April 23, 2013

Sino-American Relations: Amour or Les Miserables?

Woodrow Wilson Center
April 18, 2013
Winston Lord

Click here to watch the webcast for Ambassador Lord's address.

Each of us will dearly hold onto our own vision and version of Nancy. I see
her to my right at a dinner one month before she left us: Leaning in with her
views. Reaching out for mine. Standing tall in her wheelchair. To her right,
quietly solicitous, sat her partner on an inspiring journey, who lifted her up down
the long homestretch.

While I am deeply honored to be chosen for this first memorial lecture, I
could not help but wonder what Nancy would say on today’s topic. Just nine days
before our loss, she wrote her vision and version: “New leadership
notwithstanding, the US-China relationship will remain uneasy, complicated and
unpredictable. Americans need to abandon their hopes for hidden reforms and
jettison the idea of an emergent, reform-oriented superhero and get on with the
hard job of working with the real Chinese.”

To the very end, Nancy Tucker was doubly clear-eyed.

In reading her words I sighed in agreement and relief. Of course, I need not
have worried. When Nancy disagreed, she was sharp in shredding sophistry, not
egos. Her mandarin name, Tong Naixin, means “Patience.” Our friend was a
mentor . . . not a tormentor.

China, with its phenomenal growth and lurking liabilities, velocity,
volatility, and its sheer scale, befuddles and bamboozles. No wonder a so-called
“China expert” is an oxymoron, if not a moron. As for me, I have reason to be
humble about my expertise.

When visiting a temple outside of Beijing, Bette and I saw the head priest
appear out of nowhere.

How his old eyes lit up when he learned that I was the envoy plenipotentiary
from the United States and she was a genuine author. Bowing most politely, he
asked if we would be so kind as to inscribe a few words to guide and instruct future

Our egos soared to the heavens. This was an honor traditionally reserved
for emperors and illustrious scholars.

Immediately Bette began rhyming couplets in her head. Immediately I
began conjuring Kissingerian bromides in mine.

In no time an acolyte came bearing brush and ink and two beautiful wooden

The head priest asked if we'd mind writing in English. Bowing most
politely, we eagerly agreed.

Then forthwith the priest said, "To guide and instruct our future visitors --
will you kindly write on the first tablet the word, "LADIES," and on the second
tablet the word, "GENTLEMEN."

Ladies and Gentlemen, to guide and instruct you, I hacked into the temples
of government. Since my technological skills peak at one finger pecking on my
first generation I pad, it is clear that Beijing and Washington need to beef up their
cyber defenses.

Let me leak the secret summaries of recent meetings of the Standing
Committee of the Politburo and the National Security Council.

Relations with America: The Long March

Decades will pass before even our China is once again the Middle Kingdom.
Meanwhile, we must paint simultaneously with two brushes to both assert our
interests and avoid clashes with the stronger superpower.

The United States does not necessarily wish us well. We will never be
allies, but we need not be enemies. We will often face off when interests diverge,
but we can be selective partners when interests overlap. A mix of cooperation,
competition and confrontation.

Clearly our relationship has a ceiling. From our very core to far-flung zones,
the Americans exert pressure. They threaten our political system by promoting
democracy and human rights. They mock our territorial integrity by arming
Taiwan, meddling in Hong Kong, and bowing to the Dalai Lama. They crowd our
borders with provocative patrols.

They challenge our spheres of influence by inciting neighbors to contest our
playing field. ASEAN was first to assert seabed rights. Japan bought our islands.
We had to respond to preserve our legal positions. Yet the Americans acted like
their football referees – they flagged the responders, not the instigators. They seek
to contain us with their so-called pivot and its military deployments, bases, and
drills. While whining about cyber warfare, they launch their own relentless
attacks. And they blunt our global reach through sponsorship of their international
law, ranging from sanctions to Western concepts of human rights.

Clearly our relationship also has a floor. The United States is far away, and
we do not dispute territory. Neither of us wishes military conflict with all its risks
and costs and distractions. Both of us have huge domestic challenges – we to
become a true superpower, America to stave off decline. Our hands are full with
income disparities, migration, corruption, pollution, aging and unrest fanned by
bloggers. We must strengthen the Party – fewer caravans, shark fins, Rolexes and
mistresses -- but not copy Gorbachev’s fatal Western reforms. We need a
prolonged period of relative calm abroad to focus on our agenda at home.

Besides, there are major areas of cooperation and common concern with
Washington. The mutually assured disbursement of our economies and the
stability ofthe global system. The curse of terrorism and spread of nuclear
weapons. Safe shipping lanes and piracy. Climate change and clean energy.
Health, food safety, drugs and crime.

Clearly our foreign policy should reflect our swift ascension. In Secretary
Xi’s words, we seek to institute “the Great Renaissance of the Chinese Nation.”
For three decades Deng’s dictum -- to mask our rising power and comfort the
world as we bided our time --reigned. Now we flex our musclesin the East and
South China Seas for reasons of sovereignty, security, and resources. Displays of
nationalism, especially with Japan, are effective diversions from the five hundred
eruptions every day in our villages, highways, streets and squares.

But we must not overplay our hand, and feed a Washington-led coalition.
Trying to drive the Americans from the Asia-Pacific region is foolhardy. They
have some legitimate interests, and other nations beckon them to offset our
mounting strength. Deng’s central tenet remains valid – we must give top priority
to building our country.

Thus we must cool the hotheads in the PLA, think tanks and blogosphere
who yearn for more robust contention with a waning America, underrating its
steadfast powers. Overly aggressive actions would subject us to severe backlash
and forfeit useful cooperation.

So we will be firm on issues of principle and overriding national interests.
For our own sake, not as a favor to Washington, we will selectively pitch in on
regional and global tasks. Meanwhile we will join others like Russia to dilute
American swagger and sway.

In the longer term, when we have closed the gap, our course can veer toward
more cooperation or more confrontation. It will depend on American attitudes and

Relations with China: Great Walls and Open Doors

We face both obstacles and opportunities with China. Our strategy mirrors
that of previous Republican and Democratic administrations – competitive
coexistence. We should manage our differences, expand our cooperation, and
work to integrate China in the world system as a responsible stakeholder.

The People’s Republic of China does not necessarily wish us well. We will
never be allies, but we need not be enemies. We will undergo the inevitable strains
between an established and a challenging power. With firmness and patience, with
the aid of others, we should coax Beijing to value the constancy of the international
order and engage in solving its challenges.

Meanwhile we insure against a more menacing future, cementing our
alliances and forging bonds with China’s neighbors.

Clearly our relationship has a ceiling. We peer across a chasm in political
values – their crushing of dissent, draconian censorship, suppression of ethnic and
religious minorities. Today Chinese foreign policy is more ominous and
nationalistic. Their aggressive assertion of maritime claims could ignite military
conflict. Despite official denials, Beijing seeks to reduce our influence and gain
dominance in their region. They are locking up resources in Africa and Latin
America. On many key regional and global issues they straddle or subvert. They
are mercantalistic. Their cyber attacks are robbing us blind. They bend or break
international rules, whether the WTO, human rights covenants, the Law of the Sea
or UN sanctions.

Clearly our relationship also has a floor. Both sides understand the perils
and costs of direct clashes. China, unlike the Soviet Union, does not station troops
abroad, export its ideology, or seek to undermine other regimes. We have no
territorial quarrels. We derive enormous benefits from our economic
interdependence and bilateral exchanges. On several international issues we act in

Thus we should continue to reject the apostles of enmity. No way can or
should we keep China down. Other nations would balk, spurning the choice
between Chinese economic sustenance and the American security blanket.
Containment would drain our assets. Containment would scuttle Chinese help on
shared goals.

Moreover, time is on America’s side. Once free fromour current gridlock,
we can reinforce our advantages: per capita income, military power, strong
alliances, two oceans and friendly countries as neighbors, technological prowess,
energy production, higher education, demography, and a political system that
prompts innovation and provides for justice as well as stability.

In the longer term, we can live with a rising China. While our relative
power will decline, our absolute power will not. Our policy can veer toward more
cooperation or more confrontation, depending on Chinese attitudes and actions.

These secret papers illustrate the big picture. They provide previews of
coming attractions. Sino-American relations will surely not be Amorous or as easy
as Pi. But here’s the Silver Lining . . . they need not be Miserable or a Dark Zero
sum game.

Hills and valleysscore the landscape of past and future dealings. In our long
journey we should not succumb to either euphoria or despair. Recall that noted
music critic Mark Twain. When assessing the grandiose operas of Richard Wagner
he said that the music is “not as bad as it sounds.” And when judging the music of
Britney Spears, he opined that it is “not as good as it looks.”

In short, the fixed menu for our relations is sweet and sour, replete with
distinctive historical ingredients. China is not so much rising asreturning. For
millennia it was the Middle Kingdom, the most powerful nation on the planet.
Distant countries were irrelevant, neighbors were tributaries. From one AD to the
nineteenth century China’s share of the global GDP ranged from 22% to 33%.
Then China suffered a century of foreign humiliation from the Opium War to the
Japanese invasion, and by 1950 it accounted for less than 5% of global GDP.

Hence only in recent decades has China met the world as equals. Its
admirable ascent is the most rapid and sweeping ever recorded, but it retains a
volatile mix of arrogance and insecurity, envy and xenophobia. Its old grudges are
both real and convenient. Its own recent past of havoc, famine and massacre is
airbrushed. Its future ambitions are both audacious and veiled.

Not surprisingly, two basic clusters with multiple voices now debate China’s
foreign policy. One camp continues to endorse Deng’s mandate to focus on
domestic challenges, refrain from overseas bravado and project a calibrated
“peaceful rise.” Adherents hail the remarkable inroads of this brand since the June
1989 Tiananmen massacre, in contrast to the blowback against China’s recent
muscular stance. In the other camp, the military, think tanks, and nationalistic
blogs clamorfor China to stand up and start supplanting the world’s fading, hostile
hegemon. They suspect Washington’s motives and savor a shifting balance of

As the Politburo paper indicates, Chinese policy is modulated, realistic about
American strength, but increasingly pugnacious on its core interests.

On the American side, too, historical attitudes deepen the complexity of our
ties. Americans have pictured the Chinese as both the evil Fu Manchu and the
noble peasant of Pearl Buck. Just since the 1940’s, they have been allies against
Japan; enemies in Korea; yellow hordes, blue ants and red guards; teammates
against the Polar Bear; born again capitalists; the butchers of Tiananmen Square;
potential partners on global challenges; and the menacing new superpower.

Today there are two extreme camps in the American debate: the apocalyptic
and the apologetic.

One sees China as a dragon to slay. Facing its growing economic and
military power, its unsavory political system and fierce nationalism we are at the
dawn of a global struggle with a neo Soviet Union. China is a looming enemy to
be curbed.

The other camp sees China as a panda to hug. Beijing has written the book
on rapid development. Its fear of chaos is valid. Bilateral tensions can usually be
laid at America’s door. China is a looming comrade to be indulged.

The dragon-slayers magnify Chinese strengths, overlook their vulnerabilities
and fail to understand that Beijing, for the foreseeable future, is too consumed by
its domestic travails to mount extensive foreign adventures. The policies of these
ideologues and avid military budgeteers would render Chinese hostility a self fulfilling prophecy.

The panda-huggers disregard the darker features of the Chinese landscape.
Contract-hungry entrepreneurs, visa-anxious academics, fawning former
government officials tiptoe around Beijing’s domestic suppression and shrug off its
mercantilism, military surge and shielding of rogue regimes. Their approach
would betray American values, sabotage our interests, and lose Congressional and
public support.

These tendencies have graduated shadings, of course, and number both
Democrats and Republicans. Fortunately the bipartisan center of gravity rests with
those who anchor a balanced approach. Eight successive Presidents, from Nixon
to Obama, have pursued essentially the same course of seeking positive relations
without illusions, searching for cooperation without rolling over.

Against this backdrop how should we shape our future posture? There are
no sure bets or simple formulas. Once again I needed help. It came recently on a
mountain top, where I discovered a stone tablet with engraved policy prescriptions,
aptly entitled Lord’s Ten Commitments. Let me pronounce them.

First, thou shalt not demonize China.

It seeks to spread its authority but not topple governments. While it presses
nearby claims, it does not threaten American territory. It is a competitor,
sometimes unfair, but it is not a conqueror. We gain from our economic links, our
joint projects, our burgeoning exchanges of tourists and students. We cooperate on
many international issues.

Second, thou shalt not sanitize China.

Its suppression of freedom is brutal, becoming even more so in certain
spheres. On balance, Beijing is a free rider, and derider, of the global system.
White-washing China undercuts both its domestic reformers and the world’s

Third, thou shalt not inflate China.

As the Chinese pilot announced to his passengers: “The good news is that
we are way ahead of schedule. The bad news is that we are lost.” The Chinese
deserve ovations for awesome advances. But Zhongnanhai knows better than
outsiders the mountains they must climb. Winning the race for total GDP is not
taxing when the baton is passed among 1.4 billion runners. Meanwhile for a
distinct minority, the gap widens and widens. China assembles I-phones; it does
not invent them. Corruption infests daily life, from birth to death. Chinese may
grow old before they grow rich. Go to any major city and the changes will take
your breath away … and that, of course is the rub.

There is consensus among the leadership that the 1978 blueprints for
economic reformno longer apply. Another transformation is critical. China needs
greater consumption, safety nets, innovation, level playing fields, cleaner lands and
cleaner hands. But are there enough heroes and helmsmen to overcome entrenched
interests, nepotism, self-dealing, stacked decks, and the perpetual lusting for petty
favors and access to Party power?

While China’s swelling military budgets pose some distinct threats, its
overall powerlags ours by decades. It is flanked by fourteen neighbors – the most
in the world – an unsettling medley of habitual enmity, instability, terrorism, large
militaries and nuclear weapons. In Tibet and Xinjiang, forty percent of the land,
reside restless souls. Its few real friends include North Korea and Syria.

No matter how many billions are lavished on Olympics, opera houses,
Confucius Institutes and overseas media, China’s soft power remains an

If Beijing does not enact fundamental economic and political reforms in the
next decade, its pilots could well be lost and losing altitude.

Fourth, thou shalt not contain China.

This is impossible. It would guarantee hostility, lose cooperation, divide the
world and squander our resources. China is a great nation and culture. It should
be treated with respect. It deserves more seats at international tables. Its return to
power should be welcomed, not resisted or feared. As a policy option,
containment is a nightmare.

Fifth, thou shalt not coddle China.

Striving for positive relations requires sticks and spinach as well as carrots.
Beijing exploits weakness. It respects strength. When China violates trade rules,
we should take it to court or retaliate. When it refuses visas for journalists or jams
radios, we should reciprocate. When it hacks our computers we should impose
sanctions. And when it snags American businessmen, artists, academics, they
should stand up. Coddling China makes for a more dangerous world.

Sixth, thou shalt nurture mutual confidence.

Distrust haunts our engagement. Washington professes to welcome China’s
rise while Beijing professes to welcome America’s role in Asia. Neither
governments nor publics are converted.

True, Americans have ample ground for wariness. But so do the Chinese.

Presidents Obama and Xi have talked but not met since reelection and
selection. With no more campaigns for the President and an assured five to ten
years for the Secretary, the political slate is clean. They should shed their
entourages and scripts to huddle on strategic directions at Camp David, in summits
and regional conclaves. Full mutual trust is a pipe dream. But such explorations
would frame our multiple dialogues on economic, political and military topics to
avoid miscalculation, handle differences and cultivate partnership. Over time,
issue by issue cooperation can sow predictability and credence.

The most urgent area is military. While neither side seeks conflict, we could
lurch into one by mishap. We need more precise rules of the road. Our ships and
planes track and stalk each other. Treaty ties could suck us into Pacific sinkholes.
Cyber-attacks could launch a rippling calamity. Each of us is uncertain about the
other’s nuclear and space doctrines.

Recently we have seen some tentative progress on this list. Our militaries
are already mapping cooperation on easier issues such as piracy and joint
exercises. We can build on our mutual interests in secure shipping lanes, natural
disasters and protection of citizens overseas.

Seventh, thou shalt seek common ground.

The guiding principle, as always, is national self-interest.

While economic problems abound, some promising trends exist. Beijing
seeks to spend more at home. Labor costs rise. The yuan appreciates. Financial
controls should lessen. As China invents more, it should at last protect intellectual

We, in turn, seek to spend less and invest more. In the Chinese market let us
focus on competitive sectors like services. Let us press for a bilateral investment
treaty. While heeding transparency and security, let us relax export controls and
welcome their ventures in America.

Such give and take would shrink our trade deficit and create jobs.

The most dangerous threat of war comes from North Korea, led by the
Supreme Thrower of Tantrums, the Dear Leader of Starvation, the Great Leader of
Gulags. For two decades China, with some exceptions, has been more part of the
problem than the solution. Its anxieties about stability and a unified, democratic
Korea on its border trump its growing frustrations with the Kims. Whenever the
North is pressured, Beijing discards sanctions and continues to fuel, feed and
finance it. Whenever Pyongyang provokes a crisis, Beijing fatuously calls for
restraint by all parties.

Some Chinese think tanks and media now challenge this policy. Perhaps the
leaders are reviewing it. They must weigh their traditional preoccupations against
the growing risks of conflict, the extensive build up of American and allied
military assets in the region, nascent nuclear appetites in Tokyo and Seoul, the
drains on the Chinese economy and world repute.

Together with our allies, we must highlight the recklessness of its Korean
portfolio. Neither current allied policy nor increased pressure nor top level
negotiations can have legs when China drags its feet. If we could engage a
reluctant Beijing in frank discussions on Peninsula contingencies and explore
redlines on reunification, troop movements, loose nuclear weapons and refugees,
we might allay Chinese concerns and induce teamwork.

This is an urgent topic for Obama and Xi. After our repeated entreaties, will
China finally alterits policy? I fear a comic strip ending -- Lucy will keep yanking
away the football.

And make no mistake about it: if war breaks out, while the Kim Regime
will be the culprit, blood will stain the enabling Chinese hands.

Whatever happens on the North Korean external threat, shame on the world
if it once again shuts its eyes to an unfolding holocaust.

China is a party to negotiations with Iran, fearing alienation of Sunni
regimes and spikesin energy prices due to a Persian Gulf crisis. We should keep
encouraging alternative oil to compensate for Iran while leaning on Beijing to
crack down on its companies that evade sanctions.

Regarding the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa we find common
cause, if not always tactics, in countering Islamic radicalism. Beijing has been
generally supportive in Afghanistan. But on Syria, it hides behind Moscow to veto 1
intervention as in Libya. The stirrings of the Arab Spring sparked Chinese
paranoia and tighter repression.

China confronts the most severe environmental crisis in history. Pollution
inflicts compounding mayhem on the economy, health and quality of life as well as
begetting comedic bloggers: “We are reaching a state of nirvana. In Beijing you
open windows and get free cigarettes. In Shanghai you open water taps and get
free pork soup.” Recently the leadership has finally realized that pollution
threatens its precious economic growth and political stability. The Chinese have
strong incentives to join us in producing cleaner energy and grappling with climate

A grand Sino-American bargain could lift our entire bilateral relationship
and kick-start genuine global progress.

On some issues we already cooperate – drugs, crime, health, food safety, and
UN peacekeeping. On others Beijing’s approach will not ease until it reckons the
costs. Most glaring is its screening of depraved regimes, impelled by greed and the
fear that international pressures on others will set precedents for China.

On this vast agenda, let us set priorities: North Korea, maritime rules, cyber
warfare, the environment.

Eighth, thou shalt shape a Pacific Community.

The most important strategic thrust of Obama’s first term was to elevate
Asia in our foreign policy. Misperceptions persist. It is not a pivot away from
Europe. It did not begin in 2010, but in January 2009. It is not primarily military,
but a mix of economics, diplomacy and just plain old showing up. It is not
designed to contain China, but to embrace the entire dynamic region.

Given these misperceptions we need to convey to Beijing in word and deed
that ample room exists for both of us, that together we should build a Pacific
community of peace and prosperity.

This quest is made somewhat easier by the current situation in Taiwan, often
a flashpoint. Thanks to enlightened policies in Taipei, Beijing and Washington,
Cross-Strait conditions are the most stable in six decades. The consensus is to
keep the status quo of no unification, no independence, and no use of force. Why 2
change the US policy so successfully pursued by Democratic and Republican
Administrations? Why fix what is not broken?

Ninth, thou shalt encourage freedom.

Even the most severe critics of China’s political system admit some great
leaps forward from the horrors of the Mao era. Today Chinese enjoy the freedom
of silence. They also can carp privately about their plights, and some petitioners
and media manage to press bureaucrats and boundaries on tolerable topics. They
can compete for college, choose their jobs, travel the nation and spend more money
abroad than any other people.

Thanks to technology there is more wiggle room in sensitive domains.
Ubiquitous cell phones and crafty computers often outwit the army of censors and
surveillance whose budget exceeds that of the PLA.

With such ways and means and the steady growth in creature comforts, it is
not surprising that many Chinese bask in contentment.

Yet, as always, contradictions bloom. In the world’s largest Communist
country the middle class so far is co-opted, while it is the peasants and workers
who protest.

On human dignity, China is ruled not by law but by a cruelty thatsecretes
the fates of massacred youth; presumes guilt, not innocence, in the Party-run
courts; confines, rather than celebrates, Nobel Prize winners, world class artists,
blind whistleblowers and their kin; impounds citizens without charge or notice;
kills female babies; drives monks and nuns to robe themselves in flames.

This issue must be on our agenda. Promoting freedom and human rights
reflects our values and international standards. It marshals Congressional and
public support for overall policy. It heartens Chinese reformers. It serves our
direct national interests because democracies do not war with each other, foster
terrorism, cover up disasters, or spawn refugees.

Even so, this subject cannot dominate a relationship brimming with security,
diplomatic and economic imperatives. Only the Chinese themselves can erect a
more open, humane and liberal political system. Thus we must, as always, appeal
to Beijing’sself-interest: Without the rule of law, free media, a thriving civil
society and accountable officials, the future will be stormy. The economy will 3
distort and inhibit. Corruption will wax, schools crumble, miners suffocate, trains
crash, babies sicken and pigs float. The people will take to the streets. Taiwan
will keep its distance. The United States will hedge. China will not earn global
respect or realize its dreams.

Is this sound analysis or merely a balmy projection of democracy’s virtues?
Can Beijing continue to defy history?

Increasingly some Chinese scholars and netizens champion political reform.
Certain leaders pay lip service to the objective, but it must stay strictly within the

I do believe a more open society will emerge, impelled by universal
aspirations, self-interest, a rising middle class, the return of students, and social
media. No one can predict the pace or the contours of the process. We might as
well consult fortune cookies.

Finally, thou shalt get thine own house in order.

The last shall be first: this is the most vital commitment for all our foreign
policy. Boosting growth, slashing debt, reforming immigration, investing in the
future are keys to American credibility and competitiveness. How can we promote
our political principles abroad when we malign them at home? It is harder to
criticize the Chinese model when Beijing builds airports faster than the Big Apple
plugs potholes.

I am, of course, not drawing direct parallels between our systems. There
you have the fleecing of liberty. Here you have the failure of nerve. There the
police are hooligans. Here the politicians are holograms. The world, including the
children and cash of Chinese Princelings, wants to come to America.

But craven legislators and manic media, pandering and polarizing shackle
our nation. Let us hope that our leaders will soon cross aisles not swords, the
media will instruct not inflame, and Americans will once more embark on bold and
common enterprises.

Given our current political impasse, economic angst and mood of
melancholy, optimists are rare. But our assets remain unrivaled, and across this
nation coalitions, ignoring the Washington debacle, explore new frontiers and
sculpt an American renaissance.

From de Tocqueville to Lee Kuan Yew foreign observers have marveled at
our ability to overcome trials, fix faults, revive the body politic and refresh
America’s soul.

For we have seen this drama before. Sputnik and the missile gap. Vietnam,
assassinations, riots and Watergate. Hostages, energy crisis and malaise. Japan
number one, Rockefeller Center and Pebble Beach. Crumbling towers.

I recall the late sixties as if it were yesterday. This country was in the most
dire straits, whiplashed by domestic turmoil, mired in a foreign quagmire, and
wrestling with a nuclear superpower. America, as always, rebounded. Out of
trials we derive strength. Now our uniquely immigrant society should flourish in a
shrunken world, its fabric much sturdier thanks to movement on the bus and
shattered ceilings and the new look of schoolrooms, barracks, stadiums, studios,
rotundas, sanctums, Foggy Bottom, and the White House.

What about China? How will it look?” If Nancy Tucker were here, she
would, I believe, summon Lord Tennyson:

“Far away beyond her myriad coming changes,
China will be
Something other than the wildest modern guess
Of you and me.”

My own wildest guess – and hope – is that in our long march, as China frees
its stride and America lifts its horizons, we will scale walls and open doors.