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Former ambassador reflects on US-China relations, Thucydides Trap

Former ambassador reflects on US-China relations, Thucydides Trap


Former U.S. Ambassador to the People's Republic of China Max Baucus delivers the annual Oksenberg Lecture, "On U.S.-China Relations: Avoiding the Trap," on May 11, 2017.
Photo credit: 
Rod Searcey

At the annual Oksenberg Lecture, Max Baucus, former U.S. ambassador to China, says the U.S.-China relationship is steady, highlights need for greater U.S. engagement on areas of trade and the South China Sea

Despite talk of potential conflict between China and the United States, Max Baucus, who served as U.S. ambassador to the People's Republic of China from 2014 until 2017, said the bilateral relationship is stable and that its long-term management will determine the future quality of life in both countries.

“Essentially, it’s sound,” Baucus said of the relationship. “China and the United States both need each other.”

As the world’s largest economies, China and the United States are vital to each other’s success, and that makes the Thucydides Trap far from inevitable, said Baucus, who spoke at the annual Oksenberg Lecture hosted by the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) as part of the China Program’s 10th Anniversary celebration last week.

The Thucydides Trap, a term used to describe a pattern in history where conflict resulted from tension between a rising power and a ruling power, has been applied in theory to the U.S.-China relationship by experts, but Baucus expressed doubt that the two countries would fall into it.

Baucus’ remarks at the annual event, named in honor of the late Michel Oksenberg, were followed by comments from Michael Armacost, Shorenstein APARC Fellow; Daniel Russel, senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute; and Kathleen Stephens, the William J. Perry Fellow at Shorenstein APARC; moderated by Jean C. Oi, political science professor and director of the China Program.

Baucus said that, despite the draw to succumb to the idea of the Thucydides Trap, what reassured him of the contrary were the many examples of Chinese and American leaders working together on areas of collaboration that he witnessed throughout his term as ambassador.

Russel, a former U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, also cautioned about the dangers of applying the comparison of the Thucydides Trap to the U.S.-China relationship, and emphasized that the role of human agency - both positive and negative - can shape the course of events.

“As important as it is to learn from history, it can be a bit treacherous if we apply it as a law of physics,” said Russel. “In 2017, we see that, on the one hand, there are structural factors that drive a strategic rivalry, and on the other hand, there are modern factors like globalization that drive tremendous interdependence.”

One challenge that flared during Baucus’ tenure was the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and he said he believes that, had the United States been more forward, it could have accomplished more of its strategic objectives on the issue.

Only after a summit was held between President Obama and President Xi Jinping in September 2015, where the U.S. government delivered a clear message that land reclamation and construction are unacceptable under international law, did Baucus see signs that the Chinese government took notice.

“Frankly, I believe we should have acted sooner,” Baucus said, suggesting that freedom of navigation operations by the United States in the South China Sea should be conducted more often and in concert with other countries.

Another challenge that Baucus encountered was the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact led by the United States and put forth under the Obama administration, which he described as an “economic compliment” to the U.S. military presence in the region.

Baucus, a former senator from Montana who spent time on Capitol Hill speaking about the merits of the TPP as ambassador, said the pact’s eventual abandonment by President Trump was a “huge mistake.”

On the future of the U.S.-China relationship, Baucus called for greater engagement, including additional summits between policymakers and with a more candid format that would allow participants to ask questions in addition to reading prepared statements.

“We need constant, repetitive and comprehensive engagement,” Baucus said.

The United States needs to take more thoughtful risks in its engagement with China and to build a vision and strategy that it could “stick with,” he said.

The United States must also find “that delicate balance” between its relationships with China as well as Japan and South Korea, according to Armacost, who served for two decades in the U.S. government.

Armacost noted that every U.S. administration weighs its strategic interests against the geopolitical context and that the Trump administration has yet to make clear how it intends to approach such a balance.

Stephens, a former U.S. ambassador to South Korea, agreed that long-term strategic planning would be constructive, and that the Chinese and U.S. governments would benefit from taking a step back to think about where each sees their own role in the world.

“As the world has flattened, I think our understanding and appreciation for the depth of differences that exist at the high policy levels and at a cultural level has dimmed a bit,” she said.

More emphasis on learning historical, cultural and political factors could serve to enhance understanding between people in China and the United States and help address bilateral challenges, Stephens said.

“It’s going to take a little more focus and more resources,” said Baucus. “But I do think that American resilience is going to find an answer to these challenges.”

Related links:

Photo gallery from the 2017 Oksenberg Lecture

China Program's 10th Anniverary Conference: Panelists exchange views on China's future

Brochure: Celebrating the First 10 Years of the China Program