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Missing Opportunities in U.S.-China Relations

by Elizabeth C. Economy
September 29, 2011

A screenshot taken from C-SPAN's recording of the Washington Post Live's Global China Summit on September 27, 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Courtesy C-SPAN)

This past Tuesday, the Washington Post hosted a day-long conference on China. It was a good set of discussions that offered a range of different perspectives. (You can watch the panels here.)

I participated on the first panel of the morning with former UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband and Rhodium Group head Dan Rosen. Dan raised a number of important issues in the U.S.-China economic relationship and one in particular that is increasingly central to the U.S. debate on China: How do we take advantage of Chinese multinational interest in investing in the United States? Dan estimates that several billions of FDI annually is at stake for the United States. This does not mean that the United States should open its doors to any kind of investment on any terms, but rather that we have to move quickly to find the proper balance of openness and protection in our investment regime.

What struck me most from my panel, however, was a comment by the erudite Mr. Miliband. He had recently spent a week in China and was enthusiastic in particular about the outward-looking Chinese students. He contrasted their interest in and knowledge of the West with what he saw as a failure on the part of students and others in the West to learn as much as they could about China—not just learning Mandarin (which American students are doing in droves) but also learning about Chinese culture and history.

Maybe Mr. Miliband is right, but maybe not. It is true, for example, that China has 130,000 Chinese studying in America while the United States has around 20,000 Americans studying in China. However, there is little doubt that more Americans want to study in China. Already there are more than 60,000 American students studying Chinese in the United States; and let’s not talk about all the toddlers with Chinese-speaking nannies. Whether it is Chinese language classes—which almost always have a strong component of Chinese culture in them—or high school courses on modern China, America’s youth recognizes the significance of Asia and China. A recent poll of American young people found that almost 60 percent had a favorable opinion of China, and 76 percent believed that Asia (including China, Japan, and South Korea) mattered more to U.S. national security than Europe. President Obama’s 100,000 Strong Initiative—if it is properly funded—will support 100,000 students studying in China over four years. In fact, it may emerge that there is far more interest from American and other students from the West in studying and living in China than there is in Chinese capacity (or perhaps interest) to host them there. Perhaps I’ll invite Mr. Miliband to spend a week visiting American high schools and universities to see for himself that our young people know what it means to be part of a globalized world and understand well the place that China will likely hold in their future.

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  • Posted by S. Mahmud Ali

    Dr Economy makes several interesting points. Perhaps she is right and Ed Miliband is wrong, or mistaken. Perhaps Western academics, journalists, analysts and commentators do have deep insights into the manner in which China is changing, and helping to change the globalised world, much deeper than Mr Miliband appreciates. I would simply quote Dr Economy’s CFR colleague, Dr Kurlantzic who, in his piece on China’s long arm threatening the global democratic balance, says:

    “members of China’s Communist Party have advised Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party on how to use laws for libel and defamation to scare the independent media, create a network of senior officials who can control major companies, and instill loyalty in special police and bodyguard forces.”

    He goes on to underscore at some length his erudite view on the threat China poses to the world’s democratic balance and to the US and Western interest. He must be right.

    Scholars of such sophisticated grasp of the world might be aware that Western powers, especially the USA since 1945, have devoted much efforts and resources to the cause of democracy, but have equally sponsored and defended autocracies whenever it has suited them. Take the Middle East, for instance. The Arab Awakening, as it has been called, has been linked to President Obama’s Cairo speech early in his presidency, and the removal of US-aided dictators across North Africa has been described as a great success story. In this endeavour, the role played by the USA, Britain, France and a handful of their NATO partners over the skies of Libya bears mention. These powers not only used a UN resolution designed to defend Libyan civilians from the depredations of loyalist forces to mount an aerial and naval campaign against the old Colonel, but invited Oman and the UAE to play significant roles in the campaign, too. As everyone knows, Oman and the UAE are paragons of democracy.

    The march of democracy, however, is unlikely to receive US endorsement if it touches the GCC shores. Recall the Bahraini attack on democracy activists at Pearl Square in Manama, or the Saudi despatch of a military contingent to keep the minority Sunni dynasty in power?

    With inconsistency so apparent, Dr Kurlantzic’s anxiety over the threat to democracy appears to be somewhat narrowly focused. China is not a democracy and will possibly not be one for a long time. This does not mean it needs to be seen as a threat. If it is, he should consider the “threat” posed by Saudi Arabia, for instance.

  • Posted by John Hildebrand

    As a IS student who just returned from a semester in China last spring, I can say that the numbers of Chinese students interested in Americans far surpassed the numbers of Americans interested in Chinese. I say that’s sad. However, more numbers isn’t necessarily better. The quality is incredibly important. Throwing money and resources at a problem does not solve the problem, but putting students in the right places at the right times is far more beneficial.

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