Author navigates shifting US-China relations

Updated: 2015-11-18 11:50

By Chen Weihua in Washington(China Daily USA)

  Print Mail Large Medium  Small 分享按钮 0

 Author navigates shifting US-China relations

Chi Wang, president of the US-China Policy Foundation, talks about his new book, Obama's Challenge to China: Pivot to Asia, on Nov 9 at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Chen Weihua / China Daily

Chi Wang was attending a dinner in 2007 at the invitation of the Congressional Black Caucus when a young man in a dark suit approached his table and asked, "Hi, guys, may I sit down?"

It was the then-US senator from Illinois, Barack Obama. He sat down next to Wang, chatted with him and invited him to visit his office.

Though Wang, president and co-chairman of the US-China Policy Foundation, never went to Obama's office on Capitol Hill, he remembered well what Obama said at the table: "If I become president, I would do the best I can to work with China." That was the year Obama launched his presidential campaign.

"That's why when he became president, on Day 1, I tried to follow what he has done with China," Wang said on Nov 9 during a talk in Washington about his new book Obama's Challenge to China: The Pivot to Asia.

However, things have not evolved as Wang expected. Obama had tried to engage China in his first term, but toward the end of Obama's first term, his China policy changed, moving from more reassurance and less deterrence, toward more deterrence than reassurance, according to Wang.

"Maybe he is not patient enough," Wang said.

"He wanted to change China right away. But China is not that kind of country; you cannot change China right away," said Wang, who has been engaged in improving China-US relations since the 1960s, including participating in the founding conference of the National Committee on US-China Relations in 1966.

Wang described the US pivot-to-Asia strategy as unnecessarily annoying the Chinese.

"What's the purpose? America is already in Asia but said 'I am coming back,' " Wang said, citing wide suspicion among the Chinese toward the US strategy.

He believes part of the problem is Obama's lack of foreign-policy experience before joining the government and also that there is no one in the White House in charge of China policy.

"Obama needs more knowledgeable advisers on China," said Wang, who supported Obama in the last two elections.

The 321-page book devotes the first of three parts to Obama and his China team, describing the role played by people such as Vice-President Joe Biden; secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry; defense secretaries Robert Gates, Leon Panetta and Chuck Hagel; Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner; National Security Advisors Tom Donilon and Susan Rice; and real China experts James Steinberg and Jeffrey Bader.

The year 2011, when Bader, Steinberg, Ambassador Jon Huntsman and Gates all left the Obama administration, marked a shift in Obama's China policy, Wang argued.

The ones who rose in the ranks, such as Kurt Campbell and Daniel Russel, were mostly considered Japan experts.

"The Obama administration began relations with China with grand visions of cooperation and by the end of 2011 had firmly adopted a more competitive, even confrontational approach," Wang wrote.

The administration failed to adjust US Asia policy "to take into account the growth in Chinese wealth and power" and its resulting implications for the Asia-Pacific, Chas Freeman, a top China hand in the US and former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia, is quoted in the book as saying.

"The fundamental question, whether the US will make room for China in the Asia-Pacific region, remains unanswered," Wang wrote.

Balanced view

Unlike most books by American authors that rely heavily on Western sources, Wang's contains recollections and analysis by both Chinese and American scholars as well as Chinese and US news media, presenting a relatively balanced perspective.

China-US relations or newcomers trying to understand the relations in the Obama years, the second and third parts of the book bring back to life all the major events and issues in the bilateral relationship, including Obama's first state visit to China in 2009, the Copenhagen climate conference, the US arms sales to Taiwan and the tensions in the East and South China Sea, the Edward Snowden revelations, China's announcement of its East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) and visits by then-Chinese president Hu Jintao in 2011 and later President Xi Jinping.

Key issues in economic relations, military ties, climate change, human rights, third- party factors and multilateral partnerships are examined in the third part.

While it has long been an aphorism that US-China relations can only be so good but also can only be so bad, due to many fundamental differences and many common interests, Wang concluded that people can no longer assume that thinking will remain valid as the two countries transition into a multipolar world.

"Already, we are seeing signs of a dangerous move toward structural (rather than incident-based) conflict as both countries seek to stake out their positions in the regional and international order," he wrote. "The next administration will play a crucial role in determining whether the US-China relationship slides closer to partnership or enmity."

Wang said he hopes that when the next US president takes office in 2017, he or she will be able to use Obama's eight years of trial and error, as described in his book, as a guide for crafting future policy.

While some experts in China-US relations believe the Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton will adopt a tougher stance on China, Wang disagreed, saying Clinton should not be held responsible for White House policy regarding China.

In Wang's eyes, Clinton is someone who wants to do things and is willing to compromise. He said that she can make friends and make enemies.

Promoting relations

Wang came from China to the US in 1949 as a 17-year-old. He pursued undergraduate study in agricultural science at the University of Maryland and later went to Georgetown University to receive a doctorate in American diplomatic history in 1969, where he soon began teaching history.

His father, Wang Shu-chang, once governor of China's Hebei province and a roommate of Chiang Kai-shek while studying in cadet school in Japan, had encouraged him to study in the US. Wang joked that if he had not left China in 1949, he probably would have had to wait until the 1980s.

Wang felt lucky all along. In 1956, when Howard Sollenberger, director of the Foreign Service Institute under the State Department, who had worked in Beijing, recognized him in a Chinese restaurant where Wang was working, he offered Wang a job teaching Chinese to young Foreign Service officers.

After two and half years on the job, Wang got a new job at the Library of Congress, where he spent the next 47 years. There, he expanded its Chinese collection from 300,000 volumes to more than 1 million by the time he retired in 2004.

With his wide connections on the Chinese mainland, Taiwan and in the US government and Congress, Wang, along with Ambassador Chas Freeman Jr, the late ambassadors John Holdridge and Arthur Hummel, and the late Professor Doak Barnett, founded the US-China Policy Foundation in 1995. The non-partisan and non-profit organization is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

Wang said at the book talk that although he may well relax at home, he wants to help more Americans understand China and promote people-to-people exchange.

His deep concern is displayed in the introduction of his book, where he cautions that US-China relations are entering a new historical phase, and neither country is quite sure how to handle the shifting relationship.

He warned that if the growing distrust between the two nations is not checked, China and the US could fall into a pattern of confrontation, competition and hostility, starting another Cold War-esque period.

"Alternatively, if America and China can forge a path of general cooperation, butting heads occasionally but never too seriously, the world will benefit," Wang wrote.