U.S. Election Breakdown: China and U.S. need three Cs – clarity, continuity and competence
Updated 13:25, 08-Nov-2020
William C. Kirby

Editor's note: The 2020 U.S. presidential election is a once-in-a-lifetime event to watch. The American public and politicians are drowning in international conflicts, domestic crises, political divide and civil unrest. The U.S. and its relationship with other countries and the international system today stand at a crossroads. What's in store for us? What will the future look like after this crucible? CGTN is inviting scholars from U.S. think tanks and universities to break down the election and share their views on its various aspects. This is part six of the series, with William C. Kirby commenting on China's rise, its place in the international system and the future of China-U.S. relationship. He is Spangler family professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. Professor Kirby serves as chairman of the Harvard China Fund, the university's academic venture fund for China, and faculty chair of the Harvard Center Shanghai, Harvard's first university-wide center located outside the United States. The opinions expressed here are his own, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Adriel Kasonta: It is said that the U.S. faces both challenges and opportunities from a "resurgent China." In your opinion, what are these challenges and opportunities?

William C. Kirby: In my opinion, on the question of the Americans facing the challenges and opportunities of a "resurgent China," "resurgent" isn't a word that I would use, I would say a revived China, a China that at the turn of the 18th to the 19th century was among the more powerful, wealthy and sophisticated civilizations on earth. Today, it's taking a rather natural, in historical terms, position in the world. And a challenge for other powers, such as the United States, is how to interact with a place that is a center of entrepreneurialism, a center of global trade, and also a growing military presence.

If you look at the history of China-U.S. relations going back to the late 18th and early 19th century, they were rooted primarily in trade and exchange. The strategic nature of the Chinese-American relationship really became apparent in a large way only in World War II when we fought as allies against the Japanese empire in East Asia. Since then, we have fought sadly and tragically against each other in Korea – a lesson that ought to be a sobering one for the leaders of both countries, because it was extraordinarily costly to both countries.

And since the late 1970s, we have both prosper very significantly for the longest period of peace in East Asia since the Opium War. And it is the maintenance of that peace which is the greatest and most important challenge for both China and the United States. Because anything that endangers that peace easily, the first and foremost, endangers prosperity that China has enjoyed in large part as a result of that peace, but endangers the rest of East Asia and the global economy at the same time.


Kasonta: It is said that the 19th century was dominated by the British and 20th century by the Americans. Is it true that the 21st century will be dominated by the Chinese?

Kirby: I wouldn't use the word "dominate," because if you're dominating, you are actually losing. If you're leading, and you're leading in a way that others can follow, then arguably you are winning. You want to be a place whose values are shared willingly by others. That was certainly true at the height of the greatest Chinese empires where the values coming from China spread to Korea, Japan, Vietnam and beyond willingly, not by imposition. China then, Chinese civilization at least, had very significant soft power.

I think the greatest challenge for China is to set out standards that they're not just absolutely the best in the world, certainly you can do that in matters technological and otherwise, but in terms of governance, in terms of principles of civilization that others will willingly follow.

Right now, there's a lot of talk of a "China model," but there is almost no articulation of what that model is. In Chinese, people say that it's socialism with Chinese characteristics – zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi. What that tese means that it's just for China. It's not for anybody else, and it's not seeking to export that model. When we say at the end of our book "Can China Lead?": Will the 21st century, or can the 21st century, be the Chinese century? Our answer is: Yes, of course it can be the Chinese century, but not alone. One can lead in partnership, one can lead in example, and one can lead by setting out standards that others quite happily adopt for themselves. That's a huge challenge for any country, and it's a huge challenge for contemporary China.


Kasonta: What's your advice for managing the China-U.S. relationship?

Kirby: I think the advice not just that I would give, but people who would be much better positioned than I, would be clarity and honesty in communication; setting out areas and trying to strengthen areas of our mutual interests and our shared interests. The United States and China, for example, at least on one critical strategic issue – the Iranian Nuclear Deal – we are on one page, and should have been on one page, but the Americans undid that.

So, to be clear, to be predictable, to begin some confidence building measures – for example, to reopen that consulate in Houston, which in my view was closed for no particularly strong reason, there are many other ways of dealing with the issues that were reported regarding that consulate – and to try to achieve some stable relations and predictable relations, to continue to support economic and cultural exchange, and to be strong in disagreement where the two countries will disagree.

There are issues, at least American and European perspective, of human rights. Issues regarding Tibet and Xinjiang are not going to go away. So, one can imagine continuing discussion and difficulties over a number of issues, at the same time by trying to build stronger relations on those things that matter most to the both countries, for their economies and their securities, and that matter also to the rest of the world. There are many, many other issues, but clarity, continuity, competence – that's what's needed.

Part one: U.S. Election Breakdown: U.S. fails to come to grips with reality

Part two: U.S. Election Breakdown: What does the China-U.S. relationship mean?

Part three: U.S. Election Breakdown: China and the U.S. need 'creative diplomacy'

Part four: U.S. Election Breakdown: U.S. reliance on military explained

Part five: U.S. Election Breakdown: Trump's China advisers can't even score a 'C'

Interviewer: Adriel Kasonta

Graphic design: Zhang Xuecheng

Video editing: Liu Shasha

Managing editor: Huang Jiyuan

Senior producer: Wei Wei

Managing director: Mei Yan

(If you want to contribute and have specific expertise, please contact us at opinions@cgtn.com.)