Hills: U.S.-Chinese Relations Need “Habits of Cooperation”

Carla A. Hills, co-chair of the CFR Task Force on U.S.-China relations, discusses the group’s recommendation for greater diplomatic engagement.

April 10, 2007

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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A new CFR Task Force Report on U.S.-Chinese relations recommends an “affirmative agenda of integrating China into the global community” with a view toward involving Beijing in discussions on security, trade, human rights, and China’s growing military power. Carla A. Hills, CFR’s vice chairman and co-chair of the China Task Force, says the report’s recommendations seek to address “political resistance at home that emanates from worries about China’s rapid growth in the last two decades.” Hills, who served as the U.S. trade representative during the administration of George H.W. Bush, says creating “habits of cooperation” will serve as a means for China to adopt “international norms.”

The Task Force report promotes “further integrating China into the global community” to shape its “interests and conduct in accordance with international norms.” This sounds a lot like Robert Zoellick’s “responsible stakeholder” concept proposed in 2005.

Well, this affirmative agenda that we are espousing certainly is consistent with Robert Zoellick’s strategic stakeholder analysis. It’s also consistent with thirty-five years of efforts by the United States to engage with China, dating back to President Nixon. But the scene has changed to the extent that we have political resistance here at home that emanates from worries about China’s rapid growth in the last two decades, the effect that it will have on our jobs, its currency’s high value, and a number of other factors. So that I think we have to do more than just engage. We have to educate the American people about what is at stake. We believe that an affirmative agenda, where we develop habits of cooperation, is the best means of having China adopt international norms that we applaud and acting in ways that are consistent with U.S. interests.

The Task Force report discusses divergent public views held by U.S. officials. You quote Colin Powell’s 2004 comments that relations were at their best since the 1972 Nixon visit, as well as Cheney’s February 2007 remarks raising concerns over China’s military buildup. What do you think is the perspective that most accurately reflects the U.S. approach?

I think our approach is quite mixed, and it’s understandable because, as we point out in the report, China is rich and poor, old and new, educated and undereducated. It is a complex picture that is changing, so what you knew yesterday may not be accurate today. Our government is such that some parts of it are applauding China’s enormous transformation that has occurred over the past two and a half, three decades. Others are more concerned about where it has fallen short. What we’re encouraging is looking at the facts. Let’s look at the pluses, which are many, and let’s be wary of the minuses, which are some, and let’s see if we can’t maximize the pluses. Let’s work together and collaborate on areas like energy, the environment, pandemics, disease, and a host of issues where, if we don’t work together, we will not get a positive outcome. Let’s build a platform for collaboration on those issues where we diverge. And we think that, based upon what we have seen in the past, integration of China into the global economy and into world organizations does tend to bring it along in accordance with international norms and our interests.

Some experts have raised concern that closer relations with China could alienate Japan, a strong U.S. ally in the region. How does the report address this issue?

Japan is a strong ally, and the Australians are strong allies, and of course we want to maintain our relationships with those nations. We have something of a “hub-and-spoke” strategy, with the United States maintaining peace in that region which has few institutions. But the fact that we are friends with one nation, like Japan, does not mean that we can’t be friends with another nation, like China. Indeed our report recommends that we do everything in our power to broaden the relationship, to try to take the animosity out of the China-Japan relationship in order to maintain stability in that very important region of the world.

One of the issues discussed in the report was China’s military buildup. The report finds that the military balance strongly favors the United States and its allies, and will for some time. The report also talks about increased dialogue on military matters between the two countries. How would that work?

The military representatives on the Task Force felt very strong that we would benefit from building habits of cooperation. They believe that there has been too little in terms of military-to-military exchange, and that if we had greater transparency, particularly on the part of the Chinese, and greater interaction, that that would reduce suspicions, tensions, and there would be a greater understanding of our respective interests. There are many interests that we have in common on the security side. We’ve seen that with China assisting in the Six-Party Talks [on North Korea]. But we can’t just drop in occasionally and expect China to be a stable ally. I think we have to build that relationship, which is like the economic relationship.

You mentioned the Six-Party Talks. Are there other ways in which the task force report recommends for the U.S. to work in some sort of multilateral arena with China?

We recommend that the United States work multilaterally with China across the board. We would like to integrate it into organizations that represent global interests. We recommend that it be made a part of the G-8, and that we address the issues that really are going to beset global stability, like a reasonable energy policy and an intelligent environmental policy. We want and recommend that China be integrated into the global community to the fullest extent possible.

On that matter, Beijing has played a role in bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table after talks stalled in 2005. As part of playing a role as a responsible stakeholder, how does the report look at China’s role in Africa? There’s been some controversy over its role in Darfur.

The Task Force is disappointed with many aspects of China’s foreign policy, when it diverges from either the U.S. or international norms that we applaud. The international community, which includes the United States, is trying to use economic sanctions to affect the behavior of the [Chinese] government in Africa, particularly with respect to Darfur. We are disappointed that if China lends aid or buys commodities, particularly energy, that it takes them off the hook and they don’t feel the squeeze of the international community. But dealing with China doesn’t mean that we stop talking to them. If we look back over several decades, we see that China has become accommodative to international interests as it’s become more integrated into the global regime.

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