U.S.-China relations: Try common ground, not competition

IBy Diana Fu It is no secret that the events of Sept. 11, 2001, recharged U.S.-China relations. Overnight, China metamorphosed from a burgeoning powerhouse ready to explode U.S. hegemony to a less-than-menacing giant who can lend muscle in the war on terrorism. Suddenly, Chinese cooperation in stabilizing the Taiwan straits and facilitation of U.S. negotiations with North Korea has become indispensable. In short, President George W. Bush needs China more than ever.

It is against this backdrop that I, a University sophomore, attended the first Forum for American/Chinese Exchange this previous spring. I was one of 15 American university student-delegates chosen to represent the United States. We faced 15 Chinese delegates. Our task was to find common ground as we – the U.S. delegation – assumed the roles of Chinese diplomats wrangling and bargaining with our U.S. counterparts – played by the Chinese delegation – in a simulated summit between Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao.

We – the U.S. student-delegates – met with the creme de la creme of China – graduates of China’s most prestigious academic institutions. They are the brightest of China’s future. When asked what they aimed for 10 years from now, most replied quite bluntly, “money and power.” One Chinese delegate was more philanthropic, saying she plans to get rich first and then set up a nonprofit organization to help Chinese peasants. Still, the materialism was stunning. How could these offspring of Confucianism seem so materialistic? Perhaps it is because they are the children of a generation whose family and personal ethics were wiped thin by the Cultural Revolution. No matter. These students were dynamic, charged and equipped with a mouthful of colloquial English. We shook hands, divided into four separate groups, and settled, ready to barter over policy issues surrounding Taiwan, nonproliferation, North Korea and the World Trade Organization.

The conference was intense. I found myself ushered from seminar to seminar; all were led by prominent businessmen, journalists and foreign policy experts. The roster of prominent intellects included former deputy secretary of defense William Perry; Wen Huang, a female Chinese battlefield photographer who covered the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade; and former National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter, Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski.

In an intimate conference room half-flooded with the morning light, the remarkable Brzezinski, a quick-witted, 75-year-old man, revealed that when Deng Xiaoping was constantly pressured by Carter to allow the free flow of people, he remarked, “Deal. We’ll let 10,000 people go next year. Will you take them?” This light-hearted anecdote reveals the complexity of the delicate balancing matrix between the United States and China. Demanding that China become freer is easy, but how can China clean up its human rights, environmental problems and allow the free flow of people and capital? How do you place expensive pollution control regulations on fledgling companies barely able to sustain workers’ wages? How do you allow not only a free flow but a safe flow of 1.2 billion people flocking from rural to urban China? How do you issue freedom of speech without a solid foundation in the rule of law? As a first-generation Chinese-American with sympathies for both my present country and my homeland, I feel these complexities in U.S.-Chinese relations keenly.

Perhaps the biggest power keg between the United States and China is Taiwan. Despite three previous communiques spanning 30 years during which the United States pledged a “one China” policy, Taiwan’s semi-independent state remains a sensitive spot for a People’s Republic of China determined to reunite the island with the motherland.

The People’s Republic of China is leaping on hot coals as former President Jiang Zemin’s offer to withdraw missile deployments aimed at Taiwan in exchange for reduced U.S. arms sales to Taiwan fell on deaf ears. Fudan University professor Shen Dingli proposed a unique strategy: “China should consider rolling back its missiles in Fujian Province even without a U.S. response,” he suggested. “That way, the (People’s Republic of China) can appear as an active proponent of peace in the Taiwan straits while not actually risking much since the missiles are mobile and can be rolled back to Fujian at China’s convenience.”

Insights like these offer hope for U.S.-Chinese relations. Despite the spy plane incident, the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia-Montenegro, the U.S. government’s robust weapon sales to Taiwan and the U.S. encirclement of China through its friendship with India, the two countries are bound by a similar, if fragile, vision of world peace.

As we student-delegates learned, playing a diplomat from the opposite side evokes empathy, bridges understanding and builds common ground. Perhaps Bush and Jintao ought to try swapping empathies while they work together to fight terrorism and preserve a stable Asia Pacific.

Diana Fu is a sophomore at the University of Minnesota. She welcomes comments at [email protected]