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(W.E. Talk) Confrontation in Sino-U.S. Relations? Absolutely Out of the Question!

2024-03-10 20:11:38 ECNS App Download

By Zeng Nai & Wang Enbo from CNS

John L. Thornton is chair emeritus at Brookings Institution, an American think tank, and the John L. Thornton China Center of the organization is named after him. A former president of the Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., he was also a professor at Tsinghua University. He is a recipient of the Chinese Government Friendship Award. 

John L. Thornton Speaks to Wang Huiyao, President of the Center for China and Globalization, on how the China-U.S. bilateral relationship can move forward. 

Wang Huiyao: Now that we are into the Biden administration from the Trump administration, how can the deficit of trust between China and the U.S. be addressed?

John L. Thornton: The U.S.-China relationship is and will be both the most important bilateral relationship of this century and one that will drive or create in large measure the world in which we all will live. In general, I am skeptical of the grand sweeping statements about inflection points or decoupling or Cold War analogies. For me, these kinds of statements are mostly emotional, provocative, not helpful and wrong.

I think we’re better off looking at the long term and the trajectory of dynamics and forces creating that long term. I have taken to looking at the mid-twenty-first century, the year 2050 or thereabouts. The best estimates are that the world’s population in 2050 would be about 10 billion people. Today we are approximately 7.8 billion. More than half of the incremental 2.2 billion will come from nine countries: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Ethiopia, Tanzania, the United States, Uganda and Indonesia. In 2050, as now, a small percentage of the world’s countries—maybe the top 10 countries—will represent 65 percent to 70 percent of the global GDP.

In that world, in which very few countries will dominate the global GDP, and in which the incremental 2-plus billion people will be coming from very poor countries, does any serious-thinking person believe the world would be better off with rich countries primarily arguing or even fighting among themselves, while the rest of the vast percentage of the world remains poor, malnourished, victims of climate change, sources of migration and disease and poverty? Or do the wealthy, most powerful countries have a responsibility to work together to lead the world to a safer, more prosperous and harmonious place? Isn’t the answer obvious?

If the answer is so obvious, then why does it feel or seem that at least some, maybe many of the world’s richest, most powerful countries, do not seem to be animated or motivated by such a collective goal? There is a myriad of answers to this question, but it certainly includes a penchant for staying trapped in the old way of thinking of the past, as well as a fear of change, of losing one’s place. Whatever the reasons, surely the world’s two most powerful countries, the U.S. and China, have a disproportionate responsibility to lead the world. Of course, with others. And there is no reason why they cannot do this.

The issue of climate is a global one, it is larger and more important than the U.S. and China. The entire thinking world wants it to be resolved or well-managed. The two leading countries must lead on the solution or it will not be resolved. Everyone knows this. Tellingly, the two presidents are following the only path, the only modus operandi, that works in U.S.-China relations—one might call this the Zhou EnlaiHenry Kissinger model, or, more recently, the Liu He-Robert Lighthizer model. (Liu He, Chinese Vice Premier, and Robert Lighthizer, former U.S. Trade representative, were the chief China-U.S. trade negotiators.) The only model that we know works is when the U.S. and Chinese presidents each appoint a very senior, serious, experienced, highly trusted individual and together, the two presidents instruct the two officials to get into a room, and truly work together and build a relationship of trust and not come out until they have addressed the problem.

Both presidents have publicly said that they would cooperate on climate irrespective of other issues. Both should instruct their senior leaders to give the existential issue a real chance to get resolved. Finally, to state the obvious, success on addressing climate change will demonstrate yet again that the U.S. and China working together can lead the world to a better, safer, healthier, more harmonious existence. This is good for both countries and the world and gives a concrete model and hope that all other gnarly complex problems can also be addressed by the two leading countries working together with others for the collective benefit of their countries, their peoples in the world.

Wang Huiyao: Scholars say that President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better World proposal at the G7 Summit in 2021 could be dovetailed with China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the EU’s investment plans. Chinese President Xi Jinping had talked about China-EU collaboration with France and Germany. What do you think?

John L. Thornton: The Belt and Road has been characterized by many people in the United States as some kind of nefarious geo-strategic plan to take over the world but it’s not. The Build Back Better World and Belt and Road—all those efforts should be coordinated globally by the wealthy countries trying to build the infrastructure necessary for the rest of the world so that we build a safer and more prosperous world.

We all know these projects are very difficult to execute. It’s not as though anyone’s got a monopoly on how to do this well. They are hard. And we would be doing ourselves a great service if we became particularly expert at building important infrastructure all over the world in an efficient manner for the benefit of the respective peoples. So obviously we should be doing it. There’s no question about that.

Wang Huiyao: There’s an issue about student exchanges between China and the U.S. How can people-to-people exchanges, business exchanges, tourism, cultural exchanges and of course, think tank exchanges be conducted during this special time?

John L. Thornton: To state the obvious, ties between American and Chinese people, to me, are absolutely essential to getting the relationship where it needs to be. I’m hopeful that the younger people who have a vested interest in the long-term future of their countries in the world will be the forces for good in the relationship. In one way of thinking about China, for example, you think about roughly 400 million millennials, how they have grown up and how they think about the future. The Chinese leadership needs to be responsive to that group. And the same thing is true in the United States. The ties between those groups are absolutely central to progress in moving forward.

We all know that the ties are deep and broad, they are state-to-state, university-to-university, NGO-to-NGO, and individual-to-individual. The sort of societal trust that needs to be built was being built and can be built cannot be overstated. This is probably the single best insurance policy against any untoward policy by the leadership. I think in some ways the wisdom or common sense of ordinary people can act as a kind of break against the occasional unwise policies of the elite.

Wang Huiyao: At an event in 2021 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Henry Kissinger’s visit to China as then U.S. secretary of state, Kissinger said the U.S.-China relationship is more critical today than it was in 1971, when he made that secret visit. Five decades later, is there any chance that the two nations would break the ice again? What is your vision for the future development of China-U.S. relations?

John L. Thornton: When we talk about competition and cooperation, I can understand and be comfortable with both of those ideas between the two countries. But when we add the idea of confrontation, to me that’s absolutely out of the question, and we shouldn’t even be considering that as a concept. The world simply can’t take it. We shouldn’t waste any time on it. As I said earlier, should the leading countries of the world really be spending their time arguing or trying to put each other down, or should they be spending their time trying to get the world to a better place? To me the answer is very obvious. And the sooner we recognize that, the better. And we have a right to demand of our leaders that they get the big things right, as Richard Nixon, Mao Zedong, Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai did five decades ago.

Edited by Wang Zonghan



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