By Logan Ma
From 2001 to 2009, Clark Randt served as United States Ambassador to the People’s Republic to China. He left office with the distinction of being the longest-serving U.S. Ambassador to the PRC. Having spent decades in China, the ambassador carries with him knowledge of the country that few could match. On May 5, Ambassador Randt came to the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) to share that knowledge as the featured speaker for the annual Robert F. Ellsworth Memorial Lecture. His talk covered China’s place in the East Asian geopolitical landscape, the challenges of governing China and U.S.-China relations. UCSD’s 21st Century China Program hosted the event.
Ambassador Randt began with an overview of China’s geopolitical landscape and its associated risk contours. He noted how East Asia has seen a surge in defense spending in recent years, a phenomenon driven partially by China’s own expanding defense spending, which has increased 12.2 percent according to the Chinese government. While such a spike still places China far behind the United States, it is both a cause of concern and an impetus to follow suit for China’s neighbors. India, which already spends the most of out any country on defense purchases, recently surpassed Saudi Arabia in terms of total defense expenditures. Meanwhile, in response to China’s growing submarine capabilities, countries such as Malaysia, South Korea, Japan and Singapore are contributing to a proliferation of submarines in the Pacific. According to the ambassador, the next 15 years will see 110 submarines delivered in Asia alone.
East Asia’s militarization reflects the fragility of the region’s security. North Korea is thought to be preparing for another nuclear test, an act that the ambassador believes China would not be pleased with. Meanwhile, the dispute over the Diaoyutai/Senkaku Islands has become increasingly dangerous. At the same time, China continues to press its claims in the South China Sea, an issue that resulted in the ambassador being summoned time and time again during his time in office to be reminded of the region’s importance to China’s core interests.
The focus of the ambassador’s talk then shifted to China’s political challenges. The ambassador began by informing the audience of the Communist Party’s precedence over the government. To illustrate his point, he compared China to a bus—-the Party directs where the bus goes and the government drives the bus. However, this paradigm is complicated by the fact that the party lacks a popular mandate to rule. According to the ambassador, China is now at a tipping point, with the political survival of the ruling Communist Party at stake.
The ambassador identified Xi Jinping’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign as an example of the great lengths the party has gone to maintain its power. Among the campaign’s most prominent targets is former public security czar and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Youkang, a man the ambassador describes as a combination of J. Edgar Hoover, John Foster Dulles and Al Capone. Zhou’s fall from grace coincided with the purging of powerful associates in each of his former power bases. Though his allies are falling left and right, Zhou remains under house arrest, protected by the unwritten rule that no member of the Politburo Standing Committee should ever be indicted.
Ambassador Randt concluded the section on Chinese politics by noting how Xi Jinping is changing the nature of the government, which until now had been devolving into a consensus government. Previously, policies required the approval of every member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee in order to move forward. But since ascending the leadership, Xi has gradually centralized power. He has formed a national security commission and leads the Central Leading Group for Comprehensively Deepening Reform, a position that allows him to supersede Premier Li Keqiang in the economics portfolio. These and other actions have led the ambassador to describe Xi as a “new emperor.”
The next portion of the ambassador’s talk focused on China’s economic challenges. The ambassador believes that China’s leaders are well aware of its economic problems and have what it takes to weather them. In the past, China’s model of economic development was highly reliant on exports and government investment. According to the ambassador, government investment accounts for upwards of 50 percent of GDP. However, the weaknesses of this path of economic development were on full display during the 2008 global financial crisis. China’s export-based economy suffered from dampened demand in foreign markets. Borrowing from the words of former Premier Wen Jiabao, the ambassador stated that the current model of growth is unstable, unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable. Instead, a model of growth that fosters domestic demand must be implemented.
To expound on the weight of which China’s leaders view economic reform, the ambassador cited a recent work report that mentioned economic reform 77 times. Such reforms include would include liberalizing of deposit rates, moving towards a convertible currency and reducing government interference in business. However, the ambassador noted these reforms would face stiff resistance from vested interests such as state-owned enterprises.
Lastly, the ambassador touched upon U.S.-China relations. According to the ambassador U.S. policy has always been one of engagement, not containment. In his eight years of service, the ambassador claimed that he had never heard the word used to reference the United States’ stance towards China. He did acknowledge that China is paranoid of United States’ intentions to contain it, referencing China’s reaction to the building of American military bases in Uzbekistan. Though the bases were meant to supply the war effort in Afghanistan, the Chinese government viewed them as part of a plot to encircle China and promptly summoned the ambassador to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to voice complaints.
Despite this and other bumps along the road, the ambassador concluded his talk by expressing confidence in the strength of the relationship between China and the United States. They are already joined at the hip economically. Furthermore, the two countries have more to fear from non-traditional security threats than from each other. Issues such as the H5N6 virus, climate change, counter-terrorism and non-nuclear proliferation all provide ample opportunity to expand on already existing areas of cooperation. From the ambassador’s point of the view, the future of U.S.-China relations burns bright.
Photo by Chuck Hagel