Keynote Remarks at 5th Biennial U.S.-China Relations Conference

William J. Burns at Texas A&M University on U.S.-China Relations

U.S. Department of State
Remarks by William J. Burns
Deputy Secretary
Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas
October 24, 2011

Keynote Remarks at 5th Biennial U.S.-China Relations ConferenceGood afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much, Brent, for that very kind introduction. Mr. President, Mrs. Bush, Ambassador Zhang, who is an exceptionally talented diplomat, a very good friend, colleagues, and friends: I am delighted to be here today in College Station, addressing the singularly important topic of U.S.-China relations.

No single relationship is likely to matter more to either of us in the decades ahead, or to the future of international order.

I am truly humbled by the collective brain trust gathered in this room, with the presence of some of the giants who made this relationship what it is today. In particular, I would like to thank Brent for being such a wonderful mentor and friend — as he has been for so many others here in this room — and for his continued service to our country. The truth is that our nation has never known a finer or more decent public servant than Brent Scowcroft.

I am also deeply honored to be here with President Bush who has always embodied for me the very best in American statesmanship, and the very best that America has to offer the world. In my own chequered career as an American diplomat, there is no period in which I take greater pride, or learned more, than during your Presidency, when I tried as best I could to keep up with Secretary Baker in his relentless and masterful diplomacy, around a world which seemed to be transforming itself with each passing day.

And the truth also is, Mr. President, that at one of the stormiest moments in U.S.-China relations, yours was the steady hand that steered us through. It is truly an honor to discuss the path forward at the school of public service that carries your name, and that continues your legacy of building a more secure, more just, and more prosperous world.

Today’s U.S.-China relationship is evolving in another period of extraordinary dynamism and change in international politics. Shifts in the global economy have created new centers of economic wealth and influence, and emerging powers — from India to Indonesia, from South Africa to Brazil — are making their voices heard. We continue to witness new eruptions of the universal human struggle for freedom, as profound change comes to the Middle East and North Africa.

At the same time, we face emerging challenges unbound by geographic borders or political systems, from proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and cyber crime to infectious disease, piracy, and climate change.

In an interconnected world, Asia’s growth — and America’s role in that growth — will bear directly on so many of the challenges we all face. In the very heart of Asia, our long-standing alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, Thailand and the Philippines continue to anchor our role as a resident Pacific power. To the north, Russia — also an Asia-Pacific nation — is a key energy producer, and a critical partner in global nonproliferation efforts. To the south and west, India and the Indian Ocean region will be critical in shaping the future of Asia. The nations of the Western Hemisphere, by and large Pacific nations, are increasingly interacting with and benefiting from Asia’s growing reach. In short, our relationships in Asia certainly run the full gamut of global challenges.

In this changing political, economic and technological landscape, the Asia-Pacific has once again become a focal point for U.S. national interests. No region will matter more in shaping the course of the new century unfolding before us. And as Asia moves forward, the United States is advancing our own forward-deployed diplomatic posture to develop and strengthen our ties. And we are doing so not to contain or to dominate, but because we recognize, and welcome, the growing role Asia will play in the 21st century — just as we welcome China’s peaceful rise.

A healthy U.S.-China relationship is central to our vision for the future of the Pacific region and the global economy. Trust and understanding between our nations will be essential to America’s security and prosperity and to China’s as it seeks to play a greater role in world affairs.

The Obama administration has given considerable effort to asking and answering the question of how we can work together to advance common interests and address our inevitable disagreements. And one of the touchstones of our approach is that good China policy is necessarily embedded in a broad and comprehensive web of U.S. economic and strategic engagements throughout the Asia-Pacific.

Thanks to pioneers like Ambassador Bush — as he was then known — relations between the U.S. and China have grown from a tentative diplomatic opening to the deep, wide-ranging and complex relationship we have today. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the “reform and opening” policies of Deng Xiaoping, our original rationale of containing a single common Soviet enemy gave way to a wider range of common challenges and opportunities that brought us together.

U.S.-China cooperation will be critical to addressing many of the most vexing and global challenges of this century. But often, this cooperation will come as part of a broad effort by the United States to work with allies and emerging partners, from Japan to Brazil and from India to South Korea — to convene and build consensus — and to strengthen international and regional institutions, like the East Asia Summit.

And — just as in a play where the scenery is crucial to the plot — that is the changing backdrop against which our relationship unfolds. And as the world changes and China grows, the focus of our ties with China is shifting as well.

People sometimes have the mistaken idea that relationships like ours are easy — or that they are no more than the predetermined outcomes of a set of interests. This is going to be an enormous challenge — for both sides — for many years to come. Neither conflict nor cooperation is preordained. The choices each of us make matter enormously to the outcome, and the stakes could not be higher. Success will demand hard work, perseverance, and a long-term commitment from both sides to build a foundation of engagement and trust that will serve us in the century ahead.

In January, Secretary Clinton laid out a three-pronged strategy for engagement with China. I would like briefly to walk you through it.

First and foremost, our approach to China begins with robust engagement across the Asia-Pacific. We are reinforcing our enduring alliances, reaching out to forge new partnerships with emerging powers, and strengthening the region’s multilateral institutions because we believe that a peaceful and prosperous region is the single best foundation to support strong and stable U.S.-China relations.

Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand have each made unique, invaluable contributions to advancing our shared goals of freedom and prosperity in the region. Together, we have guaranteed the peace and stability that made Asia’s ascent possible. The recent passage of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement underscores the contribution these bilateral relationships continue to make to our shared prosperity. And through new arrangements like the U.S.-Japan-China trilateral meeting, we are working to leverage our closest alliances to strengthen our relations with China and ensure regional stability.

Meanwhile, we have invested a great deal in expanding our strategic partnership with India — with a special and shared focus on cooperation in the Asia-Pacific. Eventually, we hope to see the United States, India, and China sit down together to address some of the region’s most pressing challenges.

Beyond these ties, we are making an unprecedented commitment to joining and supporting the complete network of Asia’s regional institutions, including the ASEAN Regional Forum and the East Asia Summit, where President Obama will inaugurate America’s participation next month. It is our hope that political and strategic issues will be at the forefront of the EAS agenda.

As we have learned in recent years, these multilateral settings remain the most effective way to ensure the region’s collective interest in unimpeded lawful commerce, in respect for international law and freedom of navigation in places like the South China Sea.

Finally, we are seeking to reinvigorate APEC as the premier economic institution in the Asia-Pacific. The President’s hosting of the annual APEC Leaders’ Meeting in Hawaii this November underscores our commitment.

These multilateral forums provide additional opportunities for the United States and China to work together, as we saw at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Bali, where Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Yang discussed initiatives to jointly address food security in Timor Leste, strengthen collaboration on search and rescue operations, and expand disaster relief capacity-building in the region.

Second, we are committed to expand cooperation with China on a range of pressing transnational issues. There is no shortage of examples: the global economic crisis, climate change, the challenges posed by North Korea and Iran, obstacles to an independent South Sudan, and piracy in the Gulf of Aden. All show the benefits to be gained when the United States and China work together. As Undersecretary of State, I saw firsthand the value of China’s decision to join the international community in pressing Iran to engage in serious nuclear talks and imposing sanctions when Iran refused. We are also encouraged that China is working to address the enormous challenges posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, proliferation activities, and other destabilizing behavior. Challenges like these present an opportunity for China to demonstrate that its emergence is consistent with the global rules, norms, and institutions that undergird global peace and security.

But as Secretary Clinton described in January, a narrow focusing on areas of agreement is not enough given the challenges we face together. We have to dive into the difficult cases as well. We cannot simply turn away from our disagreements over Chinese challenges to maritime rights and freedom of navigation when China has yet to clarify its claims in the South China Sea in terms consistent with international law. We cannot ignore the potentially destabilizing nature of China’s rapid military modernization, when its capabilities and intentions remain opaque. And when incessant cyber attacks on public and private American entities continue to emanate from China, we cannot help expressing our concern.

We must also raise our concerns with Beijing when progress on our bilateral economic priorities has been too slow. Economic issues are an integral component of our broader bilateral relationship, and addressing them effectively is necessary to maintaining and strengthening our relationship overall. Toward that end, we continue to encourage China to improve protection of intellectual property rights, to join the Government Procurement Agreement, to provide a level playing field for foreign and domestic firms, and to expand market access in compliance with its WTO obligations. We have worked aggressively to urge China to move much faster in allowing the value of its currency to appreciate. We raise these concerns bilaterally, but also must ensure that we resolve them under the rules-based system of the WTO and the IMF.

And in that same spirit — just as President Bush understood so well — we must seek good relations with China at every turn, but not at the cost of silence on human rights. That commitment remains a central part of U.S. engagement with China. We will continue to urge China to protect freedom of expression, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and other basic rights guaranteed in China’s own constitution, laws, and international commitments. The standard we ask China to apply is not an American standard but a universal one — one the Chinese people have embraced as eloquently as anyone.

Merely pointing out and debating our areas of disagreement should not be cause for antagonism. Nor should policy disputes be used as an excuse to undermine the stability and evolution of the relationship. In fact, jointly finding a way forward is essential to building the positive relationship we very much seek. The United States and China must rise to the challenge and redouble our efforts to manage areas of competition. Our ability to do that is deeply intermeshed with the third and final prong of our approach: building greater trust.

This relationship — at the very heart of the international system — is complex. It does not fit neatly into categories. It has elements of both cooperation and competition. We have significant common ground as well as important differences.

In today’s fluid, interconnected and fast-moving world, trust and transparency are more essential than ever. We interact with China on an unprecedented number of issues. And, as China actively expands and protects its interests overseas, we will find ourselves in increasingly close quarters together around the world. Our militaries will be operating in close proximity, with little room for error. And we will even be inhabiting these close quarters in new domains such as cyberspace, where the rules of the road have not yet been defined or agreed to. History teaches that moments of great change are when the dangers of misunderstanding, miscalculation, or inadvertent conflict are greatest.

In other words, we will increasingly live in a world where America and China cannot afford the luxury of quietly operating in parallel. If we want to avoid misunderstandings and prevent crises before they emerge, then communication, transparency and trust will be essential. It must be a priority for both of us to find tangible ways to deepen all three.

And that is just what we have sought to do. The Obama Administration has intensified high-level engagement, reinforced existing mechanisms and created new ones. Nine meetings between Presidents Obama and Hu. Vice President Biden’s recent visit to China. Countless meetings between Secretary Clinton and State Councilor Dai and Foreign Minister Yang. I am looking forward to my own visit to China later this week. This rapid pace of high-level engagement has set a positive tone for this relationship from the very top of both of our governments — and I am confident that all these communications will make it easier to manage any tough times that may arise.

It’s not just the rate of these meetings that is changing. The substance is evolving as well. We have built several mechanisms for formal high-level dialogue and broad interactions across all levels of our governments.

Foremost among these is the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, or S&ED. This has proven to be a productive mechanism, bringing together officials from all corners of our governments for discussions they may never have otherwise had, generating tangible outcomes for U.S.-China cooperation, and providing a venue for discussions on sensitive issues in the relationship.

We have also placed a special premium on developing healthy, stable and reliable military-to-military ties. We have seen high-level visits by former Defense Secretary Gates, Admiral Mullen and People’s Liberation Army General Chen Bingde — and we have worked to deepen our dialogue at every level. Military-to-military ties are not a favor China bestows on America, or that American bestows on China.

Our own experience during the last century taught us that all of us are safer when our militaries talk regularly.

These high-level interactions and formal mechanisms are crucial to laying the strongest possible foundation for a stable, positive relationship in a volatile and complex world. As our relationship evolves, we must continue to take steps to address the most competitive elements in our bilateral relationship in the space, cyber, nuclear, and maritime arenas. Enhancing transparency in these areas is essential to the long-term stability of our relationship. Our policies and actions in the space and cyber domain, in particular, pose fundamental questions about how we as governments organize our bureaucracies to respond to these challenges. These are not just issues for our diplomats or our militaries to address with one another. Rather, we need a coordinated and integrated dialogue that brings civilians and military officials together.

It is for this reason that our two governments last May launched the United States and China Strategic Security Dialogue, known as the SSD, a new mechanism under the Strategic and Economic Dialogue specifically designed to tackle the “trust gap” between our countries on the most sensitive issues.

The first meeting of the SSD brought together for the first time senior U.S. and Chinese civilian and military officials to discuss some of the most sensitive security issues we face. My predecessor, Deputy Secretary Jim Steinberg, co-chaired the first session, joined by the Under Secretary of Defense, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command. The line-up on the Chinese side was equally impressive, led by Vice Foreign Minister Zhang and PLA General Ma, backed by a very strong interagency delegation.

The senior-level interagency representation on both sides of the table demonstrated the seriousness with which the United States and China view this dialogue and the mandate it has from the highest levels of both of our governments. I look forward to leading a similar team for the second round of the SSD in the coming months.

The United States believes several principles should guide the SSD and our other high-level dialogues. The purpose of these mechanisms is to create channels of communication that enhance, transparency, predictability, and, ultimately, trust.

This first guiding principle is the importance of enhancing transparency. The more information we have about one another’s plans, activities, capabilities, and intentions, the smaller the margin of error in our decision-making calculus and the greater the confidence we will have in our conclusions about the purpose of one another’s actions.

To be clear, this does not mean that the United States will bend from pursuing our national interests and more than China would. Rather, it means that we should strive to keep one another informed of both our decisions and the reasoning behind them.

The second principle is creating greater predictability in our relationship to develop better understanding of one another’s practices, norms, and intentions. We have sought to do this through multiple avenues, including through our more frequent interactions and high-level visits.

Finally, our engagement requires frank and open communication, particularly about one another’s goals and intentions. A clearer sense of China’s visions for the future will equip us to better understand the meaning of its actions today — and China, I’m sure, would say the same about us. Over time, as we gain greater trust in one another, we will be more comfortable being frank in our conversations.

We need to be direct about our differences and address disagreements firmly and decisively, while holding to our values and our interests.

The United States and China are not the only ones facing questions about defining the rules of the road. Other key players in the region –including our essential allies Japan, South Korea, and Australia — play a central role in ensuring stability in the region. Each has its own complex and evolving relationship with China. The United States has expanded dialogues with many partners and allies in the region — including the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand, and Indonesia — about important security issues. Similarly, we recognize that China needs to talk to its own neighbors about many of these same issues. We encourage those dialogues, because we recognize that reducing mistrust between America and China alone is not enough to ensure the stability of an entire region.

Analysts and commentators are fond of making analogies between great power rivalries of the past and the U.S.-China relationship of today. In fact, however, this is an unprecedented relationship in the unprecedented context of a dynamic, interconnected century.

Working together — debating, collaborating, and at times disagreeing — we will have the best chance of ensuring stability on the crucial path ahead. For America, this relationship will only be successful if it inspires cooperation that delivers results and solutions to our shared regional and global challenges.

This will take hard work and dedicated effort. We should not be surprised to hit bumps even as we make overall progress. In fact, we should expect it. But the important thing is what happens next.

I remain convinced that, given our shared commitment to a cooperative and comprehensive relationship, we can deepen our dialogue. I remain convinced that we can build sustainable mechanisms to manage risk and grow trust. And I remain convinced that, if we do, we can advance peace, security and prosperity not just for our own people, not just for a region in the grip of monumental change, but for the entire world in the promising new century which lies ahead.

Thank you.

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