Editor's Note: This is part 1 of The Pacific Dialogue, between veteran Chinese diplomat Ambassador He Yafei and long-time American scholar on China Professor David Lampton. The dialogue took place on June 25, 2020, and was moderated by China-US Focus Editor-at-Large James Chau. The conversation focuses on the June 17 talks in Honolulu, Hawaii, between U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, the first high-ranking meeting between the two powers in months. He Yafei sees the talks as the beginning of renewed positive momentum, while Professor David Lampton calls for more dialogue across the board between government agencies, businesses and ordinary people.
Ambassador He Yafei and Professor DavidLampton, thanks very much for joining us.You know the world is complex and nuancedand challenged, all at the same time. We’vegot a global pandemic. We have mass protests over in the United States. We have alot of uncertainty, and in changing settingsas well. And within all that, a summit tookplace in Hawaii between China and the United States — between Mike Pompeo and YangJiechi. Let’s start with Ambassador He Yafei.Tell us, why did this summit take place? Andwhat do you take from it?
There is no public disclosure of what had been discussed in the meeting in Hawaii. But I believe talking is always better than not talking. So, my guess is that there was extensive exchange of views on very critical issues concerning both countries. They may have agreed on something or disagreed on something else—we don’t know. But I can see a beginning of good momentum in talking. You mentioned COVID-19, I think this is only an accelerator. It [COVID-19] exposed some of the deeper frictions in the relationship. For one thing, I think it’s mostly the relationship going in a bad direction, because the balance of power has changed. This is, you know— Professor Lampton is an expert— from a realist point of view on international relations. When the balance of power changes, relative ons between major powers – if one is rising, the other is the incumbent power – the frictions will increase. It’s a test for both countries, but it’s inevitable.
Professor Lampton, what do you think? Do you share that same take?
Well, I do think that friction as power relationships change is inevitable. But I don’tthink it’s inevitable how each side will manage that shift. And secondly, I don’t thinkit’s always obvious what direction the power relationship is going. In other words,you could have economic problems in theshort run, but have a very innovative anddynamic society for the long run. And so,judging exactly the state of the balance ofpower between countries is as much an artas it is a science. And I think, furthermore,on how we manage this changing balanceof power, is that there are multiple ways tohandle it. And right now, I don’t think either side is handling it very well.
But I agree with Ambassador He that, overall, the momentum (I think was the word heused) is going in a negative direction, whichbrings me to the Hawaii summit. And I’llspeak more about my understanding of theAmerican side than the Chinese side. Butfrankly, I don’t think it was very successful. I don’t think it’s solved any problems,frankly. I think at least – I don’t speak forthe U.S. government, I don’t consult withthe U.S. government at the current time, soI’m speaking my own mind – but I think,frankly speaking, President Trump is running for re-election. And he does not wantone of the few accomplishments he has inforeign policy – the phase one trade deal– to be seen as unsuccessful. And on theother hand, he’s built his political brand onbeing tough on China. So, I think he wanted to use the summit for what I would call“tactical” reasons; to look tough on China,but not destroy his signature achievement,namely the trade deal. So, I think it servedmostly domestic political purposes. But itdid not fundamentally address the issuesbetween China and the United States. Andjust to wind up, I do think, yes, friction between our two countries is inevitable. We’vehad that friction for the last 40 years. Andof course, in the Cold War, we had big frictions, but I would say the last 40 years priorto the Trump administration, and frankly,in the time prior to President Xi, we weremuch more successful in managing difficulties than we are now.
Ambassador He, what was the dangling fruit for China? Why would they want to go for this summit?
You cannot obviously expect that the first round of talks in so long to be so productive. People say, “wow, there were so many frictions and some are very deep and dangerous.” So, for me, I would turn, rather, to see whether we can identify some of the major frictions between our two countries now, and how, as Professor Lampton said, “how can we manage it better?” I think the first one, in the economic field, is decoupling. Decoupling was pushed, again, on the U.S. side, by some people out of geopolitical considerations, etc. I don’t want to overstate that, but decoupling is happening, especially in the high-tech area. But personally, I do not believe a full decoupling will soon become a reality. The second thing is [about] ideological conflict and friction. We all know China and the U.S. are different countries. They have different political systems, believe in different ideologies. But now, this ideological conflict and friction comes to the fore. You know, China has been labeled as whatever, short of an evil country. Almost every bad name has been attached to China. And China, of course, is not happy, and you have people reacting to that and saying things about the United States. So, decoupling and ideological conflict, or ideological war, are most dangerous because it will only deepen the mistrust.
He Yafei is a senior fellow of Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.
COVID-19 has the world's two most powerful countries, the United States and China, staring each other down. So far, it has, for the most part, been a war of words and soundbites - a blame game over the origins of the pandemic and each side's response to it, with the news media serving as the primary battleground. The Chinese and American media industries are ideological opposites - one operating under the watch of Communist Party censors, the other under a capitalist free market dominated by a handful of conglomerates. News outlets in both countries have, however, found their own ways to bolster the talking points of their respective governments.