Just World Podcasts

US-China Public Dialogue, Session 1, Political-military Affairs

October 17, 2020 Helena Cobban
US-China Public Dialogue, Session 1, Political-military Affairs
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Just World Podcasts
US-China Public Dialogue, Session 1, Political-military Affairs
Oct 17, 2020
Helena Cobban

 Just World Ed President Helena Cobban hosts the first session of the groundbreaking “US-China public dialogue” that JWE is holding in collaboration with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. This dialogue session features two wonderful specialists who discuss some of the big-picture topics of contention in the relationship and dive in some detail into the thorny issue of the South China Sea.

  • From Beijing (actually, Guangzhou, in southern China) we had Ambassador He Yafei, a Senior Fellow with the Chongyang Institute who has held many high-ranking diplomatic posts including as Counsellor of the Chinese Permanent Mission to the United Nations, and Vice Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  • And from Washington DC we had Dr. Michael Swaine, who recently became the first Director of the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Dr. Swaine is the author of numerous books and articles on strategic issues relating to China and other parts of East Asia. He is co-director of a multi-year crisis prevention project with Chinese partners… And he also advises the U.S. government on Asian security issues. 

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Show Notes Transcript

 Just World Ed President Helena Cobban hosts the first session of the groundbreaking “US-China public dialogue” that JWE is holding in collaboration with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University in Beijing. This dialogue session features two wonderful specialists who discuss some of the big-picture topics of contention in the relationship and dive in some detail into the thorny issue of the South China Sea.

  • From Beijing (actually, Guangzhou, in southern China) we had Ambassador He Yafei, a Senior Fellow with the Chongyang Institute who has held many high-ranking diplomatic posts including as Counsellor of the Chinese Permanent Mission to the United Nations, and Vice Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
  • And from Washington DC we had Dr. Michael Swaine, who recently became the first Director of the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Dr. Swaine is the author of numerous books and articles on strategic issues relating to China and other parts of East Asia. He is co-director of a multi-year crisis prevention project with Chinese partners… And he also advises the U.S. government on Asian security issues. 

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 Helena Cobban (00:00:00): 

Hello, everybody. I'm Helena Cobban, the President of Just World Educational. We are a small nonprofit headquartered in Virginia. So I'm currently working from nearby Washington, DC. It is my great pleasure and honor today to inaugurate the 2020 U.S.-China public dialogue, our project that we are presenting in collaboration with the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, which is based at Renmin University in Beijing, China.  

Our partners at the Chongyang Institute will be releasing a Chinese-language subtitled version of today's dialogue for audiences in China and worldwide at the same time we release this English-language version for audiences here in the United States and worldwide.  My board colleagues at Just World Educational and I are delighted that through this collaboration, we will be able to demonstrate to publics in the United States and elsewhere that reasoned discussion of tricky issues in the U.S.-China relationship is still very possible. And also to start, through our discussions, to lay out some fruitful pathways for further cooperation over the months ahead. 

We are also happy that the global No Cold War coalition is supporting this public dialogue effort. For our inaugural session today, we will be discussing some key political and military matters with two very distinguished guests. 

From Beijing, we have Ambassador He Yafei, who is currently a senior fellow with the Chongyang Institute. Ambassador He has previously held many high-ranking diplomatic posts, including as counselor of the Chinese permanent mission to the United Nations and Vice Minister of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ambassador He, I want to welcome you to this public dialogue and ask you to pass on to your colleagues at the Chongyang Institute our thanks for their work on this joint project.

Amb. He Yafei (00:02:11):

Thank you. I will do that. It's a great pleasure to be in this public dialogue. I think we do need dialogue in various forms between China and United States right now. Thank you.

Helena Cobban (00:02:24):

Great to have you with us. And our second guest from here in Washington, DC is Dr. Michael Swaine, who recently became the first Director of the East Asia program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Dr. Swainee is the author of numerous books and articles. He is co-director of a multi-year crisis prevention project with Chinese partners, and he also advises the U.S. government on Asian security issues. Dr. Swainee, welcome and greetings to your colleagues at the Quincy Institute.

Dr. Michael Swaine (00:03:02):

Thank you very much, Helena. It's a pleasure to be here and participate in this event.

Helena Cobban (00:03:07):

So now, just before we get into the substance of our discussion, I want to tell everyone that from our end, at Just World Educational, we will be releasing the English-language version of this session in video, audio and text formats and the archived versions of all these formats and a lot of other relevant material is being made available via a handy resource page on our website, www.justworldeducational.org. 

So today we'll be discussing four questions. But each question, I'll first, get out and give each guest a chance to provide a quick reply. Then as time permits, I'll engage both of them in a short discussion before we move on to the next question. 

So now our first question: How do you both characterize the broad shifts in the balance of power between the two countries since 2000 and also since March 2020? Ambassador He, I'll turn to you first.

Amb. He Yafei (00:04:16):

Thank you so much. The balance of power has been shifting all the time, especially between the major powers. And it has been obvious that it picked up speed in the past 20 years, especially in the last 20 years. Broadly speaking, what we've called “the great convergence” has been the historical hallmark of the second part of the last century and also the first two decades of this century. With a large number of emerging markets and developing countries growing economically and politically, in particular, China with its achievements of opening up and reform in the last four decades, and it has been often mentioned as a good example of globalization. The geopolitical discourse and the international conversation at the same time has been almost fixated on this topic, meaning the great convergence, the rise of China, etc. Meanwhile, the sweeping globalization and ensuing free movement of goods, services, people and information globally has produced numerous miracles in wealth accumulation and economic growth with ever greater connectivity among countries and individuals demonstrated in a dense and highly interconnected global supply chains and various social networks.

Amb. He (00:06:03):

No doubt this great convergence would be, would not be possible without the fast and vast expansion of globalization. Now, unfortunately, there are a few things that have come to surface together with the benefits of globalization, which I believe contributed also to the quick shift in the balance of power between the U.S. and China and also globally. I will mention a few quick points. One, equality – inequality, actually-- increased rather than decreased with the accumulation of wealth over the past few decades, which pushed up populism, nationalism, protectionism in the United States and elsewhere, which radicalized politics and produced identity politics.

Amb. He (00:07:08:

These things have actually halted globalization, as is now, right on its track. So we have seen an antiglobalization movement resurging to the surface. It is safe to say that the globalization as we now know it is over, and we're entering phase two of globalization.

The shift in the balance of power, along with those things produced in globalization - what I mentioned, inequality, etc. -  tend to make U.S. politicians of both parties and some others to blame China, to blame China for that. And also for problems arising in the U.S. and its population, mostly affecting blue collar workers. 

They suffered because of the shift in global supply chain, which exacerbated the inherent geopolitical competition between two major economic global powers. Secondly, another important factor that affected the balance of power between the two is that advances in technologies, such as AI (artificial intelligence), big data, robots, universal networks of things, have, again, further upended the world we know, and fast-tracked the relocation of manufacturing and ways and means where goods are made and services are provided.

 All this has produced unwarranted worry on the part of the United States, especially, especially I will say, its military, intelligence, and the military industrial complex, that they believe China is challenging or in a position to challenge and possibly would take away the American tech superiority. That, you know, is shaping or reshaping U.S. perception of China's strategic intention in a very negative way.

Amb. He (00:09:44):

Lastly, I would have this point to make. What impacted the most, since March 2020, I mean the last six months, also is the current COVID-19, the pandemic. 

Which has reshaped, unfortunately, again, the way of life, with production and the fundamental meshing with global supply chains being twisted and broken, which produced a huge impact on the geopolitical landscape in many ways. In particular, the political, economic, and other relationships between the U.S. and China. 

The COVID-19 is a game-changer. Did this game changer also change in a negative way, the relationship between China and the United States? I have to say, the pandemic should have been a good opportunity at the very beginning for U.S.-China to have expanded corporation and to jumpstart a worsening bilateral relationship. But what happened, unfortunately, has led a highly precarious battle of geopolitics, using COVID-19 as a battleground that further pushed the bilateral relationship to the brink of the precipice. Added to this toxic mix is the U.S. election-year politics, which made things even worse, even more unpredictable and dangerous. I there conclude my comments. Thank you very much.

Helena Cobban (00:11:37):

Thank you. Wow, that's quite a broad perspective. So now, Dr. Swaine, what is your answer to the question about the shifts in the balance between the two countries since 2000 and more specifically since March 2020?

Dr. Michael Swaine (00:11:55):

Well, thank you Helena, I'll say a few things about sort of, what is a balance of power, and then I'll focus on the U.S. and China. Not be quite as broad in my scope as Ambassador He just was. The balance of power issue is not as simple as what a lot of people often think. It includes a lot of factors, economic, military, political, social, and includes both quantifiable and structural measurements of power like GDP, the size of one's military, and qualitative measurements, including very subjective assessments involving soft power factors, such as the attractiveness of the country's political system to others, the general image a country has in the global community as either threatening or nonthreatening, whether it's a model for emulation, et cetera. 

When you take all these factors into account, to me, there is no question that the United States today remains the most powerful country on the planet, in the aggregate. It has the most powerful military in terms of its global abilities for power projection. It is still the largest economy by many measures, and it remains an influential actor through its soft power, its relations with friends and allies, and its diplomatic activities. However, and this is a big but, many of its powers have eroded in recent years in both quantitative and qualitative ways. And, especially, in my view, under President Donald Trump, and since COVID, its image has been tarnished significantly globally. 

It has frayed its relations with many allies, its diplomatic capacities and skills have diminished, its overseas economic influence in some ways has declined because of its massive fiscal deficit, and it has undermined multilateral institutions such as the UN, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, and in the process is therefore weakening some global norms. Its disastrous handling of the COVID pandemic has painted it really, in some ways, as a pathetic giant to many countries, unable to protect its own citizenry, and domestically, it remains polarized politically and to some extent paralyzed, and it underfunds domestic investment in a lot of public goods and areas. 

Now China for its part has obviously increased its power capacities in some ways, as Ambassador He just alluded, while diminishing it in other ways. It's the second largest economy at nearly $13 trillion, the major trading nation with many countries around the world, it has very large financial reserves. It has more state direction over its economic activities in the U.S. does, and this is both good and bad. And it has a growing, modern military with far greater power projection capabilities than in the past. And it has greatly expanded its diplomatic presence around the world and uses its economic power to leverage and influence other nations. At the same time, China in recent years has in some ways reduced its power and influence in my view. Although it's more overall, more influential on the world stage, I think it's also tarnished its own image among most developed countries and even some developing countries because of its more repressive domestic policies under President Xi Jinping, its increased emphasis on a single leader and a single ideology over institutionalization and growing expertise, and because of its sometimes ham-fisted diplomacy overseas regarding disputes with its neighbors, some influence activities in places like Australia and in some of its loan assistance to other countries.

Like the U.S., China can appear at times arrogant, excessively selfish and intolerant of the interests of others. And of course it still labors under many serious domestic problems from severe pollution to corruption, ethnic unrest, etc. And I would say that for most democratic countries, it's certainly not a terribly attractive model for a political system or development. And I'd say its handling of COVID, although I would say better than that of the United States, has nonetheless been somewhat of a mixed picture. So I'd say that while the level of China's hard power has increased notably, its soft power in some ways haa diminished in recent years. So in terms of the overall U.S.- China balance, I think China has increased its economic leverage globally relative to the U.S. in part due to its increased capacities and in part due to America's own mistakes, and has definitely increased its economic and military power in the Asia Pacific.

And in fact, that is where the shift in balance and power balance counts the most. At present and for the foreseeable future, the U.S. is no longer the predominant power in that vital region, either militarily or, I would say also in some ways economically, although of course it still has strong and engaged allies and exerts enormous influence, and it remains a major investor and trader. But in any event, this shifting balance was perhaps inevitable given China's rise and the importance of Asia for China in many ways. 

But the move towards parity between the U.S. and China in Asia increases the likelihood of crises and even possible conflicts, if that parity is not stabilized, given the differences each has over some volatile issues in the region and the general American belief that its military dominance in Asia has been necessary to ensure regional peace and prosperity. That dominance is disappearing. So under a growing parity, each side is more tempted to test their relative influence over volatile issues like Taiwan and maritime disputes. And that is a challenge for both countries. Both sides need to recognize that neither can nor should dominate Asia and both need to work to reduce misunderstandings and miscalculations. Thanks.

Helena Cobban (00:17:44):

Well, thank you, Dr. Swaine. We've actually had two remarkable statements here and I'm just delighted with the way this dialogue is going. I don't expect people to suddenly all agree with each other, but I think, you know, expressing ourselves and listening carefully to each other is really a wonderful thing to do right now. I'm going to move on to a sort of a historical question, one that's of relevance to me because at the time of the U.S.-Soviet cold war, I was studying strategic studies quite closely. 

So, my second question is: How do you characterize the differences between the current U.S.-China dynamic and the dynamic that existed between the U.S. and the Soviet Union throughout their historic cold war? And this time, I'm going to go to Dr. Swaine first for an answer.

Dr. Michael Swaine (00:18:37):

Okay. Thank you, Helena. Well, in my view, the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union and the relationship between the U.S. and China today is very different in many ways. China is far more integrated into the global economy and global institutions. Many Western countries are increasingly dependent on trade with China, far more than was the case with the Soviet Union. Despite efforts by the U.S. to decouple China from some economic and technology spheres. China is an increasingly innovative nation with dense technology exchanges with many countries, including the U.S. and other democracies, and its technology companies are present around the world in a major way. And there remains a large degree of economic interdependence between the United States and China. U.S. exports to China are up by over 500% since 2001. And in 2018, China was the largest supplier of goods to the United States. Also, unlike the Soviet Union, China does not actively seek to duplicate its system across the globe, despite what some say. 

Even though it is exporting surveillance technologies and in some places engages in what some would regard as excessive influence activities, and whether both nations like it or not, both the U.S. and China must cooperate deeply to deal with an array of highly challenging transnational threats that did not exist during the U.S.-Soviet cold war, especially, as we know, climate change and pandemics, which we are now both experiencing. As we've already seen, their failures, both on the part of the United States and China to some extent to really address these two challenges in a major way is damaging to everyone. Also China today doesn't control a large block of other nations and territories that chafe under its rule, as the Soviet Union did. It has domestic ethnic difficulties, yes, but among a relatively small part of its total population, which is generally united and very nationalistic. But at the same time, it has almost no allies and none with great influence.

Dr. Michael Swaine (00:20:40):

What is similar to both countries is that they both to some extent, in my view, need an external adversary of some sort to strengthen and reinforce their self-image, their ability and their unity. I think this is especially true on the Chinese side, but this also exists on the U.S. side and especially within the defense establishment. So the current dynamic can deepen animosity and distrust, but the two companies, the two countries, pardon me, should be able to put more enduring and mutually beneficial boundaries on their interaction than occurred during the cold war between the U.S. and Soviet Union, limiting it to certain types of competitions, but not to an existential rivalry. Thank you.

Helena Cobban (00:21:23):

Thank you. So, now, Ambassador He. How do you compare the U.S.-Soviet cold war with the current situation between our two countries?

Amb. He Yafei (00:21:35):

I hope to catch up with the eloquency of Dr. Swaine. I believe it is highly debatable to say there is a cold war, really, between the U.S. and China. I do not believe so. Though, there are many issues of concern, tension, and even some confrontations, which is the key difference between the current U.S.-China dynamic and that between the U.S. and former USSR. A cold war in reality over there, and an imaginary cold war, or possible cold war, between China and the U.S. 

China has made it very clear at the highest level that it will not seek hegemony or spheres of inference, will not engage in a cold or hot war, as President Xi pronounced at the recent UNGA General Debate. Another essential difference is the highly intertwined nature, as Dr. Swaine has suggested, of the two biggest economies, which has brought enormous benefits in the last four decades to two countries and their peoples. The economic and technological decoupling as advocated, and to some extent executed, by the U.S. administration will no doubt hurt both economies deeply. 

The pandemic this year has accelerated major powers’ strategic competition, both in scope and depths, increased risks of geopolitical conflicts, sparking possible confrontation in South China Sea, or as we have seen, trade wars and technological decoupling.  Essential cooperation to the provision of global commons in support of a functional global governance system, unfortunately, is failing and fading fast with more intense geopolitical entanglements between the two. As mentioned above, the pandemic served as a catalyst, quickened the shifting balance of power, which further fanned the fire of global power politics. I can see clearly the U.S. anxiety, or strategic anxiety, over the balance of power shift in general, and between the U.S. and China in particular, is pulling its foreign policy to the extreme, almost on the verge of a precipice of deadly confrontation with its locked-on major strategic competitors, including China. The emerging decoupling between the U.S. and China, especially in high tech field, is particularly worrying, worrying to me and to many others. Though, I will say it is not yet certain that decoupling has a solid consensus among the whole society of the United States.

Amb. He Yafei (00:25:02):

It certainly would not be a full reality very soon. This was not an issue during the historic cold war between U.S. and USSR, as the two blocs were economically separate, with no or little trade between them. China has expressed its determination to refuse to be forced into decoupling, refuse to be forced into a cold war or hot war. So, I will say, some degree of technological decoupling seems unavoidable now. We hope American businesses will be more clearheaded, as they did during MFN (most favored nation) status bills and during China's efforts to join the WTO and not to be sucked into decoupling.

There are encouraging signs that many U.S. firms and companies continue to view China as one of the best, if not the best places, if not the best place, of investments as China keeps opening up its market, and in particular, the recent measures for China to further open its financial market. 

It is clear yet another difference between two dynamics is the military and ideology. China is not exporting its model. China has no military bases outside of China. It's not seeking military confrontation worldwide. But that was the case during the cold war between the U.S. and USSR. They were deeply engaged in worldwide military rivalry and confrontation, even though it was carried out through proxy wars because, you know, both of them have huge stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and because of the MAD (mutually assured destruction) theory, known to all. Certainly no such rivalry existing between China and United States. As for ideological competition and it is true, I will say, China believes in its own path of development and its own political system that proves to be quite effective and beneficial to China’s people, and it has been universally accepted by its people over many, many decades.

Amb. He Yafei (00:27:52):

So it is highly unlikely to find another country that can claim to be politically stable, socially coherent, economically viable nowadays. This made me proud, too. I would also disagree with Michael that in terms of soft power about China. I would say soft power about China or on the part of China actually grows to be stronger or even stronger than before. This is not due to the export of China models, but China does not do that. This is due to the attractiveness of what China has achieved through its unique set of economic development or economic growth model, and its supporting political institutions and systems. So I would say the key difference between the two dynamics is China – again, China does not, and will not export its model of economic growth and its political system. 

On the contrary, China has been calling over the years for dialogues between different cultures, different civilizations. I remember when the blueprint of Belt and Road Initiative was first officially laid out in the spring of 2014 at the Boao Forum. President Xi in his keynote speech proposed an inter-civilizational dialogue, in Asia to begin with, I am currently teaching a course on global governance in China and China's diplomacy at Yenching Academy of Peking University. And in my course, Chinese culture and its influence on China and its foreign policy is a key aspect I try to have my students from all over the world to appreciate in understanding China and its diplomacy. Thank you very much.

Helena Cobban (00:30:11):

Well, that's really succinct and it’s good that we have those economic and military factors brought into the conversation because that is going to be the last question. But before we go to the last question, I have one question that's fairly specific, relevant to the other questions. 

And that is: What steps do each of you think might help to defuse the tensions over the South China Sea that have been arising recently? And if you could mention maybe some possible steps from your own country, as well as the other country? This time, it's Ambassador He who goes first.

Amb. He Yafei (00:30:54):

This is really a sensitive issue to talk about, I think, and highly relevant and pertinent to the discussion we're having today, because South China Sea seems to be a flashpoint between possible conflict between the two. I believe South China Sea will be a testing ground for the future of the U.S.-China geopolitical relationship. Will it be a rivalry, strategic rivalry, or competition within a rule-based framework, or cooperation? It will be a test. What are the possible signs now? Military competition has become increasingly tense between U.S. and China, obviously. And it's very likely to involve the South China Sea. 

U.S. Congress Research Service in February 2020, argued that possible - sorry, argued that general potential U.S. goals for U.S.- China strategic competition in South China Sea may include, and I quote, fulfilling U.S. security commitments in the Western Pacific, including treaty commitments to, the Philippines, etc., maintaining and enhancing the U.S.-led security architecture in the Western Pacific, maintaining a regional balance of power - I would put emphasis on that - balance of power, a regional balance of power favorable to the United States and its allies and partners, defending the principle of peaceful resolution of disputes and becoming a regional hegemon, and preventing China, here mentioned in particular, preventing China from controlling or dominating the South China Sea. I mean, you can see, obviously this is quite official. 

The U.S. and China have different definitions of concepts, such as offense or defense,  regarding China's construction on islands or reefs and quote-unquote, the militarization of South China Sea. Moreover, the shift in balance of power between the two and a subsequent misperception of the other’s intentions, are driving those differences to the extreme. The U.S., I believe, wrongly believes China's action in South China Sea poses a threat to its strategic interests, to its dominant positioning in the South China Sea, which of course is debatable, whether when we should have that. China senses that U.S. action, claimed or actually done, are provocative to the least and dangerous to the worst. 

Against this background, the Trump administration of the last two or three years has planned more robust measures to curb China's growing inference in South China Sea. Unilateral actions - laying out the briefly the background - unilateral actions by some claimants are a factor of instability in South China Sea. A small number of countries may push ahead with oil and gas exploration activities in blocs over which they claim. The code of conduct negotiation on the single draft - we have a single draft now - has started a second reading, but differences emerge among claimants over various issues, including who and what the COC should regulate, whether or to what extent it should be legally binding, etc. Legal disputes over the South China Sea islands were also intensified.

Amb. He Yafei (00:35:23):

However, to answer your question, what steps should be taken? How should we manage South China Sea and its related issues? As Robert Kaplan said, I will quote him, “The United States, not China, might be the problem in the future.” Since the U.S. brought the South China Sea into the great power competition, strategic rivalry, from 2010 onwards, it is uncertain if efforts by China and ASEAN countries to build a rule-based framework in South China Sea through code of conduct re-negotiations will succeed. The U.S. in this case has played the role of peace breaker rather than a peace builder. So we do hope the first step is for the U.S. to reverse its role. Honestly, peace in South China Sea serves the best interests of China, U.S. and ASEAN countries. China and the U.S. have been working to build consensus and a crisis management mechanism to avoid direct conflict.

Amb. He Yafei (00:36:41):

I think this is quite urgent now. We need actionable crisis management mechanisms. However, as mounting U.S. military exercises and activities keep tension with China high in South China Sea, the effectiveness and reliability of the rules of behavior for the safety of the air and the maritime encounters established by the two will be working or workable. It will be a test later on. Some security dilemmas do exist between parties that have increased the complexity and intensity of the disputes involved about the sovereignty of these islands and reefs. 

The absence of security cooperation mechanisms is the main pitfall of security challenges in the region. Mechanisms such as ASEAN+1, ASEAN+3, ASEAN Regional Forum, are to my eyes inadequate for that purpose. So it is necessary for littoral States of the South China Sea to formulate legally binding and operationally possible rules for security at sea, in order to increase the political cost to parties who would violate the rules. Issues to be addressed regarding security cooperation mechanisms in South China Sea should include conflicts of sovereignty and security interests among claimants, maritime conflicts triggered by conflicts or crisis, the growing interests and aspirations of extra-regional powers and the U.S. in particular - how can we manage that? Long-term mechanisms for crisis prevention should also be put in place. Regional peace and stability represent the best security interest for everyone involved in South China Sea. Littoral countries of South China Sea, including Thailand, Singapore, and Indonesia, are keen to maintain regional stability, which includes, of course, a cooperative relationship with China.

Amb. He Yafei (00:39:22):

It is unrealistic to believe that resolutions to the disputes over South China Sea can be reached in the short term, whatever solution we offer now, as the parties concerned differ considerably in their approaches to resolving disputes, with a deep mutual distrust. China has been saying, we need a dual-track approach, meaning a negotiation over sovereignty of islands and reefs, on issues or disputes involving the South China Sea, we may have a multilateral negotiation. So overall cooperation would help build a mutual trust for collaborative resolutions. More importantly, bilateral and multilateral communication and liaison mechanisms, including emergency hotlines, the security code of conduct, the rules of engagement will help better manage possible conflicts that seem to loom on the horizon. Thank you very much.

Helena Cobban (00:40:35):

Thank you. You have definitely put a rich menu of things there. I mean, the idea that there is no emergency hotline is pretty terrifying, if you think how many fleets are – well, fleets and other aerial assets and so on are racing around the neighborhood there. So now, Dr. Swaine, can you answer about the South China Sea? What steps do you think might help to defuse the tensions; possible steps from your own country as well as the other country?

Dr. Michael Swaine (00:41:11):

Yes. Thank you, Helena. Well, Ambassador He put forth a very broad and comprehensive agenda of things that could be implemented to try to reduce the likelihood of tension and conflict in the South China Sea. And I endorse just about everything that he said in that regard. I hope those things are possible and that all the claimants genuinely will support the creation of agreements that have binding influence on all parties in resolving disputes. I'm a little skeptical that that can happen, but I hope it will be possible.

But let me just give a few specific points about what I think in maybe the short term needs to happen. I think that in both the South and the East China Seas, where China also has disputes with Japan, the United States needs to reinforce its longstanding position of neutrality in these disputes over largely uninhabited islands and their associated marine resources. It should more actively support peaceful negotiation among the claimants and mutually agreeable and realistic compromises in accordance with international law and fairness, but at the same time, the U.S. should – but I'm sure it will not - recognize that American involvement in those disputes over the past decade has at times actually exacerbated tension rather than promoting restraint on the part of China and other claimants. 

So I agree with that Ambassador He that the U.S. should engage in confidence building and demilitarization talks with Beijing and the other claimants. And these should cover all forms of military behavior, including freedom of navigation operations, but also including Chinese deployments on its artificial islands in the Spratly islands, in the South of the South China Sea, but even without such talks, I think the U.S. should in any event discuss reducing if not ceasing some of its freedom of navigation operations near disputed island territories, recognizing that such operations distort the original purpose of the freedom of navigation program, and they undermine the utility of U.S. military signaling, and they heighten the risk of U.S. military involvement in some sort of destabilizing crises.

Dr. Michael Swaine (00:43:27):

But I think China for its part needs to do several things it hasn't done either. I think it needs to reaffirm unambiguously that it will never employ force to remove other claimants from disputed islands and reefs, unless others were to attack it first. And that it is committed to finding a peaceful, mutually acceptable solution to its disputes. China also needs to stop harassing its neighbors in waters where China has no nearby territorial sea or exclusive economic zone claims, and yet falls within the nine-dash line. 

In some cases, China has behaved as if the nine-dash line entitles it to exclusive historical rights in various waters, and that has really exacerbated tensions in the area. I think China should be very careful about that, restraining its behavior and not engage in exclusive approaches towards fishing rights and other things. There is no basis whatsoever in international law to justify a nation excluding other nations from areas where it only claims a historical right to fish or exploit marine resources. 

These are supposed to be shared resources, not exclusive. Overall, I hope that China recognizes that an attempt to assert exclusive control over the South China Sea, its territories and waters, will hugely damage its interests and could spark a conflict with the United States. So we have to avoid that. And I hope that China recognizes that the United States needs to be in some sense a party in discussing how you can reduce tension in that region and should engage in the kind of discussions that Ambassador He has presented. I'll stop there. Thank you.

Helena Cobban (00:45:15):

Well, that's great. I mean, at the beginning, I said, you know, I hope that we can lay the basis for further discussions. And I think on the basis of what we've heard from Ambassador He and Dr. Swaine, we definitely do have the basis for a very rich, further discussion on the South China Sea issue. Sadly, we can't stay with it right now because the clock is ticking on. And I have at the end here, just one sort of big picture conceptual thing, a question that maybe draws together many of the threads that we have alluded to so far.

And that is that Professor Graham Allison has spoken and written a lot about the Thucydides trap, which posits a high probability of conflict between a waning power and a rising power. But my colleague on the board of Just World Educational, Richard Falk has talked about a Clausewitz gap in which the United States has for decades now been projecting its power globally via primarily military means while China has been doing so through primarily economic and soft power means. If Richard Falk is right, does this mean we might be able to avoid the Thucydides trap? And if so, how would, how would we do that? So this time it's first over to you, Dr. Swaine.

Dr. Michael Swaine (00:46:39):

Now, thank you, Helena. It's a very important and very interesting question. And it's one that I think United States and China really have to engage in more deep and strategic discussions about. In my view, my friend Graham's use of the Thucydides trap has in some ways distorted the present issue of U.S.- China relations, as much as it has instructed us. We've known for a long time that nations operate in a largely anarchic international order that lacks a global government, that no nation can be absolutely certain that another strong power will not threaten it at some time. And that this uncertainty and the fear it produces can generate conflict, especially between major powers, as our relative power relationship shifts. All of that we've known for some time, but we also know that not all major states are always unlimited power maximizers, that their perception of threat is heavily influenced by a wide range of factors that go beyond simple measurement of capabilities.

Dr. Michael Swaine (00:47:42):

And that aggressive drives to achieve total dominance most often resulted damaging wars for all sides. We also know that the possession of nuclear weapons, which obviously did not exist in ancient times, exerts a very strong, downward pressure on dangerous risk-taking by nuclear powers. And these dangers are further reduced by the fact that states tend to combine to counterbalance against aggressive hegemonists, and that the modern-day global economy has indeed increased the economic costs of warfare far more than in the past. But one positive lesson that you can draw from the experience of Athens and Sparta, because it's smaller states, smaller allies can at times pull larger states into conflict by creating what's called “commitment traps” that enhance the perceived need of the larger power to defend its credibility against what it sees as a challenge provoked by the smaller. As one scholar has observed, structural variables in fifth-century Greece were contests for honor, rivalry, polarity, and alliances. The situation could have been improved had the strength of any of these variables been lessened. 

In U.S.-China relations today, analysts and statesmen need to carefully monitor these same structural variables – end quote. So what all this tells me is that the U.S. and China are certainly not destined for war. Both sides have ample reason to avoid conflict. Neither views its security as dependent on the destruction or the major weakening of the other side, at least not yet. In other words, neither possesses a genuinely existential threat to the other. Both have nuclear weapons, both are heavily engaged economically with one another and depend on a larger global economic system for their prosperity. So the imperative is to avoid backing one another into a corner with little easy escape and avoid inflating the stakes involved in any one encounter. This means that the U.S. needs to be careful about what defines and challenges its credibility, and China needs to be careful about what defines and challenges its legitimacy in nationalist terms and especially over sovereignty issues.

Dr. Michael Swaine (00:50:05):

Both countries need to be aware of these high-stakes threats that the other could pose to it. Now more broadly, this means that the U S needs to develop a reasonable and stable alternative to its past dominance in Asia, and China needs to work with the U.S. to do the same, avoiding its own search for dominance. And in the process, reduce the likelihood of misperception of actions and avoid overreacting. China could overreact thinking its legitimacy is challenged and that its leverage and commitment is in a test of will, and that it's greater than what it actually thinks it is. And the U S could overreact, thinking that it must disabuse China and others of its loss of any credibility towards its position in Asia. 

Very few incidents could produce this type of miscalculation, but they do exist. Taiwan, maritime incidents, and possibly even the Korean peninsula. But all of these issues - all of them are manageable between the U.S. and China if they understand the risks involved, they accurately assess the stakes involved and they know what the dangers are in responding to each other. It requires very clear communication, some level of trust at some level, between the words of one said to the other, and an ability and desire to avoid trying to win in a crisis that might emerge. 

I've been working for years in a crisis management project with Chinese collaborators, and we have explored many of these issues and they all indicate very clearly the importance of the things that I just said. So I think the United States and China are certainly not inevitably destined for war. I think the situation in ancient Greece and today is in many ways quite different. And I think we are capable certainly of avoiding getting into a spiraling downward crisis or confrontation. Thanks.

Helena Cobban (00:52:09):

Thank you. And, Ambassador He, what do you think about this issue of Thucydides and Clausewitz?

Amb. He Yafei (00:52:17):

I agree with Michael, this is really a strategically important question. And also I agree with him that U.S. and China are not destined for a war. I don't believe in the inevitability of Thucydides trap, whereby two major powers are doomed to confrontation. I don't think U.S.- China today, their relationship is going into a full confrontation. This is not inevitable, not doomed. The great convergence, the historical background that we have, as I mentioned, does not indicate the incumbent power, in this case, the United States is a waning power. It is still the dominant power. And on the other side, the rising power in this case, China is not really challenging the dominant position, the U.S. enjoyed for several decades. Maybe in the minds of some U.S. politicians or strategists, but it's not the reality.

Amb. He Yafei (00:53:31):

The shift in the balance of power will naturally give rise to certain changes in international systems and the global governance architecture. For instance, it will give more voice, a better voice, a greater voice, to developing countries in general and China in particular, when addressing the challenges of global importance, such as climate change, the shift in global supply chain, global free trade and investment, cyber security, etc. For the United States, as the dominant power in the current international system, it has relied very much on its a military power, monetary power, meaning financial power, as well as high ground in science and technology to maintain such a position. And its perception of other countries growing economically, politically, and militarily or otherwise, have often turned that United States into a state with high anxiety about its hegemonic position. Of course, some domestic problems have also caused the U.S. to sink in this fashion.

Amb. He Yafei (00:54:57):

All of these things have provided, it seems to me, ample ammunition for the U.S. to move against any country it believes could become original hegemony or a challenge as described in great detail by Professor Mearsheimer’s famous book, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. It is called “offensive realism,” coupled with a stubborn ideological bias against China and the CPC. The U.S. has embarked, I believe, as I see it, on the dangerous road of confrontation with China in recent years, especially in the last two or three years, with military threats, sanctions, economic decoupling, etc., which if it really carried to reality, to be a reality, could lead both countries down the road to this trap, Thucydides trap.. China is fortunately clear-headed enough to refuse to play such a deadly game. I am mindful of what Dr. Swaine has suggested.

Neither side should overreact. I agree with that. We should not engage in overreaction to any provocations that could lead to a cold war, even hot war, with each other. The Clausewitz gap gap is not, I believe, an accurate description of the whole picture for the U.S.-China relationship. It is true that China firmly believes in and supports economic globalization and a fair system of global governance where countries, big or small, are treated equal and the benefits of globalization should be accessible to everyone. Greater efforts must be made to narrow the gap between the rich and the poor, both domestically and internationally. Inequality is an issue we need to address very seriously. It is quite urgent. The debate or the danger of populism, and identity politics now defining political ecosystems in many countries, including the U.S., should not be underestimated. Is this trap avoidable?

Amb. He Yafei (00:57:40):

My answer is, yes, we're not doomed. U.S. and China are not doomed to fall into that trap. Continued economic globalization, continued dialogue among different cultures, especially between China and United States, are the way out. We need to be re-engaged in globalization, in bilateral economic relationships, in dialogues in various forms. Looking into the future, as described by the current UN secretary-general, it is a future of further unpredictability, uncertainty and instability. Faced with that, we need cooperation even more. The cooperation, I believe, is a necessity, not a luxurious option, especially between China and the United States. We need to re-engage in dialogue, especially strategic dialogue about this trap, because this is - if we're not serious about it, it could become real, and it's not real, but it could become real. Unfortunately, the dialogue has not been happening and has been cut off. So we need to revive that. Any differences, be they ideological or economic should be address wisely in political negotiation and a strategic dialogue.

Amb. He Yafei (00:59:23):

Definitely not through coercion or confrontation. Unfortunately, the political environment prevailing in the U.S., especially during the election year, it's not conducive to such an approach. Let us keep our fingers crossed. Maybe after the election, we could possibly restart such a dialogue. And we should not be, as I said before, sleep walking. You know, sometimes we are sleepwalking into a trap, so we should all be waking up. This is something we need to consider very seriously. Trust, dialogue, and cooperation, no matter how difficult they are, we need to do that, because we have done it. We have benefited a lot from the past several decades. Why not continue? Because the prospect of inaction or doing something otherwise is pretty precarious and dangerous. Thank you very much.

Helena Cobban (01:00:38):

Thank you, indeed. I think it's particularly wonderful that we've been able to have this conversation during these few weeks leading up to the election, which as Ambassador He noted, it's a time when a lot of rhetoric here in the United States gets pretty crazy, and on occasion, xenophobic and difficult to understand, but I want to thank both of you for sharing your thoughts and your insights. 

I'm afraid that this has to wrap up our first session of our U.S.-China public dialogue. We've actually gone over the time, but that's okay. I wasn't going to interrupt! We are planning to present the next session of the dialogue, which will deal with economic and technological issues in the U.S.- China relationship, exactly two weeks from today. Please remember that you can find out the latest news of what's happening with this project, this page on our website, it's bit.ly/US-China-dialogue. So now I want to thank our two guests for the wonderful contributions they both made to today's literally globe girdling discussion. Ambassador He Yafei is with us from Southern China, but first of all, I want to thank you, Dr. Swaine for being with us from Washington, D.C.

Dr. Michael Swaine (01:02:04):

Great. Well, thank you very much. It was very enjoyable and I really enjoyed the exchange.

Helena Cobban (01:02:09):

Good, great to have you with us and Ambassador He. Thank you for being with us. I know that you're very busy there in Guangdong, China. It's great that we got the connection and that we got to hear your views and understand them much better than we could have without this connection. So thank you.

Amb. He Yafei (01:02:30):

Thank you very much. I really enjoyed it. And I believe such dialogue should be more often and should be more broadly, on various subjects. I expect more dialogues are coming up. And also it is an added pleasure to see Michael again, even it's virtual – it’s not face to face. Hopeful to see you soon when the pandemic lifts its veil. Thank you very much.

Dr. Michael Swaine (01:02:55):

Hope to see you too.

Helena Cobban  (01:02:59):

And now I also want to say a big thank you to you, all of our viewers and listeners here. It is our sincere belief that though the times may seem difficult and complicated, there is always a way that people of good will can get together and on the basis of mutual respect, find ways to resolve knotty problems between different nations. For Just World Educational here in Washington, D.C,, this is me Helena Cobban saying goodbye and see you again soon. Keep checking back at our website for details.