China Could Play a More Constructive Role in Global Affairs


From March 23 to 25, 2023 in Beijing, the Center for International Security and Strategy of Tsinghua University (CISS) held the fifth International Forum on Security and Strategy with the theme of “A World at Crossroad: Re-engagement or Factionalism”. During which, China Forum of CISS had the honor to invite Ms. Susan Thornton, Senior Fellow at the Law School’s Paul Tsai China Center at Yale University, to give a podcast interview and talk about her views on the above issues. Susan Thornton expressed her views on current situation of US-China relations, China’s role in global affairs, the different views and positions of the US and China on the Ukrainian crisis and the security system in the Asia-Pacific region. She said exaggerating the concept of threat and calling each other an existential threat are useless to US-China relations. She looked forward China to playing a more constructive role in global affairs in the future.

China Could Play a More Constructive Role in Global Affairs

Jodie Wen: So, what's your impression about Beijing this time?

Susan Thornton: Actually, I'm pleasantly surprised that it looks very much the same. As I remember, I was worried so many things would have changed. I might not recognize it, but I think it looks very familiar. So that's comfortable.

Jodie Wen: So, after these three years, I don't know how you judge the current relationship between the two countries, what's your understanding of the current situation right now?

Susan Thornton: I have to say that it is hard to overestimate the negative impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on U.S.- China relations. Things started to go a little bit worse in the U.S.- China relations even before the pandemic, but when you think about it on January, 20th, 2020, the US and China signed the Phase One trade deal, and things were looking like they were going to improve. And then three days later, China locked down Wuhan city, and we soon found out that this was going to be a big problem for everyone and it really did, I think, usher in a huge change in U.S.- China relations for the worse, most probably because of basically our lack of understanding of this disease or this virus, the huge political implications for governments around the world, but especially in the US, of course, our leadership in the US at that time, you know, really blamed China for sort of reversing what they thought was some momentum on the political side. So, you know it really damaged, I think, very seriously our relationship. We've sort of been stuck there since then. Now we're coming out of the pandemic, so maybe people think there could be some momentum to try to rekindle some constructive connections between our two countries, and I'm hopeful that will happen. It hasn't been working on trying to get back some constructive interactions and hasn't really worked for the last couple of years, but now the unfortunate cancellation of secretary Blinken's visit here in the last couple of months because of this balloon incident so-called. So it's really a lot of exogenous things, crises acting on U.S.- China relations, which kind of also goes to show that, really, there's nothing that's gonna not affect our relationship, because our relationship is so big and so multifaceted and so complicated. Everything from military crises in some places else in the world, to our economic relationship, to a disease, probably whether issues everything affects our relationship and so we've got to be able to manage it a bit better. And I hope in the coming months, leading up to the APEC summit in the US that will be able to find a way to have some regular communication and have some constructive interactions.

Jodie Wen: Yeah, thank you. I think we're all looking forward to this kind of communication and interaction between our two countries. I think you had paid much attention to the two sessions just being held in Beijing. The world is concerned about how China will promote economic recovery after the pandemic and improve global governance right now. China played an important role in the Middle East to let Saudi Arabia and Iran issue a joint statement in Beijing. what're your perspectives on China's diplomacy, foreign diplomacy after the two sessions? Do you have any outlook on that?

Susan Thornton: I think after the two sessions this year, the sound bite or the sort of bumper sticker for the two sessions was that “China is back”. Recovering of the COVID-19, We've had this really difficult period of lockdowns and struggling economy. We're gonna be back. We're gonna get the economy going. We're going out and visiting foreign countries. A lot of the officials in China have been traveling much. So that was kind of a message that came. I think that outsiders like me are really looking at. And what many people want to see is -- does this mean some kind of real action on things that people have been watching for in the areas of reform?

And I think people are watching to see if this economic issue will come to fruition now and go forward, opening up of some of the sectors, fixing the fiscal systems and other things that are major kind of difficult obstacles to overcome. But maybe now they can be overcome. But I think the foreign policy is another area where people said that China is turning on a charm offensive and trying to rekindle a lot of these relationships and a lot of meetings have been happening.

And as you said, I think that the brokering of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia was a surprise to people, but also a very good sign that China is willing to step up and get more involved in mediation in some of these difficult spots around the world. That's something that, frankly, when I was in government, we were always looking to China to try to do, but China was reluctant.

So, I think now, even though because of the competition between the US and China were a little bit worried about China doing something that might increase its influence in the Middle East at the expense may be of the United States. But still, I think everyone has acknowledged this is a net benefit for all, including the US.

Jodie Wen: as your opinion, we think US governments will welcome China to play more active role in handling on international conflict issues like what I mentioned in Middle East. So, is that right?

Susan Thornton: Yeah, I think, in general, if there are conflicts out there that China can bring to bear some influence to solve or calm down or play a role to try to get a settlement that would be welcomed. But I think at the same time, you have to recognize that it takes going and communicating directly in order to try to figure out how to bring about a peace settlement. So, I think it's fair to keep an open mind about these kind of things. And if I think everyone would be happy to see this war end.

Jodie Wen: why Spokesman Kirby was opposing China's proposal to ceasefire?

Susan Thornton: Yeah. So, I think China put forward its position for a political settlement of the question. I think everyone agrees that this conflict is going to have to be settled through a political negotiation at some point. The question is whether you try to just get a ceasefire without any kind of follow-on steps being agreed. And what people worry about what's proceeding in that way is that it will freeze the line of occupation. And then basically you negotiate for years and years, and it becomes a de facto frozen conflict. And that's what their people are worried about that in this case.

Jodie Wen: I know you once served as the acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Department of State from 2017 to 2018. you are quite familiar with the Asian Pacific issues. we know China and the US are all Asian Pacific countries, right now, we have listened that we have some different ideas in these areas. scholars are all talking about the intense atmosphere in this area, So what's your point about that?

Susan Thornton: Look, I think the US has always had, since the end of World War II, these partners and allies in other parts of the world. Partly, it's a legacy from the wars in Europe, but it's also kind of emblematic of the security situation of the United States. I mean, we're on another continent. We're surrounded by two big oceans. We could just stay in our own little spot and not worry about the rest of the world and let everyone else take care of themselves. But that hasn't been what the US has been doing. We've been engaged in Europe. We've been engaged in Asia since the end of World War II, because we believe that being engaged in Europe and Asia and trying to maintain, help maintain security in those two places, means that we will have more security on the continent of the Americas. So, in the Trump administration, a lot of those relationships suffered, because there was this kind of impetus toward sort of more isolationism in the United States, or at least not spending as much effort and resources and time on allies and partners. We should focus more on ourselves at home, make America great again, right? So, I think when the Biden administration came in, they really wanted to shore up the relations with these allies. So, what you see these groupings AUKUS, the QUAD, I mean, it's really based on US traditional allies.

Jodie Wen: From a Chinese perspective, we think it's quite a threat to our security, because it's a security alliance around China and in this area.

Susan Thornton: Yeah. I think both sides have very exaggerated ideas about the threatening posture that's coming from the other side. I think that has been probably a fairly longstanding issue, but it's really acute, now. It's gotten to be a bit unmanageable. I think China's always seen the US as some kind of a threat. And I think the US has always seen China as a threat, and it's also not warranted, but this is, you know, the current environment kind of magnifies it. And I think that's, certainly there are problems. There are always gonna be problems. And when I've been working on the US-China relationship, you know, the thing that is the most urgent problem will change from 1 month to the next month. So, the problems will always be changing, but they'll always be there. But, you know, exaggerating the idea of sort of a threat and calling each other existential threat. It's just not, it's an exaggeration, I believe, and not helpful.

Jodie Wen: So, thank you again for your being here and also attending our conference. And I think it’s kind of like to track communication, we can understand each other more.

Susan Thornton: Yeah, I hope so. That's the idea. Great. Thank you for having me.

Thank you so much.

总监制Supervisor:张立荣ZHANG Lirong

制片人Podcast Producer:文晶Jodie Wen

编辑Editor:许馨匀XU Xinyun 国佳Jane GUO

翻译Translator:宋雪儿SONG Xuer 蒋绍澄JIANG Shaocheng 俞依奇YU Yiqi

后期Podcast Editor:钱姗铭QIAN Shanming

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