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On the Record

Working on positive China-U.S. relations

Longtime China hand Jeffrey Bader says he’s witnessed the ups and downs of complicated international relations

Jeffrey Bader, a top China hand in the United States, heaved a sigh of relief after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first state visit to the United States last week.

Bader had become deeply concerned over the public discourse in the US about China, with some arguing for a more confrontational approach toward a rising China.

“I think the more that kind of attitude becomes widespread, the harder it’s going to be to maintain a positive relationship between the US and China,” he told China Daily before Xi’s visit.

Bader believes that attitude is based on a misunderstanding of China. In a June article: Changing China Policy: Are We in Search of Enemies?, Bader argued that the US should not discard the approach taken by eight presidents since Nixon in favor of an assumption of inevitable hostility and a strategy of across-the-board rivalry that may be compelling in international relations theory but which no president has found persuasive.

“I hope and expect that the ninth president since Nixon, though faced with an evolving China, will not discard the playbook used by the American statesmen who built and nurtured the US-China relationship and built a generation of peace in Asia,” said Bader, who from 2009 to 2011 was a special assistant to the president of the United States for national security affairs at the National Security Council and is now a senior fellow at the John L. Thornton China Center of the Brookings Institution.

On Sept 17, just five days before Xi landed in Seattle, Bader, who has been working on US-China relations since the mid 1970s, wrote another piece titled Chinese State Visits Are Always Hard: A Historical Perspective, reminding people to have a realistic expectation of the relationship and state visit.

Bader said on Tuesday that he was just trying to calm people down.

A great trip

“I think the visit went very well,” Bader said, two days after Xi wound up his weeklong trip to the US and the United Nations.

Bader believed Xi had clearly thought and studied a lot before the trip. “He knew what was on the minds of Americans. If you look at his speeches in Seattle, and his appearance at the joint press conference, The Wall Street Journal interview, he addressed all of the issues that were concerns to Americans,” Bader said, describing the tone of Xi’s speeches as “very constructive, very positive, and not confrontational, not aggressive”.

Of the list of concrete achievements on the trip, Bader pointed to the agreements on cybersecurity and climate change as the most significant.

“I think it was a good trip, particularly since the expectation was fairly negative before the trip,” he said. In Bader’s view, this relationship is always going to be complicated and difficult, with two dramatically different countries, different cultures, different histories, different philosophies and different political systems.

“People’s expectations should be realistic about the relationship,” he said. “They shouldn’t act as if we woke up one day and suddenly discovered that this country doesn’t agree with us on everything.

“It’s not new, and we should be a little more realistic about the relationship,” said Bader, the founding director of the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings.

Encountering China

Unlike many China hands in the US, Bader, 70, majored in American and European history as an undergraduate at Yale University in the mid-1960s. He later received his master’s and PhD at Columbia University, also in European history.

But after joining the US Foreign Service in 1975, Bader, who speaks French, was posted to Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a place now called Katanga province. He described the place as “completely cut off from the world, no communication, no cables and no nothing”.

Not happy at all working there, Bader was looking for his next assignment. A letter for him by his boss in Zaire to the State Department finally reached Richard Holbrooke, then assistant secretary of state for Asia, and Bader became a staff assistant to Holbrooke in 1977.

“It was a pure chance. I had no background on Asia,” Bader said.

Though he didn’t major in China studies, Bader said that as a graduate student he was interested in Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon’s trip to China in 1971 and 1972.

“The China relationship seems like both a very exciting one and a historically important one, and one that would be good to be associated with,” Bader recalled.

Bader felt lucky. Working for Holbrooke had been a great learning experience for him. He described Holbrooke as “one of the greatest diplomats of our nation”.

“Seeing his personal style, reading all about Asia and about countries I had never been involved with was the main experience in that job,” he said.

It was a time just before China and the US established their diplomatic tie on Jan 1, 1979. Bader said the main job at the State Department was to understand what was happening internally inside China, the path to normalization of relations and what was driving China’s foreign policy.

The feeling then was that China was looked upon as unknown, difficult to know, hostile to the Soviet Union and a potential informal ally. China’s perception of the world was still a mystery to America, according to Bader.

“It was perceived as a tremendous opportunity for American foreign policy,” said Bader, still a junior officer in the late 1970s.

Inside the State Department, a China Working Group had been set up to address all the changes in establishing diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China and to sever ties with Taiwan.

Despite the fresh talk regarding Taiwan’s upcoming election, Bader believes what has happened in cross-Strait relations in the last 35 years is largely a success story. The two economies between the Chinese mainland and Taiwan have become completely interdependent; investment ties and people-to-people ties are enormous.

“You know the 400-some flights per week was inconceivable 20 years ago,” said Bader, who studied the Chinese language in Taiwan in the 1970s.

China past and present

Bader also visited Hong Kong in 1980, when it was still under British rule. He did not set foot on the Chinese mainland until September 1981, when he was assigned to be a political officer at the US embassy in Beijing.

China at that time looked pretty grim to Bader. It was gray, and there were no modern restaurants like today. The hotels were primitive, and the streets had no private cars, but there were millions and millions of bicyclists, all wearing the same Mao outfit.

“There was no commercial life,” he said. “Westerners just went to Friendship stores. Chinese were wary of foreigners, so it was very difficult to get to know Chinese outside of the formal Foreign Ministry,” Bader recalled.

He described it as a kind of ghetto, Western ghetto, looking through the glass at China, not understanding what was really happening in China.

It was in a way not the China that Bader had read about, as far as liveliness and entrepreneurialism. “You could not see the drive of people, the variety of people; it didn’t felt like the historical China you read about,” he said.

But when Bader returned to China in 1987 as deputy director of the China Desk at the State Department, he saw a completely different Beijing with street life, cars, restaurants and neon lights.

“People were having a good time,” he said.

While Beijing and most Chinese cities are totally different today, Bader said one could see the trajectory of China going on in those years.

Despite the lack of interaction with ordinary Chinese during his two years in Beijing from 1981 to 1983, Bader was able to travel a lot in China. He said things outside Beijing were more lively.

From Harbin in Heilongjiang, Hohhot in Inner Mongolia, Urumqi in Xinjiang in the north to Kunming in Yunnan and Guilin in Guangxi, Bader traveled across China, often on slow trains.

“I loved it. I love travelling. That was very exciting, and frankly made the job worthwhile,” he recalled.

When Bader travelled from Taipei to Beijing in 1981, he felt that he was going from First World to Third World. But now traveling between these cities, Bader feels it’s just going from one part of China to another part.

Difficult time

When China-US relations suffered a major setback in 1989, Bader described the next year as “basically a profound struggle to try to keep the relationship intact”.

He described the work at China Desk as how to keep the continuity and line open, so after a certain period of time, this relationship can be restored. “That was the objective,” said Bader, who was involved in forming the US response in those days.

Bader believes many Americans have an arrogant view toward China. “There is a lot of arrogance about the Chinese governance system. They don’t understand it, and they bring on their own prejudice and their own views to a situation that they don’t understand.

“But it doesn’t matter that much, Americans don’t get to make decisions anyway,” he said.

Bader described then President George H.W. Bush, and his National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft as committed to a long-term relationship with China. Bush sent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger on two secret trips to China in 1989.

The elder Bush headed the US Liaison Office in Beijing from 1973 to 1974 and has a deep understanding of China.

Bader became director of the State Department China Desk from 1995 to 1996 and then deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. He moved to the White House National Security Council to be in charge of China affairs from 1997 to 1999.

He became the US ambassador to Namibia from 1999 to 2001 before coming back to serve as assistant US Trade Representative in charge of the Chinese mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong. His boss was Robert Zoellick.

Bader described China’ WTO accession in 2001 not as radical thinking on the part of the US because negotiations had been ongoing since the mid-1980s.

The rationale was the belief that it’s important to China’s rise, and China will be a part of all major multilateral institutions, of which the WTO has been a principal one in economics and trade.

Bader explained that a WTO that excluded China, increasingly important globally, was not going to be effective.

“We want China to be playing by the same international rules,” he said.

While the US rebalance-to-Asia or pivot-to-Asia policy has been met with deep suspicion in China over the past years, Bader said he never used the word “pivot” and did not think of the rebalance in terms of capitalized R. “Pivot was not part of my vocabulary, still not. I reject the term,” he said.

In Bader’s understanding, President Barack Obama meant it when he talked about welcoming China’s rise, because Obama said the same thing in meetings with South Korean and Japanese leaders.

Bader was not especially happy with China’s role in the tensions over disputed territory in the South China Sea; he was also critical of the US stance on the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), calling it “so terrible”.

“I hope the administration learned from that lesson,” he said.

This piece originally appeared in China Daily.

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