the world. The news that former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is to be part of this vast international infrastructure of discussion of China US relations by having a position at Harvard specializing in this area is telling. Everyone seems to want to be part of this dialogue, and that includes evident outsiders.

So it is odd that so much of the quality of what gets said in interactions between the US and China is not great. In a newly published book, `Follow the Leader', US academic and former head of the National Committee on US China Relations, David Lampton draws on interviews and records of elite US and Chinese academic and political interaction since 1971. The template of these were the Henry Kissinger and Premier Zhou Enlai encounters in the early 1970s, during which, according to Lampton, the then US National Security Advisor complained to his new Chinese friends about how he wished the State Department might be slimmed down to just three people!

Fast forward through the ensuing decades, and trading of confidences and secrets has transformed. Meetings with Deng Xiaoping evidently carried huge import for the US visitors granted such a privilege. But based on the records in Lampton's book, Deng said no more than he had already fully outlined to Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci in the early 1980s. For Jiang Zemin, the treatment was to bamboozle any foreigner, whether they were from America or elsewhere, with bewildering mixtures of quotes from Shakespeare, greetings said in a range of different languages, and a plethora of non-sequiturs. Hu Jintao replaced this with hard edged silence interjected with a line in robotic statements that apparently drove President Obama's briefing advisors to distraction when they were called on to advise about what subjects the president should engage in for small talk. President Hu did not talk, whether it was categorized as small or big!

There were times of course when the US and China needed to talk, and talk to the point and quickly. The Hainan plane incident of 2001, for instance, or the Taiwan Strait instability of 1995-6 and the accidental US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade 1999. But on each of these occasions, at least for the crucial first hours of the crisis, the lines went dead between Washington and Beijing. These days a hot line apparently exists. But it will be interesting to see if and how Xi Jinping might use this when something significant enough occurs for the need for immediate contact at the top level.

If we stand and look at the quality of dialogue between the US and China over the last forty years critically, then things are not so straightforward. There are countless discussions and dialogues at every possible level between partners in China and the US these days, and that is a precious thing. Academic exchange and debate is happening, and there is engagement between students, writers, business people, taking the dialogue originally monopolized by the politicians out into the greater community. This means that at the elite political level, there are less things to discuss, and less scope to discuss them in. We can say in many ways that the official dialogue between the US and China now is almost overwhelmingly a technical and administrative one. How to engage in trade deals to open each other's markets, how to set out and observe environmental standards, how to understand each other's military.

This practical, technocratic nature of much of the official US China dialogue is simultaneously a good and bad thing. It is good because the better defined and the more circumscribed the subjects about which the world's largest and second largest economy talk about, the less the chances of misunderstanding. It also shows that both are aiming at pragmatic outputs.

But it also means that the overarching principles that Kissinger and Nixon spent so much of their time with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai discussing four decades ago hardly ever happens now. For President Obama to speak to Xi Jinping about what, for instance, a philosophy of governance might mean or what the fundamental mindset of power holders in the US is and how they view the world would probably be regarded as a risky journey into abstraction and metaphysics. But it might be that straying in this direction is a risk worth taking. The power elite in contemporary China is tiny, and largely inaccessible. Elite access at the level of head of state or government is probably the sole chance of getting to see these people and getting messages to them over the heads of their protecting bureaucrats and protectors. It is clear if we read Xi Jinping's actions over corruption and the way he has been speaking about the Party and its social role in the last 18 months since coming to power that he probably thinks he does have a philosophy of governance, and that if we understood this a bit better, then we would understand him and what he is doing better too. The simple fact is that President Obama is probably one of the few people on the planet who could ask him about this. Questions like what the responsibility of political rulers to their citizens are, what the ultimate values of the Party might be and what sort of system of ethics it wants, or how human creativity and agency are viewed within this system.

In many ways, the most radical acceptance of the importance of thinking about these sort of issues is to propose that the US in fact set up a new dialogue - a Strategic Political, Economic and Philosophical Dialogue. It might raise a few eyebrows, and it would probably cause hard pressed officials in the US and Chinese foreign ministries to fret about how on earth they brief their leaders. But as means of getting to really understand what makes each other tick, it would almost certainly pay dividends. And it would avoid a repetition of the famous occasion when Jiang Zemin, then working as Mayor of Shanghai, was asked in Chicago on a visit to the US what he most wanted to understand. `Sewers' he replied, without missing a beat. `I want to understand how Chicago treats its waste water.' Surely, in the 21st century, the US and China can do better than that.