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 William Klein, former acting charge d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in China, to do a podcast interview. William Klein shared his thoughts on the setbacks that China and the U.S. had experienced over the past few years, but also expressed optimism in the bilateral ties, saying that U.S. and China should engage more in every level to address thorny issues and expand common ground.
U.S. and China Should Engage More in Every Level.mp3
Jodie Wen: You were a senior diplomat in China-US relationship. And you served as the acting deputy chief embassy in Beijing during Trump's administration. After those years, I think China-US relationship has changed dramatically. So, how do you view the current problem? I mean between our two countries?
William Klein: Yes, well, first of all, thank you very much for the kind invitation to speak with you today on your podcast. Indeed, I arrived in Beijing in the summer of 2016 during the last months of the Obama administration, and I departed from Beijing after the first 8 months of the Biden administration. So, I was at the heart of the relationship here in Beijing over this period of time. Yes, indeed we have seen how the relationship has become far more difficult. I think it's fair to say that today strategic competition and strategic distrust shape the U.S.-China relationship. I do predict that this is very structural, it has deep interests, deep causes. It has to do with our different histories. It has to do with different political systems. It has to do with different cultures, different perspectives on the world. It has to do with the two countries' relative power and the exercise of that relative power around the world. So overall, this strategic competition and this distrust is structural and I think that we have to be prepared that this will continue to frame the relationship moving forward. Having said that, I do know for a fact that both the American leadership and the Chinese leadership do not have an interest in allowing this strategic competition and this distrust to descend into conflict or confrontation. So, both sides, as we speak, are making an effort to manage that competition, to contain that distrust. So, it does not descend into the conflict that is in either side's interest. And I am optimistic that they will have the ability and certainly the wisdom to ensure that will happen. Jodie Wen: You are a little optimistic towards our bilateral relationship in future, actually. So, I think you know China very well. China has been developing rapidly in recent years. And right now, the ambassador Burns, he often shares photos on his social media about his travels around the country in China's high-speed railways. You have a long experience of working in China. So how do you see the development of China? William Klein: Indeed. The development here in China is quite impressive and quite dramatic. And also, the changes that I experienced in those 5 years were also quite dramatic and impressive. I remember when I lived in Beijing, almost every month a new underground railway line would be opened or underground station. I saw how various business models came and went, whether that was the rental bikes and whether that was the various ride hailing services, whether that was restaurants opening and becoming very popular and closing throughout Beijing. So, these changes and developments have been very dramatic and very dynamic. I think what this does show is that China is still very much in the process of growing, of modernizing on the economy, and I think looking forward that China will continue to be a growth story, as we say, in my business. Obviously, the challenges and the headwinds facing China are well known, whether that is a structural debt issue that China has to deal with, whether that is their challenges moving up to value added chain and perhaps escaping the middle income trap, whether that is the demographic challenges that China faces, or whether that the shadows cast by tensions in the U.S.-China relationship. But having said that, I think that if one understands those headwinds and risks, that one can be optimistic about China's future group growth trajectory. Jodie Wen: The world is concerned about how China will promote economic recovery and improve global governance. So, how do you see China's role in global issues? William Klein: First of all, there are many global challenges that cannot be solved or even addressed without China's proactive involvement and engagement. I think the best example is climate change, given the size of China's economy, given its role in producing greenhouse gasses. And given its resources, China will play a key leading role in our joint efforts to address climate change and to restrict future global warming below certain thresholds. Obviously, there are other global issues where China plays a key role, such as public health, whatever our various views are, the last epidemic, the future epidemics, if they're going to be controlled, and we can avoid what happens with Covid-19 that China has a very, very positive and constructive leadership role there to play. If we look at issues such as nonproliferation, the upholding of nuclear nonproliferation frameworks in the world. And if we look at our efforts to combat terrorism, combat money laundering, combat organized crime, obviously then China has a very, very important role there to play. So as the second largest economy in the world and the country with still, I believe, the largest population in the world. Obviously, China has a role to play, and obviously the global community has to welcome China's role and welcome China's leadership to cooperate in addressing these common global challenges. Jodie Wen: As a senior diplomat, you're familiar with the Taiwan issue between our two countries. In the face of China's clear positioning on the Taiwan issue, how will Washington act on the Taiwan issue? William Klein: So, every US administration, since the United States and China established diplomatic relations back in 1979, has adhered to the U.S. One-China policy. And the Biden administration has been very, very explicit repeatedly that it continues to adhere to the One-China policy and that its approach to the One-China policy has not changed. So that has not changed. Of course, as part of the US One-China policy, the United States recognizes the People's Republic as the one government of one China. At the same time, the United States has abiding commercial, economic, cultural, and people-to-people ties with the people on Taiwan. The United States also has a vital interest in ensuring that Taiwan's democracy, its respectful rule of law, and its unfettered access to the global community remains protected. Beyond that, the United States has a deep, deep interest in peaceful and stable Cross-Strait relations, and the United States will, moving forward, continue to adhere to its One-China policy. I am very confident of that. Irrespective of whether a Democratic or Republican administration is in power in Washington, it will continue to engage both Taiwan and Beijing with all of its efforts to ensure that the Cross-Strait relationship moving forward remains peaceful and stable. Jodie Wen: During your long time working in China, I think you had visited many places and interacted with the various communities. So, what do you think are the factors that currently hinder exchanges between our two countries? William Klein: Well, I think the biggest factor that has hindered exchanges and understanding, frankly, has been Covid, and has been the deep separations that our two peoples have experienced over the past several years, and the extremely limited ability for people to go back and forth. So thankfully, that is over. And people like myself are now able to come to China. And that is very, very important. And so most importantly, I think it is incumbent upon both governments to ensure that people to people exchanges can thrive. That means that both governments will do what they can to issue visas to travelers, whether those are business travelers, whether those are students, whether those are tourists in a timely manner, so that Americans and Chinese can continue to engage face to face, because one thing or several things, which the last 3 years and the separation through COVID that have taught us is that zoom calls are no replacement for face-to-face engagement. I've been here in Beijing now just for several days, but the quality of conversations that I’ve had in just a few days, it is far greater than hundreds of hours of zoom calls over the past year and a half since I left China. So that's the first thing. Secondly, both sides have to look long and hard about other actions they have taken that inhibit people-to-people ties, and inhibit our ability to understand each other. For example, I think two sides have to think about how they can strengthen student exchanges. As you know the United States welcomes some Chinese students to the United States, and you'll continue to do so moving forward. And I would hope that both sides would strengthen their endeavors there to improve those types of people-to-people conversations. So frankly, the most important thing we do is to meet face-to-face like we're doing right now and to have these types of conversations, because that's when we really start understanding each other. Jodie Wen: So just talk about this. And I want to ask you, how long has it been for your last visit to Beijing? William Klein: I departed Beijing in August of 2021 and I just returned. So, I was not here for about a year and a half. Jodie Wen: The last question I want to ask you is, how can more Americans get to know China better? Do you have any suggestion? William Klein: I have to say that I will not contest that statement, but I will have to say that also a lot of people in China really don't understand America. Right? But this is just a description of a fact, right? And it's not a value judgment at all. It's because we're very far away from each other. We are very different cultures. We have very different perspectives on many things. So, of course. Understanding each other is not always easy, but again, the best thing that we can do to understand each other is to engage more at every level. So, we should travel more and we should visit more. We should encourage our companies to do business together. Our two governments have to talk, in my view, more at all levels to address all of the issues that we have to identify and expand all of the common interests we have and to find ways to manage the issues that separate us. Jodie Wen: Yeah, thanks so much. William Klein: Thank you very much. It was my honor and pleasure.