Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Qin Gang takes an exclusive interview with Steve Clemons, host of Al-Jazeera English Channel's "The Bottom Line" and editor at large of The Hill and "Semafor". (Photo/us.china-embassy.gov.cn)
On August 16, Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Qin Gang took an exclusive interview with Steve Clemons, host of Al-Jazeera English Channel's "The Bottom Line" and editor at large of The Hill and "Semafor", answering questions about the Taiwan question, China-U.S. relations and so on. The interview was aired on August 18 (abridged). The transcript of the full interview is as follows:
Clemons: In protest of Pelosi's visit, China halted numerous bilateral talks and collaboration on everything from climate change, to drug trafficking, to regional security and military coordination. And President Joe Biden has stalled any action on lifting trade sanctions imposed by his predecessor Donald Trump on Chinese imports. But despite the downward spiral, the two nations are joined at the hip, doing over $700 billion a year in trade with each other. So what are they — strategic partners, strategic competitors, or strategic enemies? And what does it mean to you, to me, and to the rest of the world?
Joining me today is China's Ambassador to the United States Qin Gang. Prior to this post, he served as the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs in Beijing. Ambassador, it's great to be with you today and talk to you. And I really want our audience to understand the Chinese dashboard. When it comes to Taiwan, we've seen the trip of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. You warned her not to go and said there would be consequences. Why does Taiwan matter so significantly to you strategically?
Ambassador Qin: Thank you, Steve, for having me. Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan was reckless and provocative, because it upgraded the substantive relations between the United States and Taiwan, and it violates the U.S. commitments in the three Joint Communiques between China and the United States that there's only one China, the Government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole and same China, and the United States will not develop official links with Taiwan. On Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, we have heard and we have seen what she did and what she said. It's not an unofficial visit. She said very clearly in her statement upon arrival in Taiwan that her visit is official. She is not a person in the street. She's number three in the U.S. government. And she carries great political sensitivities. So by going to Taiwan, declaring that the United States sides with the Tsai Ing-wen authorities, which put "Taiwan independence" on its political agenda, in the Democratic Progressive Party's constitution. It's a show of the United States emboldening "Taiwan independence" separatist forces.
So that's why the Chinese government and Chinese people are feeling so strongly about it. We oppose it strongly and firmly. And we are responding to it. Now we are dealing with the fallout of her visit.
Clemons: One of the things that I have been surprised by after her visit was that while President Biden did not ask her not to go, the national security bureaucracy, the Pentagon, various national security officials that work for President Biden, were very concerned about her visit and thought that it would be a trigger. Were you heartened in any way to see that divide in the government that there were a lot of people in the U.S. government who did not support her, the trip?
Ambassador Qin: We only pay attention to the end result. Congress is a part of the U.S. government, and Congress is obliged to respect and follow the American foreign policy. In any country, there's only one foreign policy. So you can't say that the executive branch has one and Congress has another one. And we are dissatisfied with what has happened already. We don't believe that the executive branch of the United States government has done enough to stop her going.
Clemons: One of the things that is also, I think, part of the picture, one of the few bipartisan areas of agreement between many leading Democrats and leading Republicans, is concerns about China. I think there's an insecurity about China. I think it's insecurity about Chinese economic growth, its strong position around the world, the Belt and Road Initiative. I think a lot of Americans say, hey, we wish we had a Belt and Road Initiative or wish we had these things, but there's an insecurity about China's place in the world today. I'm just interested in understanding from you and having our listeners understand what is China's glide path. What is its grand strategy with regard to not only the United States, but the world? What is China trying to achieve in the world?
Ambassador Qin: First of all, China is working for delivering a better life to its own people. This is the centerpiece of the mission of the Communist Party of China and the government of China. What we are doing is make ourselves stronger and more prosperous so that we can satisfy our people's desire for a better life. At the same time, China can have more to deliver for world peace, security and common development. China is a force for peace and stability. But regrettably, my country is being mis-perceived and miscalculated. Some people see China as a challenge or even a threat trying to replace the United States. It's not our intention. We want to have stable and cooperative relations with the United States, because we do believe that China and the United States have massive shared responsibilities and common interests. We have our challenges at home. I think that the first thing to do for each of us is manage our own affairs well, and a good relationship between China and the United States will serve the interests of our two countries and will meet the desire of the international community for peace, security, and for joint efforts to tackle their common challenges the international community is facing.
And sadly, the status quo of China-U.S. relations is very worrisome, and is going downhill. This is because, as I mentioned, that China is being mis-perceived and miscalculated, and China-U.S. relations now is being driven by fear, not by the common interests and by the common responsibilities of our countries. People forget that the bilateral trade volume annually between our two countries has exceeded $750 billion. People forget that before Covid, there were five million mutual visits between our two countries. And people forget that China and the United States are one of the most important trading partners to each other. People forget there are hundreds of thousands of Chinese students studying in the United States, and more and more American young people choose China to study in. I think it's time to bring common sense, common interests and common responsibility back to the center stage of China-U.S. relations, and our differences and disagreements cannot justify confrontation and should not lead us to a wrong path to confrontation and conflict.
Clemons: Ambassador, what do you think? I know you've been over here now for a year. You know the United States, and you meet with so many different people. I've heard you recently use the term "threat-phobia", and using the escalation of rhetoric over Taiwan in the United States is part of that. What do you think is driving American worries and concerns about Chinese behavior from your perspective?
Ambassador Qin: I think there is indeed a fear or "China-phobia" in the United States and it's spreading.
Clemons: Is that racism?
Ambassador Qin: Maybe you can make a judgment, but I do feel that in this country, Asian hate is on the rise. Chinese scientists, Chinese students feel more and more unsafe in the country. Our normal interactions, cooperation in various fields, are now being affected negatively by fear.
Clemons: I think a lot of Americans look at what they see in China and Taiwan, and in Hong Kong. Some of what they see are, say the zero-Covid policy, where many people are locked in their residences for very long time. And we've seen the youtube videos, etc, people and their frustration. Or in Hong Kong, we saw massive protests that were put down. A lot of Americans, because they believe that that was a democracy movement, or they see Taiwanese worry about their future autonomy, and even some of them said they want independence. There's a sort of affinity that many Americans feel for that. And I guess I'm interested when it comes to triggering this crisis again in the future. What is your response on those things? How can China either respond on those situations to alleviate Americans' concerns that China is trying to squelch autonomy and, basically, basic freedoms and human rights, to have a more trusted relationship? I am just sort of interested in why Taiwan is in such an exploitable situation that it can lead to a quick escalation like it did. And I think part of it is because so many Americans basically have empathy for freedom.
Ambassador Qin: The question of Taiwan, fundamentally speaking, is not about democracy or freedom. It's about China's national sovereignty and territorial integrity. It's about the national dignity of Chinese people. The historical fact is that Taiwan has been part of China since ancient times. In history, Taiwan was separated from its motherland by the Dutch colonialists and Japanese invaders. But the Chinese people worked so hard, paid a huge cost to get Taiwan back to the motherland. So people need to understand history and need to know the international law. What is the international law? The one-China principle. There's only one China. Both sides of the Taiwan Strait belong to one and the same China. And the Government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal government representing the whole of China. This has been confirmed and written in international law. And it's been part of the post-WWII international order. International documents concerning Taiwan, like the Cairo Declaration in the year 1943 and the subsequent Potsdam Proclamation in 1945, were signed up by American leaders. The United States is a stakeholder, and the United States should carry on the spirit of contract, to honor its international obligations and to honor its commitments in the three China-U.S. joint communiqués.
We feel so strongly when Chinese people see that Nancy Pelosi was in Taiwan and siding with those "Taiwan independence" separatist forces. This is a blatant provocation and it hurts. It hurts Chinese people's national dignity and sentiments. On the future of Taiwan, first, we will make our utmost efforts and show the greatest sincerity to achieve the prospect of a peaceful reunification, because people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are compatriots. It is the last thing to do to fight between compatriots. We will try our best to achieve peaceful reunification. And we will try to create favorable conditions for that. The centerpiece for peaceful reunification is the "One Country, Two Systems" based on the foundation that there's only one China. Both sides of the Taiwan Strait have a shared identity of being Chinese. We can solve this matter like a family issue. For the future political arrangements, we will take into full consideration the realities of Taiwan and the sentiments of the Chinese people in Taiwan. We have designed a formula, that is "One Country, Two Systems". After the peaceful reunification based on the overarching bedrock of the one-China principle, Taiwan will have political and social systems which are different from the mainland. This is a democratic and accommodating arrangement.
Clemons: Kurt Campbell, who is President Biden's Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific affairs, is a longtime Asia hand. He actually said, don't believe the Chinese on this, that the peaceful reunification is not the agenda they are seeking, that they used Nancy Pelosi's trip as a pretext to position itself better and to take advantage of this moment. It's a fairly strident complaint from Kurt Campbell. I'm just interested in how you see that moment. What will you do to send the signals that this would be troublesome?
Ambassador Qin: I don't know based on what this American senior official openly said, don't believe China will practice or will work for peaceful reunification. As I mentioned earlier, people on both sides of the Taiwan Strait are compatriots and we will do our best to achieve peaceful reunification. But we will not renounce non-peaceful means. This is not targeting at Chinese people in Taiwan. This is to deter a handful of "Taiwan independence" separatist forces and to deter foreign intervention, so that we can best protect the prospect of peaceful reunification.
The current crisis was not started or made by the Chinese side. Since we learned Nancy Pelosi would visit Taiwan, the Chinese side, through different channels and at different levels, expressed our firm opposition. We warned the U.S. side time and again that this is the in violation of the one-China principle and it's a break of the U.S. promises. If she goes, it will have very serious consequences and the Chinese side will respond very firmly and strongly. This is a crisis unilaterally imposed on the Chinese side. We do not want to take advantage of Nancy Pelosi's visit and to create a sort of "new normal" as claimed by the U.S. officials. If we had a such intention, why had China worked so hard and tried every means to prevent her from going? It's not logical.
Clemons: Ambassador, you spoke about the enormous level of economic co-investment, integration. There's an enormous economic life that isn't getting much airtime in American media right now. Is that in danger? Is there any possibility that Chinese leaders would want to decouple from a frustrating United States? We hear about decoupling a lot in Washington. But just as you said, almost $750 billion of trade that's underneath this noise on top. Is there any way to get back to a healthier relationship from your perspective?
Ambassador Qin: Firstly, China doesn't believe that decoupling is in the interest of either China or the United States. It will hurt both of us, it will hurt the whole world, given the weight, influence and responsibilities of China and the U.S.. Secondly, we do not want to decouple. We want more exchanges and more cooperation to get this relationship out of the current difficulties. We need to take some very important principles to heart. That is, this relationship should be built on the principle of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation, as proposed by President Xi. In the past interactions between President Xi and President Biden, both Presidents agreed to improve our relations on the mutual understanding that there shouldn't be any conflict and we should respect each other. So we hope that the mutual understanding between our two Presidents can be an overarching guideline to steer the direction of China-U.S. relations. To be honest with you, this is what we have been doing all the time. But can the United States follow this important mutual understanding between the two Presidents? It is a big question mark.
Clemons: I remember when then-Vice President Biden helped arrange the Sunnylands summit with Xi Jinping and Barack Obama, I was with Vice President Biden in China when he met Xi Jinping for the first time, and there seemed to be a very good relationship, a relationship of mutual respect. And Vice President Biden, now President Biden, told me that he respected Xi Jinping and thought that he was a forward thinker. Do you think there's a level of trust still in that relationship and mutual respect? Would you think it has been now spoiled so badly by the events that you've been concerned about?
Ambassador Qin: I'm very concerned about the level of trust between China and the U.S., simply because China is being seen as a challenge, and simply because the "China-phobia" is widely spread in the U.S.. So if you see somebody as a friend or partner, it's one thing; if you see somebody as a threat or a challenge, it's a totally different story. So how to restore trust? We need to go back to the very basics. That is to have a fair and objective view of China's intention of development and to bear in mind our common interests and common responsibilities, which we believe far outweigh our differences and disagreements. We should not let differences or disagreements stand in the way of the development of our relations. And our differences and disagreements should not justify confrontation and hostilities.
Clemons: Ambassador, years ago when then-President Hu Jintao was visiting Washington, I was seated next to a guy who was the equivalent of the director of the policy planning staff of your Ministry of Foreign Affairs. So I said, this is a great opportunity, tell me what's China's grand strategy in the world? His response to me, kind of joking, was how to keep you Americans distracted in small Middle Eastern countries, which had a ring of truth in it in that era. What is China's grand strategy today?
Ambassador Qin: China's grand strategy is to safeguard world peace, security, and join hands with people of all other countries for common development and shared prosperity. And we want to have a peaceful and friendly international environment for us to concentrate on our domestic development, which will deliver better lives for the Chinese people. Nothing more, nothing else. As ambassador, my role is trying to distract the United States from the fear of China and from "China-phobia".
Let me give you a story. The first Secretary of the Treasury is Hamilton, and there's a musical called "Hamilton". He had a political enemy, that is Aaron Burr. At that time he was the Vice President of the United States. And the end result was not happy. The two men had a duel. At the end of the duel, Vice President Burr lamented, the world is big enough for me and Mr. Hamilton.
So let's look at the world today, and let's look at China-U.S. relations. I want to borrow Mr. Burr's remarks, the world is big enough for China and the United States. And we don't need to have a tragic incident from more than 200 years ago repeat itself today.
Clemons: Ambassador Qin Gang, Chinese ambassador to United States. I really appreciate your candor for you joining us today and talking us through these issues. Thank you so much.
Ambassador Qin: Thank you.