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Former China ambassador assesses foreign policy with Stanford experts

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Stanford professor Jean Oi introduces Ambassadors He Yafei, Michael Armacost and Karl Eikenberry (left to right) at the event, "The United States, China and Global Security," on Oct. 3, 2016.

Three foreign policy experts explored U.S.-China relations in a panel discussion at Stanford earlier this week. In a wide-ranging conversation, they described current relations as often complementary, sometimes conflicting, and above all, unavoidably crucial.

The panel titled “The United States, China and Global Security” included He Yafei, former Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, and Stanford’s Michael Armacost, Shorenstein Distinguished Fellow and former U.S. ambassador, and Karl Eikenberry, a distinguished fellow and former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

Jean Oi, a Stanford professor of political science, moderated the event, which was co-hosted by the China Program and the U.S.-Asia Security Initiative, two entities in the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

“The [U.S.-China] relationship is very complicated and full of complexity,” said He, a career diplomat who was recently appointed as a professor at Peking University.

Shifts in the international system that accompanied the end of the Cold War and China’s rapid growth have brought new demands and necessitated more engagement, He said, weighing the outcomes of “the great convergence,” or closing of the development gap between developed and developing countries, and its impact on the bilateral relationship.

“China has been a major beneficiary of the global system created by the United States,” He said, suggesting it would be unrealistic to assume China would have become the second largest economy without that context, moreover, that Beijing would seek its deterioration.

Uncertainty and the next U.S. administration

China and the United States, as two of the world’s most populous countries, face domestic politics and a range of challenges such as slowed economic growth, population aging and minority and ethnic issues.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty,” Oi said. “As you know, the U.S. presidential election will be taking place quite soon and China itself is going through a period of some uncertainty in its economic development.”

The panelists from the United States offered an optimistic view of the outcome of the presidential election. Armacost, who held a 24-year career in the U.S. government before coming to Stanford, said he foresees consistency in U.S. policy toward China, and more broadly, toward the region, during the next administration.

“Asia is destined to be a huge priority,” Armacost said. Two outstanding areas bound to be “sticking points” on the policy agenda are territorial issues in the South China Sea and international trade, he said. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement between 12 countries of which the United States is a party, has drawn tepid support in the U.S. Congress. And in July, China rejected a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration on maritime rights in a case brought by the Philippines respective to the South China Sea.

Eikenberry shared a similar sentiment about the likelihood of policy continuity from the current U.S. administration to the next, and described the capacity for deepened cooperation between China and the United States as “profound.”

“And we’re already doing it,” he remarked. The Paris Agreement on climate change is one recent testament of the countries’ ability to successfully cooperate and galvanize support for solving global issues, he said.

The panelists agreed that the future of U.S.-China cooperation may well depend on youth, citing surveys of younger generations that show they are more amenable to engaging the other than older generations.

‘Global network of partnerships’

Asked to evaluate the China-Russia relationship, He said the countries have reached a “historic high” in their relationship, underscored by common interests, shared borders and a fraying U.S.-Russia relationship. Russia and China, however, have no intension of forming a formal strategic alliance, he added.

China’s approach to interaction with other countries is based on “a global network of partnerships” focused on trade, cultural exchange and relationships, He said.

The panelists highlighted the importance of striving for more dialogue and consultation between the United States and China on security, an area that is often superseded by economic aspects in bilateral talks.

Concluding the event, Oi emphasized the need for “frank discussions” about the challenges that affect the two countries. During the day, He held closed-door discussions with faculty members, senior research scholars and students focused on East Asia.