John Lewis on keeping 'the genie in the bottle'

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President Barack Obama walks with Chinese President Hu Jintao at Diaoyutai State Guest House in Beijing, China, Nov. 16, 2009.
Photo credit: 
Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

With a Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and anticipation building in Beijing for a change in leadership in 2012, domestic politics in both countries are playing a major role in the bilateral relationship. On the eve of his own milestone—his 80th birthday—John W. Lewis, one of the world’s foremost China scholars and the director of CISAC's Project on Peace and Cooperation in the Asian-Pacific Region, discussed the direction of the U.S.-China relationship, the importance of dialogue between the two powers, and the potentially rocky road ahead. Excerpts:

CISAC: The conventional wisdom seems to be that relations between the two countries are not very good and getting worse. Can you provide some context?

Lewis: There have been many, many times when the relationship has been worse. The fundamentals in U.S.-China relations, in my view, have over time gradually gotten better. Both sides recognize that there is a complementarity in their relations in the Pacific. There is a kind of synergy that is very important, and when things get bad, as they are now certainly—or not good—both sides try to keep the genie in the bottle. Several things are important: even though the Chinese think we made the Taiwan problem worse with the sale of $6.4 billion worth of advanced weapons, the Cross-Strait relationship is actually pretty good. That ingredient in our relationship with China is not a serious problem. The issues that we have are not abnormal in big power relationships.

What is so sad at this point is that the militaries on both sides—the Pentagon and the People's Liberation Army—they both want to have a serious engagement with each other. They want to have a security relationship with us, but we have these constant issues such as the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea. It changes every day, but now they say they want to put the USS George Washington in the Yellow Sea, or what the Koreans call the West Sea. It's stupid militarily and it's provocative from the Chinese point of view, and you can't defend it other than that the South Koreans want it. And from the Chinese point of view, they cannot imagine why during the calm periods with North Korea, for example, we don’t try to take advantage of that, why we don’t try to make progress in the Six-Party talks. So they see this constant set of problems that project into China that do affect U.S.-China relations. Add into that the political rhetoric in this country, the loss of jobs to China, for instance. It's a big political deal in the United States now. With China, there are endless things we could do. But politically Obama will not do it because he’s going to take a hit domestically. The anger against China is so strong in Washington, and perhaps in the rest of the country, whether it’s because of human rights or questions related to their currency exchange rate. But again, the fundamentals are quite different. They are actually pretty sound.

CISAC: China is gearing up for a major transition of power. How will this affect the relationship?

L: Now that Xi Jinping has been made vice chairman of the Central Military Commission it’s pretty clear that the jockeying is already moving in the direction [that he will succeed President Hu Jintao]. Can something happen? The Chinese always worry, as any politician would, about the next round. So they’re not going to make any mistakes, and they’re not going to do anything that gets themselves off track. They cannot back down [on foreign policy]. No one can back down against the United States or anyone else, particularly now with the Japanese. They’re going to come right at the Japanese.

CISAC: So the transition makes things more difficult?

L: Absolutely, and it’s true in the United States. Obama's looking at the election and he's going to do everything he can to move to the right and look like he’s really tough on all the things the Republicans can hammer him on. That’s going to shape how the Chinese pick their leadership in 2012. Their selection will come at about the same time as ours in 2012—the campaigns will be simultaneous—and it’s too bad. If we become very nationalistic, it’s going to look very hostile to them. And we’re going to be wagged by the Japanese and South Korean dog, and this great power, the United States, is going to look helpless to them. China is offering opportunities to solve problems and we are not prepared to take them, and they're saying, ‘are you not willing to talk to us?’?