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. Sun Yun, Director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, to do a podcast interview. Sun Yun shared her opinions on how the American people are feeling for China and where the subtle changes come from. Although the current US-China relationship is in trouble, the two countries can work together to manage differences, and think tanks can play an important role as a bridge.
It Takes Time to Recover U.S.-China Ties
Jodie Wen: Welcome to our program. Could you please introduce yourself first?Yun Sun: Well, thank you for the invitation to be here. It's a great pleasure and great honor. Thank you for the invitation. My name is Yun Sun and I'm Director of China Program and Co-Director of East Asia Program at the Stimson Center. We are a Washington DC-based global security think tank. I'm also a non-resident fellow with Brookings, Brookings Institution, associated with both the global development program and their foreign policy program. So, I have always focused on China, China's foreign policy, U.S.-China relations, and China's interaction with the rest of the world. Jodie Wen: Because of the Covid-19, how long has it been since your last visit to Beijing?Yun Sun: I think before this trip, the last time I was in Beijing was January 25th of 2020. So, it has been three years and two months in total. It was before COVID. But I think at that time, nobody was anticipating that this separation would last for so long. Jodie Wen: You are an expert in China-U.S. relationship and living in U.S for a long time. After this long pandemic, what's your impression about the current relationship between our two countries?Yun Sun: So being in Washington for about 20 years now, I will say this past three years, you really witnessed unprecedented deterioration of relations between the U.S. and China. You could sense it every day. You could see it from the media every day. And you could visibly see the attitude of the U.S. policy community towards China, just getting worse and worse and worse. And there's no good news. There's nothing good about China. And there's no good news on the U.S.-China relations. It was also three years, you know, that China had a very strict COVID quarantine and COVID control policy. As in that policy or the factual or the actual separation of people, because people couldn't travel, has made the misunderstanding or the misperception even worse compared to otherwise would have been. So, I would say that yes, the past three years have witnessed unprecedented deterioration of relations between the two countries. So hopefully, now China has reopened, we can make things better. Jodie Wen: U.S. government, especially the Biden administration, judge the Chinese government as a strategic competitor right now. How do you think of the different views from the U.S. government and American people? Do you think they share the same attitude towards China?Yun Sun: That's a great question. I would say that American people are not that well informed about China, because it's like Chinese people's understanding of America, a lot of it depends on what the government says and what the media says, right? So, the source of the information or the type of the information that they receive about China has been very negative. It's like, American people don't interact with China, but when the balloon incident happened last month, it really presented a real sense of threat to the common people. So, it's that type of hysteria or it's that type of narratives that I think is being portrayed and being presented by the media and by a lot of American politicians that have, in my view, poisoned how people in the United States see China. And those perceptions are indeed very significant in terms of the shaping and influence. Jodie Wen: You just mentioned the balloon incident, can we conquer this incident to recover our bilateral relationship?Yun Sun: I think the problem is the U.S.-China relations have been abnormal for a very long time. Yes, the Bali Summit between President Xi and President Biden helped to improve the dynamic and perception in both countries, and there was a very strong anticipation, a sense of anticipation that things would be better, but then the balloon happened. I think things will recover, but it will take time. Last week, I was in Washington and I was asking a friend, hey, what do you think is going to happen to the U.S.-China relations？And this is someone who has been observing the relationship for a very long time and he said it's like a person, a normal person but suddenly got stabbed in the back. And will this person recover? He will recover, but it will take time for it to recover. And once it recovers, it may not go back to the same place where he was.I think that's quite accurate in fact. But on the other hand, I think people's expectation about the Bali Summit and the improvement of relations are really not very high. To begin with, 10 years ago, Kenneth Lieberthal, an American scholar, and professor Wang Jisi from Peking University, they jointly published a report. I think that really nailed down the problem between the U.S. and China, which is structural that the U.S. as a status quo power and China as a rising revisionist power, their conflict, in some way, is inevitable, is determined by who they are and where they are in the international system.So, in that sense, this structural conflict cannot be eliminated. So, the best you can do is how to manage it. So, the balloon incident has made the management issue more difficult. Jodie Wen: With the increasing mutual distrust between China and the U.S., the space for cooperation between our two is getting smaller and smaller right now, while the areas of potential conflicts are getting more and more. As a China-born scholar working in a U.S. think tank, how do you think of the role of think tank scholars in influencing China-U.S. relations？Do you think that the American think tank scholars have an objective and in-depth understanding of China?Yun Sun: I work in the think tank community and have been there for about 20 years. I think tank plays a very important role in the U.S.-China relations and also in terms of the US policy towards China, not because think tanks help to make decisions, but because think tanks provide perspectives, information, and alternative thinking on the existing policy. So, I think tank scholars do try to contribute towards a policy by, for example, providing information that the government was not aware of or providing perspectives that the government was not aware of. I think in the past 3 years, it has been very difficult for American think tank scholars to understand China, because we were not here. Jodie Wen: How did you do research about China during these 3 years？Sun Yun: I read Chinese language material every day, I watch CCTV every day. I read the Chinese People's Daily every day, I try to understand what is happening from the most authentic primary language source perspective, but it's still hard, right？I think that's a bigger problem down the road. For example, we do have dialogues between American think tanks and Chinese think tanks. We do talk about the policy issues, but a lot of times the discussions are not as in-depth as we want them to be. So, since that's really the problem about the understanding. To have a better understanding, we need to have a friendly conversation, we need to have conversations that do not have red lines or taboo territories. So, we need to be able to talk to each other and then understand each other. But the problem is with the great power competition and the hostility between the two countries, it has become more and more difficult to have that conversation. Jodie Wen: So that's why we are talking to each other today. Thank you again.Sun Yun: Of course, thank you for having me.