The relationship between China and the United States, probably the most intense in decades, now dominates the global debate from a number of fields. American elites represented by the late Chinese hand Ezra Vogel once drove the development of the bilateral relationship, while today they are redefining it. Are there still opportunities to improve this relationship? Will the relationship stabilize at some point? Global Times (GT) reporter Wang Wenwen spoke with Steven Vogel (Bird), Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkeley and son of Ezra Vogel, on these issues and how he performs his father’s mission.
GT: You once mentioned that there was a project underway at your father’s death that advises the Biden administration on ways to improve US-China relations. More than a year after Biden’s presidency, do you think these opportunities still exist?
Bird: Absolutely. But first and foremost, it’s going to take time. It’s not going to happen soon, and it’s not going to happen fast. So we have to be realistic. But I think progress is absolutely possible, but it will require hard work from both sides. If the Biden administration does not see a positive movement in China, it is unlikely to move in a positive direction on its own. So it’s a dance. Both sides have to compromise.
There is some skepticism in the US government towards Chinese behavior right now. But I certainly believe that there is potential for progress. I’m not an expert on US-China relations, but I think at the first meeting in Alaska, both sides played a little hard, but they leave room for some softening later.
GT: Your father and his generation of American elites drove the development of China-US relations, while American elites are now redefining bilateral relations. What do you think?
Bird: I think there are quite a few researchers who agree with my father that we should strive to improve relations with China. There were two posts in the Washington Post. One of them was alone. The other was with a large group. So if you look at it, you will see a long list of names of prominent scholars who want better relations between the United States and China.
It is true that there is no consensus on this. There is another group that thinks we need to be tougher on China. So there is a kind of balance of power, but I do not agree that there are no more people who agree with my father. I think there is a part. Some of them are frustrated because China’s behavior strengthens their opponents in the United States. But they are working very hard to try to improve relations with China. I recognize that there are scholars in China who do the same. They sincerely hope for better relations with the United States, but none of these groups are dominant in their own country.
GT: Do you think China-US relations are in a downward spiral? Will it stabilize at some point? If it stabilizes at a certain point in time, what conditions are required?
Vogel: I do not think it’s a downward spiral. Maybe it’s in a slow downward rise right now. But there is absolutely nothing inevitable about that trajectory. I think stabilization is very possible. This is probably the most likely scenario that it will stabilize, but without major improvements. But there are also possible scenarios with a downward spiral. I do not think that the current conflict with Ukraine is helping. I think China’s attitude to that conflict is a significant negative factor from the point of view of the United States.
What would change things? I think there needs to be a big change from the top. If top executives decide they want to make it a priority to improve the relationship, that would be the fastest way to achieve an improvement. But I do not see movement, especially on the Chinese side.
GT: In our opinion, the biggest driving force behind China’s progress is that the Chinese people want a better life. It is the Chinese who are driving the country to become stronger. It is a natural process, so it can not be stopped, but the political elites in the United States would very much like to limit China. Do you think the United States can handle it?
Bird: I think Chinese people misunderstand the United States on this point. I’m not saying there is no one in America who thinks so, but it is certainly a misinterpretation. In terms of economy, most of the United States welcomes China’s progress. If China is a bigger, richer country that drives global demand, if it makes better products cheaper and better and services cheaper, then that’s great.
The United States played a major role in China’s progress. I agree with you that the first factor was the Chinese people, but they had the advantage of a relatively open international economic system. And it’s not something we should take for granted. I believe that China benefited enormously from an open international economy and that the United States played a role in creating an economic environment in which China would flourish. And that was the philosophy of the US government. We call it commitment. A significant driving force behind the tougher stance in the United States is the perception that the policy of engagement with China failed. The idea of engagement was that if we helped China become integrated into a world economy in a successful way, which is exactly what happened, then China would be a more open, more democratic, more tolerant, less militaristic society. And many Americans feel that China did not. So they feel that the engagement failed.
I disagree with you that the United States is trying to limit China. The United States largely welcomes China’s economic progress. Of course, Americans are protesting against certain Chinese practices. If e.g. China favors its own companies, applies antitrust rules in one way for Chinese companies and in another way for foreign companies, then the US is not happy about it because it feels like it is not in line with an open Market Economy.
Military issues are very different. If China is a powerful status quo power, I think the United States can accept it. So it depends on what you call containment. But if China threatens its neighbors, then it is not good.
GT: The United States successfully included Japan and the Soviet Union, but we really do not believe that China’s progress is the same as theirs. The essence of China’s progress is China’s human rights, that is, their right to live a good life. Do you agree?
Bird: Absolutely, Chinese have the right to live a good life. I believe that the United States and China can successfully cope with China’s progress. I’m not saying they will; I say they can. I actually think the problems of the world today are so serious that we have to get past arguing about minor issues, like small islands.
We have a burning planet. We have a pandemic that is global. We have a serious security crisis in Eastern Europe. The United States and China need to work together to address these issues. We can not waste our energy on small rocks or put dunes on islands so you can insert some planes on them.
GT: You went with your father to do field research in Guangdong province in 1980. How do you see the changes in China in the last decade? What is the United States’ biggest misunderstanding of China in the last decade?
Vogel: In 1980, China was still poor. It was still communist. There were still many people wearing the traditional “Mao suits”, gender neutral, men and women dressed in the same way. The reform started in 1979, so it was next year. It was still ancient China.
I have not been back that many times, but since I would go back to China every five or ten years, one sees the same traditional buildings and saw skyscrapers next to each other. One could see the duality of Chinese society – the old and the new together.
I went with my dad a few more times. Last time was 2015. We got a feel for the new modern China with the smart shopping malls. It has been interesting to see that transformation.
We have lots of politicians in the United States who are a little bit nationalistic, a little bit narrow-minded, but that’s not just about American politicians. So everyone has a mistake there. The change in US attitude reflects some changes in Chinese behavior so that China could help by changing that. But another factor is U.S. domestic conditions, which China cannot control. We have high inflation right now and unemployment has fallen. Wages have risen slightly. Not to mention American politics, which is very divided right now. If the United States itself does better, it will make it easier for China to get involved.
GT: Is there any continuation of your father’s work you are helping with now?
Vogel: Since my father died, we’ve had a lot of memorial events. It’s been pretty overwhelming. And quite a few of them have been to China. I have also collaborated with Japanese centers for Chinese studies and Chinese centers for Japanese studies. I want to do what I can to continue it. My father’s last book was about the relationship between China and Japan. And that book was a kind of farewell message. His farewell message to the world was that China and Japan need to improve their relations. I agree with him, because the future of the world depends on the future of the Pacific and the future of the Pacific depends on the relationship between China and Japan.
So I think he’s right. And I encouraged him to write that book because I thought he was the right person to deliver this message because he has so many friends in China and Japan, and so much respect in both countries. So if I can play a small role in continuing that, I want to do it. I would also like to share his message with the world, especially with China and Japan. Think about how they can create a future where China and Japan are partners and China and the US are partners. That was my father’s wish. And he worked very hard to make it a reality. It is my duty to continue that effort.