Sino-U.S. Relations in the Eyes
of a Chinese Diplomat

by Yucheng Le

(note: This article is based on a speech the author
gave at Cornell University on March 2, 2001.)

During his presidential campaign, George W. Bush made many harsh remarks about China and Sino-U.S. relations. He criticized Bill Clinton for placing China in the center of the United States' Asia policy. He asserted that China is not a strategic partner but a competitor. He also vowed to defend Taiwan's security from an alleged Mainland threat. Many people, including some prominent China experts, are thus worried about the new administration's China policy and predict that Sino-U.S. relations are going downhill. The U.S. public is also concerned about possible setbacks in the relations with China in the near future.

My estimation, however, is not so gloomy. Despite President Bush's campaign rhetoric about China, it is hard to imagine that the U.S. and China are drifting apart and confronting each other in the years to come, as both countries have high stakes in the maintenance of a sound and healthy relationship. There are substantial reasons to support this view.

First, the two nations share a long history of close contacts. Though separated by a vast ocean, the two peoples have always been eager to build bridges over the Pacific. Exchanges between the Chinese and Americans date back to well over two centuries. Not long after the United States of America was born, the young nation began to reach out to the ancient, perhaps mysterious, land of the East. In 1784, an American merchant clipper, the "Empress of China", sailed across vast oceans to call on China's southern port of Guangzhou. Almost at the same time, Chinese immigrants began to settle in America and joined the early development of the United States. Today you may find Chinese communities everywhere throughout the States, especially in New York City, Los Angles and San Francisco. They have added unique characters to the diversity of the American society.

By the mid-19th century, tens of thousands of Chinese workers had been employed at the construction sites of America's coast-to-coast railway. About 50,000 Chinese workersperished during that massive and often perilous undertaking. Today, American people still cherish the memory of their contributions.

During World War II, the two peoples fought shoulder to shoulder against Japanese fascism. More than 300 American planes were lost and over 1,000 young American pilots were killed in action in China. The Chinese people will never forget the sacrifices made by these American pilots for this great cause.

During the Cold War, China and the U.S., despite their differences in ideologies and political systems, reached common positions of counterbalancing military expansion by hegemonic powers in Asia and Africa, thus safeguarding regional and global peace and stability. At the height of the Cold War, in 1972, President Nixon made an historic trip to China, which led to the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1979, ushering in a new era of Sino-U.S. cooperation in all areas of bilateral agenda.

Second, the mutual engagement and cooperation between our two countries is a fact of life, not an assumption or a choice that we need to make. The two nations are already closely linked together by an extensive web of cultural, societal, scientific, and commercial ties that bind the two peoples together through countless daily human exchanges. Daily flights between China and the U.S. last year alone carried nearly 200,000 Americans to China and even more (240,000) Chinese to the U.S. Right now over 50,000 Chinese and 3,000 Americans are studying in each other's country. Scientific and athletic exchanges have become more frequent than ever. The latest discovery of the map of human genome is the result of the joint efforts made by scientists from a dozen countries, including the cooperation between Chinese and American scientists. Two weeks ago, three top Chinese women soccer athletes joined American teams, and will participate in the coming league play. Transnational marriages between Chinese and Americans are common as people to people contacts increase. Many Chinese provinces and cities have established sister relationships with their U.S. counterparts. Extensive trade and commercial ties have also bound the two nations. Sino-U.S. trade volume has expanded more than 32 times from $2.4 billion in 1979 to nearly $75 billion in 2000, with an annual growth of over $10 billion in recent years. Now the United States is the second largest trade partner of China and China the fourth of the United States.

Flourishing trade and economic links have brought tangible benefits to the two countries. For China, its exports to the U.S. provide nearly one million jobs and for the United States, trade
with China supports about 400,000 high-wage jobs at home. The 30,000 or so prospering U.S. corporations in China have also been a major factor in the maintenance of a booming U.S. economy for 130 consecutive months.

The agreement on China's WTO accession provides a typical "win-win" situation. China's entry into the WTO, while giving a fresh impetus to China's reform, opening up and modernization program, also offers abundant business opportunities to the United States. A new upsurge of Sino-U.S. trade and economic cooperation is in the offing. According to the bilateral trade agreement, the average tariffs in China will be progressively lowered from the present 25 percent to 9 percent and the U.S. will benefit much more from trading with China than now.

These people to people contacts and bilateral interactions, neither generally reported in the media nor appreciated by many analysts, are usually off the radar screen of the American public. However, they give significant depth and breadth to Sino-U.S. relations, form a real web between the two countries, and provide powerful buffers against any volatility in political or strategic relations. They are the real driving forces that propel our relations forward.

Third, from the angle of government to government relations, China and the U.S. have every reason to cooperate despite the presence of many discordant issues. As permanent members of the UN Security Council and major powers of the world, both countries have special responsibilities for world peace and stability requiring the two to work together. In fact, over the past years the two countries have successfully collaborated in many areas. Together we have helped stabilize the Korean peninsula, checked the nuclear arms race in South Asia, promoted an international non-proliferation regime, alleviated the Asian financial crisis, fought poverty and AIDS, and provided disaster relief and peacekeeping operations in post conflict regions. In addition, we have made joint efforts in addressing such transnational issues as narcotics trafficking, organized crime, terrorism, illegal immigration and smuggling. Last December, for instance, we were told that a large amount of Chinese relics were smuggled to the U.S. and seized by the law enforcement officials in Florida. Our colleagues in D.C., who were dispatched to handle the issue, were worried about the trip in light of the Ellian Gonzales incident and the ballot recount dispute. However, when they arrived and talked with the local authorities, they were surprised to find out that the Floridians were very cooperative with China in effectuating the successful return of all the relics.

The three points above constitute the stabilizing factors that anchor our relations to a solid foundation. With some further analysis, we could identify even more important and substantive elements that underlie these tangible developments. The fact that Sino-U.S. relations have witnessed a nearly three-decade continuous expansion despite all the ups and downs since 1972 highlights the sometimes hidden strategic interests of both countries in promoting all-round ties with each other. The United States is increasingly aware that the rise of China is probably irreversible and that many regional and global issues cannot be resolved without China's collaboration. It now tends to see to its interest that China be integrated into the world economy and global institutions and act as a responsible and stabilizing political force in Asia and in the world. As a recent New York Times editorial aptly noted: As the 21st century unfolds, Beijing's advance to the front ranks of global power will take on ever-greater significance. On the other hand, if China's modernization drive fails, Asia will not only lose a vital stabilizing pillar, but could also suffer many spillover effects and even a plunge into chaos, which might spread to the rest of the world including the United States. That outcome would be the worst nightmare to the Americans. As for China, maintaining a constructive relationship with the U.S., the world's only superpower, will bring both economic and, more importantly, strategic benefits. The realization of the three major goals set by the Chinese leadership for the country in the 21st century-economic prosperity, national reunification and peaceful international environment-will to a large extent depend on the development of Sino-U.S. relations. Therefore, these strategic interests of both countries have created ample room for the peaceful co-existence and constructive cooperation between China and the United States in the new century.

All things have two sides and our relationship is no exception. To handle our differences properly, we need to understand and learn from each other. It is important that we should not always look for faults or pick holes in each other's behavior. In this connection it is worth pointing out that the U.S. media is oftentimes overly harsh and critical of China. In its eyes, China is an adversary, a threat: everything in China is dark, backward, and hopeless. This is not true. On the contrary, China is vigorous and progressing with each passing month, if not week. For the past ten years, double-digit annual growth has been the norm. According to Standard & Poor, China's national income has quadrupled and more than 200 million people have been lifted out of poverty, perhaps the most rapid improvement of living standards in human history. Many Chinese cities have undergone staggering changes, and quite a few of them have emerged literally from rice paddy fields. People now drive Volkswagens, drink Starbucks coffee and wear Burberry raincoats. While a decade ago, having a home phone was considered a luxury in China, a mobile phone is now a vital business tool not only for entrepreneurs but also for street hawkers. In Beijing alone there are more than three million cell phone users, making up a quarter of the city's eleven million population. The change in telecommunications is only a tip of the iceberg, but probably many Americans have never heard about it, because such things are rarely reported in the American press. What they read about China most of the time instead is espionage, the Cox report, the political contributions, abuse of human rights, torture of prisoners, proliferation of nuclear technologies, etc.

Indeed, the U.S. media are rarely pleased with whatever China does. When we have a good harvest and better economy, it is a threat, because the government will allegedly channel the money into the military sector. When we have an economic decline, it is also a threat, because the government will allegedly make trouble outside in order to divert people's attention from domestic problems. When we have disagreements with our neighbors over some disputed issues, it is a threat, because China is "destabilizing" the region. When we try to make friends and build good neighborliness, it is again a threat--China in this instance would be accused of forming anti-U.S. alliances and thus challenging U.S. interests in Asia. When we buy weapons, it is military build-up and a threat. When we sell weapons, it is proliferation, and it is also a threat. So we simply don't know the right thing to do.

Many people in China are often dismayed and frustrated by these unfair reports and false accusations. I once discussed my perplexity with a group of foreign journalists, who used to work in China over the past years. They explained that the media are inherently suspicious, always seeking something sensational in accordance with the logic that "if it bleeds, it leads." Journalists also have a half-glass-of-water theory: while government emphasizes that the glass is half full, the media see it as half empty. Their points are understandable, but I contend that any report should be based on objectiveness, facts and truth. Here is an example illustrating how far a report can deviate from the reality. China is now developing its West, building highways and railroads just like Americans did in the 19th century. The project is welcomed by people of all nationalities living in this region, but we are accused by an American newspaper of robbing resources and colonizing the West. Reports like this often mislead the American public.

Last but not the least, adequate attention should be paid to the problem of Taiwan. It is by far the most important and most sensitive issue at the heart of Sino-U.S. relations. First, Taiwan is not an independent state, but an inalienable part of China. It bears on China's sovereignty, territorial integrity and national reunification and touches the national nerves of China's 1.2 billion people. Second, the Taiwan issue is left over by history after the Chinese civil war in the late 1940s. The Mainland has been persistently seeking national reunification on the basis of the "One China" principle, which is recognized by the vast majority of countries in the world, including the United States. Third, the problem is that some separatist forces in Taiwan, including the right wing within the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), deny the "One China" consensus and push for separatism. And it should be noted that some forces in the United States are constantly backing the separatists in Taiwan by pledging to defend Taiwan from a so-called Mainland threat and to increase arms sales to Taiwan. This move is extremely dangerous and may precipitate the United States into a regional war. So we sincerely hope the Bush administration will continue to abide by the three Joint Communiqu? and honor the commitments made by both the Republicans and the Democrats to the "One China" principle. This is of vital importance to the stable development of Sino-U.S. relations, and to the protection of American strategic interests as well.

As a Chinese diplomat, I have confidence in a bright future of the Sino-U.S. relations in the years to come. The past history suggests that sound and stable bilateral relations serve the interests of both countries and enjoy the support from both peoples. The Sino-U.S. relations, opened by a Republican president, established by a Democratic president, and subsequently strengthened by both Republican and Democratic administrations, should only continue to prosper during the Bush administration.

(Author's note: Soon after I gave the above speech at Cornell University, a U.S. military surveillance plane and a Chinese jet fighter collided above the South China Sea. The ensuing tension between the two countries has made some people more pessimistic about the Sino-U.S. relationship. Now with the U.S. crew back to home, the tension is being eased, but the problem is not over. This incident has highlighted the volatility and vulnerability of Sino-U.S. relations, which now stand at the crossroads. Which directions are we heading, restoration or retribution? The strategic interests of our nations are at stake and our immediate choices may have far-reaching consequences. At this critical moment what we need most is vision and leadership. Instead of pointing fingers or trading barbs, what we should do now is to draw lessons from the incident, make positive steps to mend our common fences and look forward. We should not let our differences and national pride drive us apart. As President Bush puts it, the U.S. and China "have different values, yet common interests" and both nations "must make a determined choice to have productive relations." Mr. Bush's statement is encouraging and now we have the opportunity to make it work in the interests of both nations. The relatively smooth resolution of the plane incident suggests that leaders from both sides have the right instinct and insight to achieve the difficult but vital goal of a constructive Sino-U.S. relationship.)

(The author is a Chinese diplomat based in New York.)