News - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Dialogue of the Deaf?

| January 2013

Chinese and Harvard Representatives Discuss the Policies of Their Two Countries in Beijing, January 13–16, 2013

On the way over to Beijing—and the city's greatest smog alert—Harvard Kennedy School Dean David Ellwood commented that if the planes carrying our experts crashed, Harvard's competence in international affairs would perish. The planes did not crash, and when we got there, we were welcomed by the head of Beijing University, the Mayor of Beijing, and ultimately (in the Great Hall of the People) by a leading Politburo member.  But despite the cordial personal relations on both sides, no agreements were reached on short or long term policy. This seemed a culmination of a trend. Ever since 2006, and the beginning of Harvard's U.S.-China Relations Project, the two countries have been moving farther apart.

Most fundamentally, the Chinese representatives declared that the Obama Administration's "Pivot to Asia" had begun the policy of balancing against China. Led by Joseph Nye, Harvard's group observed that China was creating its own "self-containment" by insisting on long dormant territorial claims to island groups in East Asia, which in turn had alienated Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, and South Korea. The United States had taken no position on these claims and was if anything encouraging China's rise and influence. It was, however, worried that popular nationalism in China was making these conflicts worse. What could be done to cut the spring-action responses of the two great powers to these conflicting assertions?

Jia Qingguo, the local conference host, claimed that China had two identities, one pacific (international) and one more assertive (domestic)  and it needed American understanding to move to a more consistent position. Tony Saich, however, believed that domestic influences would become even more important in Chinese policy. Belfer Center Director Graham Allison observed that "Thucydides' trap" suggested that status quo countries would "fear the growing power" of rising claimants and react accordingly. No one could guarantee a peaceful outcome, and the rise of Germany and indeed Russia had certainly not been peaceful. The United States on the other hand had receded from foreign affairs in the 1920s and adopted a non-involved stance toward Europe. It was, however, unlikely that China would equivalently limit its international interests.

Dwight Perkins noted that China's growth rate would decline as it became a middle class nation, perhaps to as little as 5–6 percent per year. Alan Alexandroff suggested that this would not necessarily smooth China's entry into high-level economic organizations because the state-owned industries represented as much as 38 percent of China's GDP, far more than the 7 percent for India, and 5 percent globally. Nothing said at the conference suggested that the United States would not support its allies if Beijing pressed to assert territorial claims. Nor was there any hint that East China Sea would not remain an area of competition between China and East Asian states. Richard Rosecrance added that China and the United States should aim at a "differentiation of function" as Bismarck and Disraeli had done with Germany the land power and Britain the sea power in the 1870s. If each wanted superiority in all areas, there could be no agreement.  At the end of the conference Wang Jisi, Dean of International Studies at Beijing University, raised the conferees' sights by observing that the United States and China were more likely to reach a global deal than one limited to the Pacific and East Asia.

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For Academic Citation: Rosecrance, Richard N.. “Dialogue of the Deaf?.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, January 2013.