Wu Baiyu: Questions and Answers on the U.S.-China Relationship

by Kendra Brock 

Dr. Wu Baiyu is a Professor of International Relations and the Director General of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the leading think tank on the social sciences in China. Dr. Wu also holds senior positions with research institutions including the Contingency Management Expert Group of the State Council, the State Council Development Research Center, China Reform Forum, and China Foundation for International & Strategic Studies. On Tuesday, he gave a lecture at Seton Hall University on the topic “Are the United States and China Heading Towards a New Cold War?”

Wu began by noting that this month marks forty years of diplomatic relations between China and the U.S., but also recognized the current tension in the relationship, as demonstrated in Robert Kaplan’s January 7 article in Foreign Policy, A New Cold War Has Begun. Wu argued that not only has a Cold War not actually begun, but also gave five reasons that China and the U.S. will be able to avoid a Cold War in the future. He stressed that the American people ultimately have a vested interest in cooperation with China, but that this cooperation is blocked by U.S. politicians. At the same time, he recognized that particular segments of Chinese society (backward local leaders, overly nationalistic or irrational citizens and intellectuals) may prevent mutually beneficial cooperation.

Thus, he and other intellectuals are increasingly adapting a strategy of grassroots communication to present a more rational viewpoint on U.S.-China relations, which he believes would result in working class pressure for a more amiable relationship. His presentation to the students of international relations at Seton Hall University represented this strategy, as he laid out in measured tones, his arguments why a Cold War is not imminent or, as Kaplan argues, already occurring.

  1. The Global Compacts: The global compacts do not allow direct, heated warfare. Technology and globalization have created an “interconnected global village” in which multilateralism predominates and states are highly interdependent on one another in terms of commerce, investment, monetary policy, and social stability. Continued prosperity requires the free-flow of human capital, technology, and trade in commodities. A trade war will ultimately be overruled by rational calculations, as seen by the recent return to negotiating tables forced by the stock market.
  2. China’ Strategic Mentality: Wu observed that China has made “every effort by every means to solve disputes with the U.S. to prevent the final decoupling of ties.” Currently, he continued, “Policy-making wills [in China and the U.S.] are unparallel, but will become equal.”
  3. Lessons from the Cold War: Both countries have drawn lessons regarding the costs of conflict from the U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Although China played a passive role in the Cold War, “China would have to play a more proactive role to narrow down the dispute in order to prevent the worst scenario.” As a rising power, China can’t repeat the mistakes of the Soviet Union: overestimating its capacity and overextending its strategic resources.
  4. People-to-People Communication: People-to-people communication is a lasting and sustainable cornerstone for “healthy and peaceful communication and transactions between the two countries.” People-to-people communication with American citizens is particularly important, as in a pluralistic society people will overcome politicians and have their say.
  5. Changing Global Context and Common Global Challenges: China and the U.S. face a changing global context and common global challenges that they need to deal with together. This includes both conventional and unconventional threats: North Korea, public health, and cyber security.

Finally, Wu emphasized the need for greater cooperation between think tanks and advisory boards, such as cooperation between NASA and the Chinese space program, and joint work on AI, which would allow use of U.S. advanced technological skills and China’s rich information data on its large population. He concluded his presentation by stating “the intellectual part of China is friendly and has a long memory and experience of working with” the US.

Wu then responded to questions from those in the audience. On a question about the possibility of military war between China and the U.S., he said that there is “room for both militaries to maneuver in this regard” and emphasized the need for the creation of codes of conduct, signaling systems, and beforehand communication, especially in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. However, a precondition of these structures is strategic trust. He stated that, “China became a little bit more humble than before [in order] to prevent the worst scenario.”

A professor critiqued the basis of Wu’s points, arguing that they rely upon rationality and persistence. However, interdependence also implies vulnerabilities, and when these vulnerabilities coincide with issues of political economy, a cold war might not be as avoidable as Wu’s arguments might predict. He also asked if a cold war were to arise, whether it would persist over decades, or only the length of an administration. Wu in turn asked, if political interests and market interests conflict, which is “in the maximum interest of the people?” noting a Chinese saying that states, “history is made by the people,” not by politicians. He argued that global value chains have created an economic structure in which those at the grassroots level benefit from continued trade with China. He also argued that, in a cold war between China and the U.S., the countries would face a “shortage of ideological legitimacy to fight this war and for our friends to stand with us” because “so many partners are intertwined with each other.” He gave the example of Australia, which has strong economic ties with China and so “does not offend its largest partner” but shares “other interests” with the U.S.

In response to a question about growing ties between Africa and China, and the Western response to these developments, Wu stated that Africa offers a demographic advantage and that it provides China with crucial votes in international platforms. China’s partnership with these countries allows for the export of its productive capacity, while increasing development assistance allows it to attract and penetrate local markets.

Two questions related to China’s treatment of innovation and conflict over the use of technology, especially with regards to intellectual property rights (IPR). He noted that while it is reasonable for China to seek a higher position on the global value chain, it also needs to adhere to local laws and restrictions. In response to the question directly about IPR, he argued that China is a developing country with a multilayer government, so IPR protections have advanced unevenly, with more well-developed conduct in well-developed areas (especially in the east of the country). Local officials are still learning how to adapt to a true rule of law system, rather than the previous power-led government paradigm: China is struggling with a “shortage of modernity.” As a result, entrepreneurship has developed quickly, but not ideally, and some entrepreneurs have been overly opportunistic. He argued that “true respect needs time to be spread.”

In response to a question on the implications of the arrest of Huawei CFO, Meng Wenzhou, by the Canadian government at the request of the US, Wu noted that there are perceptions of conspiracy in China: his country is overly alert to a negative environment and far less ready psychologically for criticism. He emphasized that the facts of the case are unknown and criticized the escalation of the issue to the government level: “We don’t know too much about the truth. It has been promoted to the state-to-state level dispute instead of just the conglomerate actors.” This has led to the involvement of power politics, the escalation of detentions, and the inflammation of nationalist sentiments, particularly on the Chinese side, which he argued is “not healthy.” However, he also stated that “China has to sort out a way to deal with this blocking attempt if it’s really true… China must find a different way to deal with and undermine it.”

 

Kendra Brock is a Master of Arts candidate at Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations. Her specializations are International Economics & Development and Foreign Policy Analysis. Prior to beginning her graduate studies, she worked as an English teacher at a Chinese university for three years. She currently serves as the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Journal. She also interns for the Asia Society Policy Institute. 

 

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