Reporter Journal / William Hennelly

Make room for Texas in the US-China public policy space

(China Daily USA) Updated: 2017-08-24 11:13

The saying goes that everything is bigger in Texas, which could describe the ambitions of the new China-focused think tank about to open at the University of Texas.

The China Public Policy Center, within the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs on UT's flagship campus in Austin, the state capital, is ready to play a role in a wide range of issues vital to the US-China relationship.

Leading the new center, which will open on Monday, will be David J. Firestein, a veteran diplomat who most recently served as senior vice-president at the EastWest Institute.

From 1992 to 2010, Firestein specialized in US-China relations, serving five years at the US Embassy in Beijing, where he once got to translate for former premier Li Peng in 1995.

In November 2016, Firestein was described as "one of the best non-native speakers of Chinese in the world".

An Austin native, Firestein's fascination with China was kindled when, as a high school student in 1984, he took a trip to Asia with his parents. He still has Chinese friends from that trip.

Firestein earned a bachelor's degree from Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service and master's degrees in public affairs and Asian studies from UT-Austin.

He went on to become the first foreigner to have a regular column in a Chinese newspaper, the first foreign diplomat to publish a book while serving in China, and the first sitting foreign diplomat to host a television series in China.

One of the methods of the new center will be "track 2 diplomacy".

"It's basically the convening of influential people who are close to power but who are not in power, and who can come together to surface innovative new policy work-arounds to problems that are vexing the governments," was how Firestein described track 2 diplomacy in an interview with China Daily. "It's a kind of unofficial, people-to people interaction that is designed to inform the thinking and decision-making of policymakers."

The timing for the nonpartisan CPPC probably couldn't be better for UT, with the current political focus on the American heartland. UT also is the alma mater of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

"Particularly with this president and this presidency, the emphasis on the heartland of the United States and the Rust Belt, industrial territory, Ohio and Michigan, the notion of having a national level China entity housed at a world-class university in the heartland,able to look at the relationship through the prism of the central time zone, I think that makes a difference.

"Being here in Texas enables us to do some things and look at issues in certain ways that are different from others (such as Washington think tanks), what I might call our burnt-orange identity," Firestein said in a jocular reference to the school's colors. "We're looking hard at how we can differentiate ourselves."

One way the CPPC can do this is through its Chinese-language capability.

"Our goal will be to have two official working languages, English and Chinese, which will include Chinese-language videos on You Tube," Firestein said. "You'll see more original Chinese-language thought leadership and content generated from our center than you probably do from any other US center in the country that focuses on China."

Firestein said that "if the United States wants to be serious as a nation in terms of dealing with China and really understanding this country, then we as a nation have to get to a point that we're as comfortable doing conferences and events in Chinese as so many Chinese are doing in English."

He said "that notion of reciprocity is going to be one of the subtexts of what we do at the UT China Public Policy Center".

While the focus is on diplomacy, trade issues usually elbow their way into the discussion.

China is Texas' third-largest export market and second-largest source of imports. Texas is the No. 3 destination for Chinese foreign direct investment and for overseas Chinese students.

"There's a very substantial nexus between policy and business decisions and the business climate," Firestein said. "Where there's a policy element to business matters (such as the lifting of the beef ban, or on infrastructure or trade issues) that's where we can play a significant role to help clear away some of the policy underbrush to allow for even more robust levels of trade and investment."

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