Issue: 2019: Vol. 18, No. 1

There Is and Must Be Common Ground between the United States and China

Article Author(s)

Yawei Liu

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Yawei Liu is Director of The Carter Center’s China Program. Yawei Liu has been a member of numerous Carter Center missions to monitor Chinese village, township and county people’s congress deputy elections from 1997 to 2011. He has also observed elections in Nicaragua, Peru and Taiwan. He has written extensively on China’s political developments, grassroots democracy and US-China relations. Yawei edited three Chinese book series: Rural Election and Governance in Contemporary China ... 
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An Interview with Yawei Liu conducted by Sun Lu

Liu Yawei is the director of the China Program at The Carter Center in the United States and member of the China Research Center’s Board of Directors. Sun Lu is an associate professor at the Institute of International Relations of the Communication University of China. The interview was conducted in Chinese earlier this year and translated by Baker Lu, Cindy Cheng and Caroline Wang.

Q: President Carter not only built the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and China, but he also kept promoting U.S.-China relations even after he left the White House. In particular, President Carter wrote a letter to President Trump about the importance of U.S.-China relations and offered suggestions about how to repair this relationship under the current circumstances. What are the implications for the bilateral relations between U.S. and China after reviewing the history of President Carter and Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping’s decision to establish diplomatic relations and President Carter’s continuous efforts to promote U.S.-China relations after he left the office?

A: I think there are three things we can learn from history — from the Nixon 1972 ice-breaking trip to the 1978 establishment of diplomatic relations.

First of all, the normalization of diplomatic relations with China was actually easier for Nixon. He became involved in politics by embracing the anti-communist doctrine. Nixon would not have begun his political career, served as the vice president under the Eisenhower administration, or been elected as the president in 1968 if he had not shown his anti-communism sentiment. Therefore, when Nixon said that he was in contact with China, nobody suspected that he was colluding with the Chinese Communists. People believed that he did this to protect the national security.

For Carter, it was much more difficult to negotiate with China. Soon after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won the civil war in 1949, the Republicans immediately initiated a big discussion about “Who lost China,” accusing the Democrats of being pro-communist. This atmosphere led directly to the proliferation of McCarthyism. All U.S. State Department diplomats who had contact with the CCP during World War II and the Chinese Civil War were were cast aside or even fired. As a result, the Democratic Party was blamed for allowing the CCP to take power because of its softness toward the CCP. This is also the reason neither President Kennedy nor Johnson improved diplomatic relations with Beijing.

Therefore, when President Carter began secret negotiations with Deng Xiaoping, some of Carter’s assistants informed him that building diplomatic relations with China would definitely cause him to lose the 1980 election. However, Carter still established relations with China for the sake of the national interest. As for Deng Xiaoping, the pressure he faced was no less than Carter.

Based on this historical background, President Carter and Vice Premier Deng showed us that politicians must have vision and courage. Also, politicians and leaders need to grasp the necessity of compromise. Sometimes a temporary compromise can lead to a broader consensus, and this consensus can promote a win-win situation. For instance, on how to solve Taiwan issue, both Carter and Deng showed great vision and courage.

Second, mutual interests are the engine of U.S.-China relations. When the leaders of China and the United States established diplomatic relations, they faced a common enemy: the Soviet Union. Back then, Moscow’s threats to the well-being of the U.S. and China brought these two countries, which had completely different histories, cultures and political systems, together. Today, although the Soviet Union no longer exists, we face far more dangerous and uncontrollable common enemies. For instance, climate change, terrorism, Iran and other chaos in the Middle East will put the whole world in turmoil and bring disaster to the global economy.

Decades ago, China and the United States had common interests. Today, there are even more common interests between China and the United States. These common interests do not allow Washington and Beijing to part ways, and if China and the United States do not work together to face these challenges, the world might become less secure than it was during the Cold War. Back then we had certainty and predictability under a superpower duopoly, but now the world has become unpredictable and less stable because of nationalism and various other factors. Therefore, under the current circumstances, China and the United States cannot let domestic factors, especially on the U.S. side, break the ties between them.

Third, President Carter has said in his books and on the recent phone call with President Trump that many of the problems faced by the United States come from its own belligerent and failed foreign policies. On the other hand, the rise of China is precisely due to the fact that China has taken a peaceful approach to development. The shortage of money for U.S. domestic development, therefore, is caused by the vast fiscal investments in war and conflicts. The U.S. should mind its own business if it wants to become stronger and to make its politics rational again.

On the Chinese side, although it has made tremendous achievements in the past four decades and the total size of its economy is approaching the United States, its economy still faces the problem of sustainable development, which is mainly caused by challenges in deepening and expanding its economic reform and opening up. As a result, despite the fact that some of the current difficulties in Sino-U.S. relations have an international dimension, the main reasons for these difficulties are the political and economic challenges within these two countries.

Donald Trump vows to make the United States great again, to revitalize U.S. manufacturing, to boost the U.S. economy, and to make blue-collar workers proud. Xi Jinping keeps talking, from last year’s Boao Forum to this year’s One Belt One Road Summit, about how to deepen reform and expand openness, how to enhance the role of the market in the Chinese economy, and how to meet the interests and ensure fair competition with foreign companies in China. Therefore, Americans should understand that if China achieves all reform goals proposed by President Xi, the trade war will end. The truce and renegotiations achieved in the Osaka meeting between President Trump and Xi Jinping further demonstrate that in order to develop, these two leaders need to stop confronting each other and solve the problem through dialogue.

In other words, the current low point in Sino-U.S. relations actually isn’t a diplomatic problem; it stems from the externalization of domestic issues.

In the United States politicians shift domestic problems and find scapegoats by accusing China. In China domestic special interest groups caused China to miss the window for a second opportunity of reform. Therefore, as President Trump said at the press conference in Osaka, as long as China improves the environment for investment, China and the United States will be strategic partners, not opponents or enemies.

Q: During the Osaka Summit, although there was no agreement between the U.S. and China on trade, the two countries decided to resume negotiations. How do you analyze the results of this summit?

A: I think the result of this summit is like an old saying from a Chinese poem: “Find the silver lining at the end of our tethers.” After the breakdown of Sino-U.S. trade negotiations in early May, both sides actually thought about the worst outcome. The rhetoric that China and the United States will completely break their ties is rampant in both countries. However, after looking at media reports of the summit, it is possible that both China and the U.S. have gotten what they want, so both sides can find ways out. The following specific questions to be negotiated should then be dealt with by experts in the relevant fields.

Based on the comments from the American Chamber of Commerce, the two sides had reached consensus on more than 90% of the issues before the sudden breakdown of negotiations in May. The last 5%-6% are only about the details of how to implement, advance and verify the agreement. However, China and the United States have different views on these final parts. For example, there are reports that the United States has asked China to change its law to ensure its commitments to the agreements. Unsurprisingly, since this is about China’s sovereignty and dignity, China did not accept the U.S. request on this matter. Some Chinese even argue that if the government had signed this agreement, it would have been the second version of the Treaty of Shimonoseki.

After the pause of negotiations, anti-American propaganda films “Shang Ganling” and “Heroes and Children” were broadcasted on Chinese TV channels. In addition, the People’s Daily also issued scores of comments criticizing and attacking the United States. However, prior to the Osaka Summit, CCTV started to show films depicting U.S.-China friendship, like “Yellow River Love.” During the summit, we observed that Xi Jinping talked about ping-pong diplomacy and Trump praised Xi Jinping as one of most outstanding leaders in China and claimed that a trade deal could be “historic.” From all of these changing signals, we can say that the two leaders once again stopped the Sino-U.S. relationship from deteriorating and diverted it from possible confrontations to serious and equal dialogue.

When Xi Jinping met with Trump, he mentioned ping-pong diplomacy from 48 years ago and the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States 40 years ago. His words implicitly suggest that the reason why Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, Nixon, Kissinger and Carter could build the new era of the U.S.-China relations was that they had mutual respect, found common ground while putting aside differences, compromised and had fine negotiations. Today, like the mentioned great leaders, President Trump and Xi must have similar courage, vision and skills to bring Sino-U.S. relations to another new era. As an observer, I greatly admire them for their untraditional, responsible and unconventional actions.

As for those who say Trump is a “player” who just does loose talk, claim Xi Jinping’s domestic structural reforms will face great obstacles, argue that it is easy for these two leaders to say things in Osaka but it will be difficult for their assistants to do anything in Beijing and Washington D.C., my answer is that it took eight years from the ice-breaking to the establishment of diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China. In the following forty years after the establishment of diplomatic relations, the U.S. and China have written the most brilliant page of shared peace and prosperity in human history. The relationship between the two countries is intertwined and critical for the stable development of the world. Therefore, unlike some people’s rhetoric, the bilateral relationship’s importance prevents it from being broken too easily. This requires the most capable and courageous leaders to do their best to keep continuous development of this bilateral relationship, and both Trump and Xi have done this.

Q: Both the face-to-face talk between Trump and Kim Jong-Un in the Korean Demilitarized Zone and the Kim-Xi meeting in North Korea have been given lots of attention recently. What role do you think that China could still play in solving the North Korea nuclear crisis?

A: Even though I am not an expert on the Korean Peninsula, I do believe that China is willing to play a role, and its influence will be decisive.

As we look to the past, the reason why North Korea could navigate its path under the intense pressure of international sanctions was the Chinese irresolute attitude towards the situation on the Korean peninsula. Some decision makers argue that the enemy’s enemy is a friend. In other words, North Korea’s nuclear weapons threat is recognized as China’s trump card that could be used to exercise restraint over the United States at any time. If the U.S. really needs to involve China in the process of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, it should be prepared to make some concessions, such as the abolishment of Taiwan Relation Act. If China is determined enough, it has the power to wreck the economic system of North Korea, even though there are the concerns about the refugee influx crossing the Yalu River into the northeast of China.

Until 2017, the Chinese government still categorized the Korean peninsula crisis as a “none of my business” issue. As a Chinese adage suggests, “untying a bell needs the one who ties the knot in the beginning.” The North Korea nuclear crisis should remain a problem between North Korea and the United States. It is the potential threat that the U.S. has imposed upon North Korea that causes the problem. As a result, as long as the two countries build mutual trust, this issue will be solved naturally without too much help that China could offer. However, the situation has started to change since the surprise visit of Kim to China last year. Kim-Xi meetings have happened four times. Two took place before Donald Trump met Kim. From my perspective, even though the “shake hands and say hello” between Trump and Kim after the G20 Summit seemed largely unplanned, this decision must have been related to the recent Xi-Kim meeting. For China, the only way to maximize its gains is to actively participate in the Korean peninsula issue. A separate peace between the U.S. and North Korea is the worst thing for the country’s political interest. Akin to what China did 66 years ago — signing the Korean Armistice Agreement — there is no denying that the country plays a critical role in carrying out a new peace treaty in North Korea. Even though China cannot guarantee the same protection that the U.S. promises for Seoul, the situation could still be greatly altered if China could convince Kim to give up military plans and start to rejuvenate the domestic economy.

After all, we should never forget the blood-cemented historical relationship between China and North Korea. Today, China serves as the essential provider and passage of goods for North Korea. Passing Beijing is a must for North Korean officials who travel abroad for foreign affairs. Moreover, China is also the test field that proves the huge success of economic reforms. For me, it’s unwise to simply hold these advantages. In fact, under the gathering cloud of Sino-America tension, China should be more actively involved in Washington’s effort to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula through a combination of sanctions and diplomatic activities. Only by doing so can China reduce the perception held by the American elite that it is not a responsible great power. China needs to convince Washington that it is doing its best to share the burden of denuclearization and peaceful development on the Korean Peninsula.

Q: One female officer in the United States State Department pointed out that the conflict between China and the United States is a clash of civilizations. This is an unprecedented viewpoint for the discussion of Sino-America relationship. How do you interpret this perspective?

A: “Clash of civilizations” first appeared in the famous argument of Samuel P. Huntington. Before the publication of his book in 1996, the mainstream argument was rooted in Francis Fukuyama’s book, The End of History and the Last Man, in which he argues that the end of the Cold War and the end of the history is symbolized by the triumph of western democracy represented by the United States over the socialism represented by the Soviet Union. However, Huntington holds different opinions, advocating that the world faces more deeply-rooted conflicts than the battle between different ideologies: the clash of civilizations. After the 9/11 attack, the Fukuyama’s argument was gradually replaced by Huntington’s. In the 21st century, the global village is more turbulent. There is not only the western culture dominated by America but also Chinese civilization, Islamic civilization, and others. It’s reasonable to predict that the clash of civilizations will be more uncertain, the contradictions will be more irreconcilable, and the corresponding fissures will be more intensive.

Kiron Skinner, the Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State, once grandiloquently described the great power competition during the Cold War as a “fight within the western family.” Today, the competition with China is completely different, since China is the first competitor for the U.S. that is “not Caucasian” and not predominately white. This is the real clash of races, ideologies, and civilizations. With a Ph.D. earned from Harvard University and as a political science professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Skinner makes herself a mockery by advocating such a hilarious argument. It’s even more ironic that, as an African American, she criticizes the cultural collision between white and black people. Prejudice is farther away from truth than ignorance. Skinner boasts herself as the follower of Condoleezza Rice, the former U.S. secretary of state, who has claimed numerous times that she is the direct beneficiary of the Civil Rights Movement. According to her, if there had been no magnificent movement led by Martin Luther King, there would not have been possible for her to achieve the outstanding academic outcomes and brilliant political career (the first black secretary of state in the U.S.). I have no idea how she will comment on her student and whether she will call the severe contradiction between the American white and black people that still exists after the abolishment of slavery 165 years ago, as the “clash of civilizations” as well.

By no means should we deny that China and the United States have great differences in history, civilization and political systems and incompatibilities caused by the characteristics of distinctive civilizations. This cannot be avoided. However, this does not mean that the two countries will end up with a civilization clash. I am convinced that leaders, scholars and ordinary citizens of China and the U.S. could through exploration find ways to combine the advantages of the two civilizations and overcome the respective deficiencies.

As China has always suggested, the two countries should seek agreement and peaceful coexistence while shelving differences. Once standing at the same position of Skinner, George Kennan was in charge of planning U.S. long-term foreign policy. If Skinner regards current Sino-American friction as the clash of civilizations, this preconceived prejudice will definitely thwart the possible reconciliation of the two countries.

Different civilizations have coexisted in the world for centuries. Even though there have been contradictions and wars, the general progress of human civilization continues to develop in an inclusive and eclectic era. After not formally recognizing China for 30 years, the United States eventually discovered the possible foundation of collaboration with China. In the following 40 years, the two countries together have built the East Asia and Pacific area into the brightest spot of peace and prosperity. I believe that these two civilizations will create more brilliant moments in the future, exploring unprecedented paths for the establishment of the community of shared future for mankind.

Q: I would like to ask about a new trend in the field of American colleges and universities. Emory University, which is cooperating with The Carter Center, recently dismissed several Chinese professors. Yesterday, the U.S. National Public Radio reported that the FBI recommended that American universities should supervise Chinese scholars and students on campus. What do you think about this trend?

A: First of all, let’s look back at what has happened: the U.S. FBI director said in testimony before Congress last February that China’s threat to the United States is a threat to the entire society and that a U.S. counterattack should also target the entire society. On October 4, Vice President Pence delivered a speech saying that China’s threat to the United States is government-wide, so the U.S. counterattack against China’s threat should also be government-wide. On November 28, the Hoover Institution and Asia Society, both famous think tanks, co-sponsored and co-authored “The American Interests, China’s Influence,” which argued that China is engaging in large-scale, fruitful penetration and erosion of the United States, including universities. Subsequently, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) issued a document requesting that research institutions receiving funding from China should review whether they were violating regulations. Following the dismissal of several Chinese-American and Chinese scholars at the Anderson Center, a famous cancer research institution in Houston, Emory University also ordered a Chinese-American couple to leave.

All these subsequent statements and actions remind people of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the McCarthyism of the 1950s. The discrimination against the Chinese in the past seems to have reemerged. In the United States, Chinese communities, other minority organizations, and many prestigious universities have expressed concern that they will not allow such a policy discriminating against a race to continue to expand.

Second, since the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the United States 40 years ago, the greatest cooperation has actually been in education and scientific research, as well as cooperation in economy, trade, culture, politics, security and other fields. Chinese students have been the largest group of international students on American campuses for many years. Chinese scholars, especially those who have blended into American society after receiving a degree in the United States, are located at almost all the American universities and research centers. Chinese students have made great contributions to the prosperity of American universities. The research carried out by Chinese-American and Chinese scholars certainly helps put the United States at the forefront of innovation and invention.

Have Chinese scholars in the United States violated relevant laws and regulations and transferred their research results without disclosing them to their institutions or without the approval of their institutions? This surely has happened, but only involving a very small number of people. The United States should not just look at the trees and disregard the forest. I believe that American universities and scientific research institutions will not pursue the dead end of “Science with Borders” and will not give up the key that allows them to dominate the world’s scientific research, which is valuable because all talented people can realize their dreams in the United States.

Finally, Americans should not just calculate their own trade deficits. Instead, they should also calculate their own education and research dividends. Tuition paid by Chinese students to American universities each year are a huge bonus in the United States. The research dividends created by Chinese scholars for the United States should be astronomical.

At present, anti-China and anti-Chinese voices are constantly rising, but I believe that the United States will neither make the same mistake made in 1882 again nor allow McCarthyism to reemerge. All Chinese who have been educated and have done research in the United States, whether they will be in the United States or China in the future, are bridges between China and the United States, bind two different civilizations together, and are the engines of theChinese and Americanefforts to create a new civilization for mankind.

Q: Beijing held the second Belt and Road summit in April. You have recently visited Africa several times. How do local people respond to the Belt and Road, and what do you think of this initiative?

A: The first thing to say is that the role of the Belt and Road has been infinitely magnified in China. The Belt and Road has become a basket, and everything can be put into it. Fundamentally, the Belt and Road is actually using China’s own production capacity and capital advantages to add to the development of China and improve China’s infrastructure. Beyond that, it can increase trade, lower tariffs, reduce non-tariff barriers, deepen mutual understanding between China and the countries along the Belt and Road, and finally form a situation in which the tide lifts all boats, and all countries embrace sufficiency. If we follow this way of thinking to implement the Belt and Road initiative, it will not only benefit China but also benefit all developing countries and increase trade and other associations between developing and developed countries. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly pointed out that China is the biggest beneficiary of economic globalization, and the Belt and Road allows countries that have not yet fully integrated to the economic globalization to check in and board the train.


If the story of the Belt and Road is like this, many countries that maliciously attack the initiative, especially the leaders of the United States, may become speechless. Countries along the route must also be consistent with China in the ultimate goal of the Belt and Road initiative and tell the story of the initiative together with Beijing. If they do not recognize the view that the Belt and Road initiative is a so-called debt trap and conspiracy to plunder resources and invade the sovereignty of small countries, China will win more friends and partners.

Last week, the World Bank released an evaluation report on the Belt and Road. The report concludes that “One Belt, One Road” is a project that benefits the world but not without risks and challenges. The four major risks mentioned by the World Bank are debt, environment, management, and social unrest. If the sponsor nations of the Belt and Road initiative design the top-level well, increase the transparency of project loans and fair bidding on projects, understand, digest and implement projects and provide relevant information for the domestic people, the final success of the project will be more guaranteed. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is very positive about this report, indicating that the Chinese government has become more mature and pragmatic regarding the Belt and Road initiative.

In fact, the second Belt and Road summit hosted by Beijing shows that Chinese leaders have realized the challenges that the initiative has encountered and will face in the process of promotion. They have become more objective and practical in its promotion. At the same time, China has also begun to expand the circle of friends and partner groups of the Belt and Road.

The United States is not a country involved in the Belt and Road, and the United States has gradually transitioned from ignorance to misunderstanding and hostility. We cannot underestimate the ability of the United States to use its own strength and power to interfere with and undermine the Belt and Road initiative. In the past two years, the chief leaders of the U.S. State Department have warned the leaders of participant countries during their visits to those developing and developed countries that they should not board Beijing’s train because the train only leads to one station – the debt station. To break through the U.S. blockade of the Belt and Road initiative, China must, as mentioned earlier, break the U.S. decision-making and media portraits that demonize the initiative. Second, China should actively provide the U.S. government, think tanks, and NGOs with information about and conditions of development. Third, China should actively invite American companies to participate in bidding for projects and discuss with the U.S. government and non-governmental organizations about engaging in trilateral cooperation in the countries that join the Belt and Road. The United States asserts that China is doling out stories in the African countries and Latin America to set debt traps there. For example, East Africa is an important node on the maritime silk rinioad. China should cooperate with the United States in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Djibouti to increase mutual trust and cultivate the habit of cooperation in various forms. In this way, China and the U.S. can make good contributions to building Africa as a new continent with sustainable development in the world economy.