Ambassadors urge 'substantive' US-China talks

Updated: 2014-05-22 08:10

By MICHAEL BARRIS in New York (China Daily USA)

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More than three decades after the administration of US President Richard Nixon opened relations with China, the reminiscences of five former US ambassadors to China underscore the boldness of the diplomacy of that era – especially compared with the more cautious dynamic that prevails today.

The ambassadors – Gary Locke, who had served in the post since 2011 until he was replaced by Max Baucus in February, Jon Huntsman Jr (2009-11), Joseph Prueher (1999-2001), J. Stapleton Roy (1991-95) and Winston Lord (1985-89) – took the stage together for the first time at the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday. They shared their perspectives on 35 years of US-China diplomatic relations in a forum presented by the National Committee on US-China Relations. Stephen Orlins, the organization's president, moderated the 90-minute discussion.

Ambassadors urge 'substantive' US-China talks
Five former US ambassadors to China and members of the National Committee on US-China Relations applaud after former ambassador Gary Locke (third from left) rings the closing bell at the New York Stock Exchange on Wednesday. The committee brought together the former ambassadors to mark the 35th anniversary of the opening of US-China diplomatic relations. From left: committee Vice-President Jan Berris, former ambassadors Jon M. Huntsman Jr. and Locke; committee chair Carla Anderson Hills; former ambassadors Joseph Prueher, Winston Lord and J. Stapleton Roy; and committee President Stephen Orlins. [LIU ZHENG / CHINA DAILY]

Nixon's 1972 China visit – the first ever by a US president – marked a significant breakthrough in US-China relations since China considered the US a foe at the time. Besides shifting the power balance in the Cold War by allying China with the US against the Soviet Union, the bold, risky move paved the way for Deng Xiaoping's 1979 Washington meeting with US President Jimmy Carter in which Deng articulated China's new focus on economic and technological development.

"Presidential visits are no longer positive," Huntsman, a former two-term Utah governor who served as the US's China ambassador under President Barack Obama and staged his own unsuccessful bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, told the NYSE audience. "They're always fraught with risk and difficulty. The expectations are always set by the media which you can't possibly meet."

Huntsman was appointed US ambassador to Singapore when he was 32 years old, becoming the youngest US ambassador in a century. Today he is chairman of the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan international-affairs think tank and of the Huntsman Cancer Foundation and serves on several boards.

On the other hand, Locke, the first Chinese-American to serve as ambassador to China, was a physical symbol of the positive strides that have been made in the last 35 years. "Being the first Chinese American to be a US ambassador to China was a great symbol to the Chinese people," Locke said. "To them, it was a source of pride. But also a demonstration of and recognition of what America stands for.

"When a person of different ethnic background from the majority of America could achieve a very high position and come back to an ancestral country and represent that group that (shows that) in America, all things are possible."

Locke, however, said he had to adjust his approach when it was apparent that many Chinese expected he would take their side in a negotiation by virtue of his ethnic origin – even though he did not speak Mandarin and could muster only a few words in Cantonese.

In addition to holding the title of US Secretary of Commerce from 2009 to 2011 and governor of Washington State from 1997 to 2005, Locke was also the first incumbent White House Cabinet member to take up the post since the two countries established diplomatic ties.

Asked what advice they would give current ambassador Baucus, the speakers gave tips ranging from striving to maximize the talents of the embassy staff to learning how to effectively wield authority to keeping calm even when angered. Their suggestions came a day after China's assistant foreign minister Zheng Zeguang summoned Baucus for a meeting regarding the US's accusations against five Chinese military officers of hacking into US companies to steal trade secrets.

Tensions between China and the United States grow over a range of political and economic issues, some observers have said the Chinese government is using the 35th anniversary of diplomatic relations this year as part of an effort to soften its image.

It comes against a backdrop of rising mistrust of China among Americans who see it as an economic and military threat. A surge of Chinese investments in American holdings, ranging from Treasury debt to commercial real estate, are viewed as part of the reason.

"Substantive" meetings, such as last year's talks between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Obama at the Annenberg estate in California, are "the type of dialogue we need", Roy said.