The Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing hosted former U.S. National Security Council Senior Director for Asia Evan Medeiros this month and just released a podcast, in which Medeiros is interviewed by Carnegie-Tsinghua Director Paul Haenle. Since Medeiros is fresh out of the White House (departure was announced in June), he has said little publicly. That podcast is definitely worth your time, but I found myself transcribing three of the answers. These are complete answers, but I have not transcribed the questions. Listen to the full podcast here.
MEDEIROS: I don’t believe that we’re at a tipping point. I think that you rightly pointed out we’re in a complex period in the U.S.-China relationship, but in my experience we’re always facing a complex time in the U.S.–China relationship, simply because this is a relationship defined by both cooperation and competition, and both elements are intensifying in recent years. So the important goal in China policy is to manage that cooperation and competition to ensure greater levels of cooperation, to elicit that from China, to encourage that using both incentives and disincentives, while at the same time bounding the disagreements, bounding the competition, so that doesn’t become the defining element of the relationship. And I think that is the core policy challenge, because I think there is wide agreement among specialists in the United States that we want to avoid inevitable rivalry between the United States and China. A final factor to keep in mind in assessing the future of the relationship is that this is a highly resilient relationship. We’re in year seven of the Obama administration, not year one. The channels of communication across the relationship are broader and deeper than they’ve ever been before. We know the Chinese, and they know us. We also have built up a very solid track record. The us and China, over the last seven years, have worked through some difficult issues, we have resolved crises, and we have a good track record of working together to solve important problems. North Korea’s nuclear program, Iran’s nuclear program, climate change, etc. So I think that fundamentally this relationship over the next 18 months under the Obama administration will continue to be a constructive one.
The principle issue that I’m worried about is China getting drawn into the U.S. election cycle, because that’s never a source of stability in the relationship, because it results in debates in the United States that can often demonize China in ways that negatively affect the U.S.-China relationship during the election and potentially constrain candidates, if and when they’re elected. So that’s not a helpful dynamic. I think the areas we need to work on are the areas of competition that you referred to earlier, Paul. In particular the issue of the South China Sea and cybersecurity. These are issues that not only affect American economic and security interests, they also touch on the fundamental question at the heart of the relationship, which is, what kind of rising power is China going to be? Is China going to adhere to international norms that have been accepted for decades? Or is China going to seek to revise those rules in ways that support China’s narrow interests. And so work on the South China Sea issue and the cyber issue is going to need to be done over the next 18 months, so these don’t become corrosive issues that undermine the overall stability of the relationship and put us on a path to inevitable rivalry.
Well having been through three of these big summits between President Obama and his Chinese counterpart, I have modest expectations. I think first and foremost, the most important element of any of these visits is ensuring that there’s plenty of time for both leaders to have extended discussion about the major strategic priorities in the U.S.–China relationship. It’s difficult to overstate the importance of that sort of interaction between the president of the United States and the president of China, to really work through the complexity of the relationship in order to expand cooperation and manage competition. I would encourage your listeners to do an assessment of the deliverables. That’s always important, and in particular it’s important to demonstrate that the U.S.–China relationship is delivering for the American people and that it’s serving American economic and security interests, but that should not be the only metric by which the state visit is judged as a success or a failure. I would encourage your listeners to pay attention to what President Obama and President Xi say at their press conference on the morning of the 25th. That is very high level strategic signaling on both parts, and hopefully both of them will have significant messages about taking the relationship to the next level.
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