Wednesday September 30, 2020

U.S.-China Policy Foundation 21st Annual Gala Dinner
Honoree Remarks

David M. Lampton
Professor and Director of China Studies, Johns Hopkins–SAIS

“Thinking About Strategic First Principles in U.S.-China Relations”
As prepared for delivery on Thursday, November 17, 2016
at the Mayflower Hotel, Washington, DC

Thank you Senator Sasser and Good Evening!  Thanks to the U.S.-China Policy Foundation for inviting my wife Susan and me here for this splendid occasion and gratifying acknowledgement.  I am pleased to share this moment with my fellow honorees, friends of long long-standing: Secretary Barbara Franklin and Ambassador Cui Tiankai, as well as United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.  Secretary Franklin mentored me in New York when I was at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations.  Ambassador Cui, who studied with Doak Barnett, is a SAIS graduate of whom we are proud.

I want to start by saying a few deeply-felt words about our hosts.

Over many decades Dr. Ernestine Wang and Dr. Wang Chi have earned our respect and gratitude for their unflagging efforts on behalf of a more productive U.S.-China relationship.  Since their founding of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation in 1995, their endeavors have focused on Capitol Hill.  However, their labors go back decades earlier.  Professor Wang Chi led development of the Chinese Collection at the Library of Congress, a treasure house of over one million volumes, matched by nothing outside of China. I invite you to visit that legacy in the Library’s magnificent Jefferson Building.

Turning to U.S.-China relations, America has just concluded a grueling general election. The voters have spoken, but, not much productive, realistic, or enlightening was said about China policy during that marathon campaign, except to raise red flags about tariffs, alliance management, and military strengthening.  Our national debate did not focus on the central questions our new executive and legislative branch officials must now address. In Beijing, an important airing of views about China’s domestic and foreign policy choices also is underway.

Long ago, Britain’s Harold Macmillan reportedly was asked what blew even the steadiest ship of state off course as history unfolded.  His perhaps apocryphal response was: “Events, my dear boy, events.”

Our just-completed general election is just one such “Event,” and we can be sure there will be others.  The tectonic plates of the post-World War II order are shifting because of tumultuous domestic political developments in China, the United States, and around the world.  The post-World War II free trade order is under pressure — world merchandise trade shrank about 14 percent in 2015 and world commercial services trade by 6 percent. Some treaty arrangements in East Asia are fraying.  Regional proliferation dangers are mounting.  Central Asia and the Middle East are in seemingly endless turmoil, and the European Project is searching for a way forward.  Amidst these swirling events we must return to strategic first principles.

We must keep two different ideas in our minds simultaneously:  The first is that strategic foundations are essential for the effective management of the relationship.  Simultaneously, we also need to keep in mind that our two countries now have a relationship between our two societies, not just our two national governments, not just two national leaders. Our two societies’ interdependence provides dynamism, durability, and creative potential that are the relationship’s greatest strengths.  These linkages among our local governments, companies, and civic organizations remind us of how much positive there is in U.S.-China ties. One opportunity to come out of the recent elections, for instance, is that at least 34 state governorships are in the hands of Republicans who generally are free trade and investment oriented and likely to be dedicated to stable, productive economic and cultural ties with China.

What are the strategic questions upon which both sides should focus at this moment of transition in both our countries?  Of the United States, I would first ask: U.S. policy in the Obama Administration asserts that “We don’t have the luxury of choosing among” challenges to our security: North Korea, ISIS, terrorism, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Russia, and China all currently are mentioned as central challenges, albeit over somewhat different time frames and in various ways. I would ask: “Do we have the luxury of not choosing among threats, of not having priorities?” And if we must choose, is China reasonably placed on the list of threats with the others?

The first obligation of leadership is to bring commitments into alignment with resources. Not doing so fosters anxiety among allies and friends, emboldens competitors, and creates domestic confusion while gradually bleeding national strength and resolve. There are only limited ways to achieve alignment of resources and commitments–reduce threats; reduce commitments; multiply friends; and/or expand financial and political resources. The time has come for America to do all four.  China is best viewed as a competitor with whom we can deal, not an existential threat now or any time soon.

Second, an enduring national interest of the United States has been to seek a sovereign, cohesive China and to prevent a circumstance in which the Eurasian Continent is under the dominance of any single hostile power or powers. This has been the lodestar of U.S. policy whether past challenges came from Europe in the Nineteenth Century, Japan in the first half of the Twentieth Century, the Soviet Union thereafter, or the current concerning convergence of Chinese and Russian policy.  If this remains a defining U.S. national interest,  “How does driving Moscow and Beijing together by putting pressure on one from Europe and the other from the Pacific, serve that objective?”

I also wish to ask Beijing a question:  “While China has achieved a dramatic increase in its national strength over the last forty years, and the international system has made, and should continue to make, room for China in global institutions, would it not be preferable for China to stick with the core feature of Deng Xiaoping’s strategy? Namely, reassure the Asian region and the world beyond in order to focus leadership attention, national resources, and popular energies on the protracted task of China’s national renewal?” Demographic trends in the People’s Republic are challenging, as is the gargantuan task of rebalancing the PRC’s economy, not to mention environmental stresses. Of all the shared interests between China and America, the greatest is our common need for national development and renewal. The quickest way to better relations with Washington is for Beijing to improve ties with its neighbors.  Recent moves towards peaceful management of maritime issues with the Philippines and Malaysia are welcome. Two steps in the right direction.

By way of conclusion, I would ask both sides two additional questions: “How can we cooperate to increase the density of economic and security institutions in Asia in which we both are participants?”  And, “Are not the transnational problems the world faces almost becoming existential security challenges, whether we consider climate change, global health concerns, or the need to jointly contribute to the management of world economic stability?” (Parenthetically, the incoming-administration’s apparent intention to reject the Paris Climate Agreement is deeply disturbing).  Elevating our shared strategic gaze to the global level will be difficult, but, it is essential.

Once again, thank you for inviting my wife and me here this evening, for the acknowledgment, and for permitting me to share my views with each of you.