Susan Thornton on US-China Relations

Susan A. Thornton is a retired senior U.S. diplomat with extensive experience in Eurasia and East Asia.  She is currently a Senior Fellow and Research Scholar at the Yale University Paul Tsai China Center and a Non-Resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution.  

Until July 2018, Thornton was Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Department of State and led East Asia policy making amid crises with North Korea, escalating trade tensions with China, and a fast-changing international environment.  In previous State Department roles, she worked on China and Korea policy, including stabilizing relations with Taiwan, the US-China Cyber Agreement, the Paris Climate Accord and the Agreed Framework on North Korean denuclearization. In overseas postings in Central Asia, Russia, the Caucasus and China, Thornton’s leadership furthered U.S. interests and influence in a host of difficult operating environments.  

Thornton received her MA in International Relations from Johns Hopkins SAIS and her BA from Bowdoin College in Economics and Russian.  Apart from her foreign policy work, she devotes her spare time to community, education, fresh food and connecting with nature on her family farm in Lisbon, Maine.

Kelsey Clarke CMC'22 interviewed Susan Thornton on September 30, 2019.

Many observers term the unfolding strategic competition between the US and China "a new cold war." Is the term "cold war" appropriate here? Has such a conflict really started and is it irreversible?

What has started, regardless of what you call it, is not irreversible. That said, there is a problem with using this term “cold war.” It is quite handy as short-hand for the kind of confrontation that people in Washington seem to feel might be emerging between the US and China. We have contested areas with China in so many different realms of our relationship. Nonetheless, our current relationship is quite different from a cold war or the Cold War. There is a lot of discussion among China experts and other foreign policy experts about the use of the term “cold war.” Most people wish that we would stop using it because it creates a lot of miscommunication and misperceptions. The Cold War was a contest of systems; it was the US versus the Soviet Union, and the Soviets made clear declaratory statements that the long-term goal of their system was to spread communism throughout the world and eradicate systems like the US system. That is obviously not happening with China and people who think it is are quite mistaken. Moreover, during the Cold War there was the common understanding among all countries that they had to be on one side or the other. Some countries did try to play both sides, but generally there was this contest over influence in certain countries. The US and the USSR tried to get countries on their side. I don’t see that happening in the current case. Other countries don’t want to choose between the US and China, the two biggest economies in the world. It is really a completely different situation from the Cold War. 

What issues require confrontation?

I wouldn’t use the word confrontation probably, but certainly the word competition is appropriate. There are areas where we are competing, like in many economic spheres or some security aspects. And there are areas where we just have fundamental disagreements. Even in those areas, however, there is a certain amount of cooperation that we should be trying to achieve. One example of that would be the situation with Taiwan. Most people would say that Taiwan has been the central disagreement in US-China relations since diplomatic relations were established in 1979. We have never really managed to come to a common understanding on Taiwan. We have this unstated ambiguity. We decided to kick the can down the road but it doesn't mean that both the US and China don’t have an important role to play in maintaining stability across the Taiwan Straits. In that sense, even though we are competing there, even though we disagree fundamentally, we are still cooperating in a way to try to preserve stability.

China hawks believe that if the US does not confront China now, it will be too costly or impossible to confront in a decade from now when China gains even more power. What do you think of this view?

I don't really understand this view at all. Some hawks seem to assume that China wants to attack the US or somehow undermine the US fundamentally. That is an unrealistic view. China is a country that contains one-fifth of humanity. It is a modernizing and developing country, but it has made a lot of progress. It is the second largest economy in the world. I don't think it is realistic to think we are going to somehow confront them and undermine their role in the world, or their development, or their position. We have to figure out how to manage the aspects of China's behavior that we find threatening to balance any kind of security infringements that we see coming from them. We also need to figure out how to work together on our common interests. It is going to be a relationship just like any other relationship where you have problems and you have positive aspects, and you just learn to deal with those. This idea - this very black and white picture – of a victor and a vanquished is not appropriate for the US-China relationship.

President Trump's tough approach to China seems to enjoy broad bipartisan support. Are there real differences between Republicans and Democrats on China?

 This is a complicated question because on one level we are looking at political considerations, and on another, we are talking about actual substantive matters. Republicans and Democrats would both acknowledge that how China fares in the international economic system is crucially important for the U.S. and for the global economy. The economic relationship needs to be set right so that we can work with China fairly in the international trading system. Republicans and Democrats also agree with Trump that we have not held the Chinese to account in the international trading relationship and they have gotten away with bad behavior and unfair practices. The question on how to respond effectively is an area in which they have differing perspectives However, the differences are not coming out too clearly in the presidential debates because everything gets morphed together in those debates. They are not super detailed or nuanced right now in foreign policy. The most you hear them saying are things like, “Well, I think it's great that Donald Trump raised this issue. And it’s appropriate because it's a big deal but he's not doing it right in this or that way.” A lot of people are missing the fact that what Donald Trump is doing on US-China relations is not only in the economic sphere but also in terms of security. There is a lot of movement institutionally and legislatively on security related matters with respect to China that will lock in a lot of antagonistic types of interactions with China for a while. Nobody is really focused on that yet, and somebody needs to look at those things and figure out if that's really the right direction.

As you previously mentioned, the US has been making a lot of institutional changes in regards to China that has exacerbated tension between the two nations. What is the nature of the China challenge to the US? How has recent Chinese conduct contributed to rising tensions with the US?

We certainly don't want to excuse the Chinese in the problems that we are experiencing now. It is really an historic misfortune that we have two dominant personalities as leaders in the US and in China right now. Certainly under President Xi Jinping there has been a radical shift in focus on internal repression, which causes a lot of consternation in the US. It is a counterfactual, of course, but if China had at the Third Plenum in 2013, gone ahead and pushed through a reform program and enacted it, and continued along the trajectory of market economic reform that we had been seeing, would we be in the situation we are today? But that didn’t happen, so we don’t know. Some people say that there were a lot of reasons in China for that, and maybe so. Nevertheless, it’s on them because that was the promise they made when they joined the WTO in 2001. They promised they were going to pursue market economic reform. Then they kind of stopped and that alarmed a lot of people. The internal political tightening and human rights violations have gotten a lot worse in China. On the military and foreign policy side too, we also have seen a lot of changes. The incursions in the South China Sea and the build-up of those islands in contravention of international law are huge concerns not only for the United States but for everyone in the region. 

Where do you see the US-China relationship a decade from now?

It depends, of course. These are two huge countries in the international system and we have a lot more in common than many actually realize. People focus on the confrontations, the drama, and the differences, but we have an awful lot in common. Our future relationship will depend to some extent on what are the international challenges that arise in the next 10 years. If you think back over the history of US-China relations, a lot of things were defined by exogenous events that happened - both within the relationship, but from the outside, too. There is Tiananmen Square, which was a defining moment inside and outside of China, actually. And then there were a couple of crises, like when the U.S. bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade or when there was this accident with a fighter jet and a US surveillance plane. There was also the Taiwan straits crisis. But then we’ve also had 9/11, and we’ve had climate change, and other big things like counter-piracy on the seas to try to protect shipping. Since things come up in the international system all the time, and it just depends whether those things become major power confrontations or whether they are transnational issues that people can cooperate and deal with. I tend to think that we are going to have more things in the next 10 years that are going to be transnational issues. I don’t really see major power conflict as being a driving factor right now. China is still very internally focused and a lot of the major countries are focused on other things. What might be a dividing issue? Something like climate change, or some terrible accident, or some terrorist event, or maybe cyber security is going to be a big issue, it could divide or even unify the US and China. We have always gotten along on some things and clashed on other things, like every other bilateral relationship. We will figure out how to manage that better than we do right now.

Kelsey Clarke CMC'22Student Journalist

Featured Image “President Donald J. Trump and President Xi Jinping at G20” courtesy of the White House via Wikimedia Commons.

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