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Transitioning to a post-Cold War order with China

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Susan Thorton with a background fading into a photograph of a building

Former Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton shares thoughts on the current state of the U.S.-China relationship as part of the Robert F. Ellsworth Memorial Lecture

How should the West meet the China challenge? 

Former Acting Assistant Secretary of State Susan Thornton weighed in on the complexities of the U.S.-China relationship, the relationship between Russia and China and more during the 21st Century China Center’s annual Robert F. Ellsworth Memorial Lecture March 16. 

Thornton had a distinguished career as an American Foreign Service diplomat, serving in Russia, central Asia and China. In her last government role before retiring in 2018, she served as acting Assistant Secretary of State in the East Asia Pacific bureau in the Trump administration. Thornton now holds a number of positions, including roles at Yale Law School, the Foreign Policy Institute and Brookings Institution.

Thornton began her talk referencing the number of recent statements by politicians across the political spectrum who speak of China as the No. 1 enemy of the U.S., as well as a recent Gallup poll reporting that roughly 50% of Americans consider China as the greatest threat to their country. 

“I think if someone came down from another planet to Earth tomorrow, they would be quite puzzled by this situation,” Thornton said. “I have been puzzling over this for the last five years, as U.S.-China relations have turned from predictably constructive and stable to a contest of adversity and enmity seemingly overnight.”

Thornton noted a number of pressing issues between the two countries — such as the spy balloon, China’s repression of Chinese minorities, China’s tightening of power in Hong Kong, a possible invasion of Taiwan, the militarization of outposts in the South China Sea and the origins of COVID-19. 

“And I’ve left out a lot of things because each week seems to uncover a new area of concern,” Thornton said. “Of course, these areas are legitimate concerns and need to be addressed. But the problem is today, they are not being addressed. Things are so bad between our two countries that we have more communication with Russia right now than we do with China, which is astonishing.”

Thornton highlighted a number of facts about China, currently the world’s second-largest economy. China is an important producer, consumer and importer of food; is the world’s largest consumer of electricity; is the largest importer of fossil fuels and largest emitter of CO2 emissions; is the largest exporter and trading partner to more than 120 countries; is a permanent member of the UN Security Council; and is the largest holder of U.S. Treasury bonds.

“Bottom line, China affects all of us every day on this small blue dot that we call Earth, and we cannot avoid it,” Thornton said. 

Thornton added that the two countries have a fraught history, mentioning the Opium Wars, the Boxer Rebellion, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Korean War, the Tiananmen Square massacre — all this and more cultivating “not an easy state of affairs by any stretch.”

“Over this time, China has frequently charged the U.S. with trying to undermine their government stability, through our support for various actors in China, and the U.S. has come to believe maybe more recently that China was abusing our openness — not just for development but to build up its military to challenge us and to displace U.S. economic dynamism and our position in the world,” Thornton said. “So these two narratives are the thing that we’re now seeing come to the fore, and both of them are being exaggerated for political purposes. But, of course, each of these two narratives in the respective countries has a kernel of truth behind it.”

This ongoing rhetoric, however, will make it incredibly difficult for the U.S. and China to return to a constructive relationship unless the narrative is changed, Thornton said. 

“I believe a realistic assessment of American interests should dictate a change to the current approach to China by the U.S. government,” Thornton added. “And based on a cool-headed assessment of the realities on the ground and the workability of our current strategy, I reluctantly conclude that American interests are going to be ill served if we continue down this path.”

A potential future for U.S.-China relations

Thornton pointed out that the most important question — and one that isn’t asked enough — is what benchmarks the U.S. is using to measure the success of current U.S.-China relations. 

“Washington policymakers insist that the U.S. and China are engaged in a global military, diplomatic, economic and influence competition. But that begets obvious unanswered questions like — a global competition to what end?” Thornton said. “What does success look like and who will benefit? What collateral damage will such a competition produce? And how will the real existential challenges of today’s humanity and today’s America be met amid such competition?”

Thornton said that the simple desire to “win” is reductive and irresponsible. 

“The future of our children depends on us getting this right,” Thornton said. “We need to focus today on what we should do and try to articulate a vision that can durably animate a sensible American approach to China going forward.”

Thornton also said she does not believe the U.S. and China are destined for war or are on an inevitable collision course. 

“I think that this neglects the agency of the actors involved and it doesn’t take enough account of how the world has changed,” Thornton explained.

Ultimately, moving away from thinking in fearful extremes is the only way ongoing productive conversations can happen, Thornton said. She posited that the world has moved away from the post-Cold-War unipolar order dominated by the U.S. and is likely trending toward a multipolar system — so the U.S. is dealing with not only how to handle the complex issues of reality with China but also the narrative issue, in which the U.S. has “less of a free hand in the world” and may now need to operate with more constraints on our power in the international system. 

“China does not want the responsibility of managing the international system — I feel quite confident in that,” Thornton said. “Maybe others have another view, but they’ve seen the problems that position can entail and they’re not really looking to take that on.”

Two pressing issues the U.S. and China need to address, however, are the territorial issues as it relates to Taiwan and the ever-expanding trend of unilateral sanctions imposed on other countries by the U.S. — something Thornton said is unsustainable if the U.S. plans to maintain a non-fractured international system and for dealing with China within that system. 

“A lot of people in Washington say that talking to China is a waste of time, and I am totally sympathetic to all of these arguments. But I think these two areas should be discussed and be negotiated over,” Thornton concluded. “And if we take this pragmatic approach, we can keep the current international system from breaking apart, which is to our obvious benefit. This maximizes our chances for a positive outcome and is in keeping with our values and our interests. So I hope that we can go down a path like this before it is too late.”

In memory of Robert “Bob” Ellsworth

The Robert F. Ellsworth Memorial Lecture is held annually in honor of Ambassador Robert “Bob” Ellsworth (1926-2011), who had a diverse and illustrious career as a lawyer, politician, statesman, diplomat, strategist and investor and played a key role in founding the China center. Since 2013, this series has become an important forum in San Diego for discussing affairs in the Asia Pacific region.

“Bob Ellsworth had a formative vision for the center, which of course is not just a research center but also a think tank,” said Susan Shirk, center chair. “We want to contribute to the improvement of and stabilization of U.S.-China relations; that’s even more important today than it was in the first days when Bob and I would have lunches discussing how to create the center. I was so grateful for his mentorship and friendship, and all of us certainly miss him tremendously.”

Bob Ellsworth’s former colleague and friend Zy Li also expressed his gratitude in a tribute before the lecture.

“I was so grateful that Bob enabled me to understand and appreciate what America is all about,” Li said.

Bob Ellsworth’s wife, the Rev. Eleanor Ellsworth, thanked everyone for their continued support of the center.

“I can tell you for a fact that this lecture series would please Bob very much,” said Eleanor Ellsworth. “I want to say thank you to everybody who has supported and participated in this fantastic event, in particular supporters of the 21st Century China Center. The center certainly has the soul of Bob in there somewhere.”

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Virginia S. Watson is the Assistant Director of Communications for the School of Global Policy and Strategy. She has spent her entire career in editing, writing and design, both in industry and higher education. She holds a master's in technical and professional communication from Auburn University and a B.S. in journalism from Troy University.
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