Remarks by Ambassador Cui Tiankai At the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies


It is an honor to be invited by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. The Center has been here for over 60 years. It has become the most outstanding institute for Chinese studies – not only in the United States, but also around the world.

We are grateful to you for the outstanding work you have done over the years. Many of those who have played key roles in China-U.S. relations are associated with Harvard University and the Fairbank Center, like Mr. John K. Fairbank himself, Professor Ezra Vogel who is here today, as well as Dr. Henry Kissinger, and Dr. Zbigniew Brzezinski. It is a great privilege to join you this afternoon and speak here.

The Fairbank Center published a book recently, The China Questions. It asked 36 key questions about China, which will probably shape the U.S. perception of China in the years to come. I don't claim that I have ready answers for all these questions. But I agree with Professor Michael Szonyi on what he wrote in the book's introduction: Just as the U.S. runs a trade deficit with China, there is an understanding deficit between the two countries. I couldn't agree more on that. But unlike trade deficit, there is no corresponding surplus. Although some people want to make trade deficit a big issue, the understanding deficit is more significant, more difficult to balance, and may have negative impact that lasts longer if we don't make our best efforts to reduce it.

We have to work together to promote better, deeper, and more realistic mutual understanding between our two countries, which is in our mutual interests as well as those of the world. In this context, I hope that our discussions today will play a small part in promoting the mutual understanding and reducing the understanding deficit between China and the United States.

Professor Szonyi has just given a very good outline – a comprehensive and clear picture – of the relationship between China and the United States. I would like to start with some of my own thoughts on the fundamental questions – some basics about China and the bilateral relationship. Then I will address some specific issues during the Q&A part.

First, I want to discuss the goals that China sets for itself. In this regard, I would like to recommend to you two speeches by President Xi Jinping – one was delivered at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China last October, and the other at the Boao Forum for Asia last week as we celebrate the 40th anniversary of China's reform and opening-up.

In his speech at the Party Congress, President Xi set China's goals for development in the coming decades. Those are what we refer to as the "two centenary goals". It means, by 2020, we will reach our first centenary goal for a moderately prosperous society in all aspects on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party of China in 2021. We will accomplish the second goal for a strong socialist modernized country by 2050 as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the People's Republic in 2049. This is the blueprint for China's development in the coming decades. It means that China will accomplish the Chinese Dream and the modernization of the country.

In his more recent speech at the Boao Forum for Asia last week, President Xi summed up China's achievements and experiences in the last 40 years of reform and opening-up. He made it clear that reform and opening-up was the key to China's achievement in the past four decades, and China will continue to stick to its own path of development through reform and opening-up. This is independent from any external pressure or influence. And China will continue to open itself wider to the rest of the world. This has been a strategic choice made by China. In the same speech, President Xi also put forward a number of measures for the next stage of China's reform and opening-up. I think the direction of China's development and what China is going to do are quite clear.

In the discussion about China's goals and development strategy, there is one term that has caught a lot of attention internationally. That is the New Era. What does it mean? I believe it means a new and higher level of China's development defined by the need to address the existing imbalances and inadequacies of our development as we work to meet the growing aspirations of the people for a better life.

Therefore in China today there is more emphasis on the quality rather than quantity of development, more emphasis on what real benefits people can get rather than just aggregate growth rate, and more emphasis on a more comprehensive development strategy including economic, political, cultural, social and ecological aspects, rather than very narrowly-defined economic growth. Therefore, this new era is about people-centered and domestic development of China, rather than some geopolitical or geo-strategic plan.

Of course, the new era also has some external aspects because China's development has to keep abreast with the global trends. China has to develop in openness, not in isolation. And China's development cannot be achieved without a peaceful and prosperous international environment. But this is certainly not a plan for securing world dominance. It is certainly not a Chinese new era to replace the old American era.

I believe this new era is about a new stage in the efforts of an ancient civilization to modernize itself while maintaining its own characteristics. It is about one-fifth of human race to rise out of poverty and live a better life. It is about a proud and great nation to reemerge in the global center stage, not to challenge or replace anyone, but to embrace the world by making new contribution to mankind.

This leads to my second point – China and the international order.

We believe that today's world is undergoing tremendous transformation. Technological progress and industrial revolution have brought tremendous opportunities and challenges to all of us. Much more wealth has been created than ever before. But at the same time there is a growing gap between the rich and the poor, between and within countries. The world has maintained overall peace and stability. But some regions and countries are still living in the shadow of armed conflict and war. There is no major or direct war among major countries. But still, there is little mutual confidence among them. People are more connected yet divided at the same time. And there are also a number of global challenges like terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, climate change, poverty, diseases, natural disasters, etc. The need for multilateral cooperation and better international governance is clearly growing. But at the same time, there is a real danger that the multilateral institutions may be significantly weakened. It is clear that no country can handle all the challenges by itself. No country can achieve prosperity in isolation.

More than ever before, we need to enhance international cooperation, especially the kind among major countries. That is why China has proposed building a new model of international relations and a community with a shared future for mankind. For its part, China will continue to contribute to building global peace, promoting prosperity, and upholding the international order.

Speaking of the international order, there have been accusations against China for being a so-called "revisionist power" attempting to overturn the existing international order. I think this is a gross misinterpretation of China's intention. When we talk about the international order, we are referring to the one that was established at the end of the Second World War with the United Nations system at its core and the UN Charter as its basis. The purposes and principles of the UN Charter lay out the basic norms of international relations, such as sovereign equality among member states, peaceful settlement of international disputes, obligation of member states to refrain from threat or use of force against the territorial integrity and political independence of other countries, and non-interference in matters essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of member states.

China has been committed to all these principles. And we have a very strong track record in this regard. China is always opposed to the threat or use of force in international relations unless it is authorized by the United Nations Security Council under the UN Charter. China has always advocated for solving international disputes through dialogue and negotiation. This has been our position on so many difficult international issues, including the Korean nuclear issue, and China has made consistent efforts to this end. We will continue to speak out for the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of all UN members, particularly the small, weak, and poor countries.

By contrast, there have been so many cases of violating these principles. Threat or use of force has been so frequent to violate the sovereignty of member states, and wars were started without the UN Security Council authorization, or even in defiance of clear opposition from Security Council members. Chaos and bloodshed have occurred in the name of "humanitarian intervention" or "responsibility to protect".

The first sentence of the UN Charter goes, "We the peoples of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind." Have we really succeeded in doing so in the last 70 years and more? Will we be successful to save the current and future generations from the scourge of war in the years to come? This is still an open question.

Unfortunately, the very people who are responsible for all such violations are now pointing the finger at other countries as "revisionist countries". Honestly I think these people should have a better sense of shame. I think it is high time for us to review and reaffirm these basic principles so that we can have a better and more effective international order.

In our efforts to stabilize and strengthen the international order, the key is to have stability of the relations among major powers, and perhaps most importantly the stability and strength of the relations between China and the United States. We will mark the 40th anniversary of the diplomatic relations between the two countries early next year. Confucius once said, "At forty, one will no longer suffer from perplexity." But the reality is that people are still very often perplexed on so many issues. I think there is a need to clear up some of the confusions about the important relationship between China and the United States.

First, forty years of diplomatic ties and cooperation have served the interests of both countries quite well. In addition to all the bilateral benefits we have gained from this relationship, we have also seen its positive impact in the broader region of the Asia-Pacific and the world. For instance, two of the largest hot wars during the Cold War era took place in Asia. But today, thanks largely to the good relations between our two countries, the Asia-Pacific is on the whole peaceful and stable. Even problems like the Korean nuclear issue are under control. Plus, our two countries have also helped to make the Asia-Pacific one of the main engines of global economic growth. We have overcome two financial crises – the Asian financial crisis in the late 1990s and the international financial crisis that broke out about ten years ago. According to the IMF, Asia contributed two-thirds of global economic growth in the last two years. I think China and the U.S. can take a lot of credit for that. 

Of course, the U.S. policy of engagement with China was designed to serve its own interest. As President Nixon said to Chairman Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai during his first visit to China, "I have come for American interest." And this relationship has served both countries quite well, and the mutual needs and common interests that we have between us are still expanding. There are so many international and regional issues on which we have to work together. And there are so many global challenges we have to respond together because we are both permanent members of the United Nations Security Council and we are the two largest economies in the world. We do share common interests and responsibilities in maintaining global peace and stability, and in promoting global economic growth and prosperity. This is our responsibility to the international community.

At the same time, each of our countries has its own important domestic agenda to accomplish. A stable and stronger relationship between us will make each of us accomplish our domestic goals better.

Of course, there is a certain degree of competition between us. This is inevitable. But as long as we both follow the basic international norms, as long as the competition is fair, constructive and mutually stimulating, such competition will serve the long-term interests of both countries. What is more, for big countries like China and the U.S., the real competition is not in the international affairs, but in our respective domestic governance. If we have good governance in our own country, nobody else could threaten or change us. If we fail to have good governance at home, nobody else could help us.

Naturally, there are always problems between China and the U.S., because we are very different in terms of history, culture, political system, and economic development. But we must distinguish different kinds of differences. On matters concerning sovereignty, territorial integrity and national reunification, there is no room for compromise, and there is a red line. On economic and trade issues, solutions should be worked out through dialogue and consultation on the basis of mutual respect and balanced approach to address the concerns of each side aiming at win-win outcomes. Recently there has been much talk about a possible trade war between China and the United States. I want to make it clear here: Trade is for mutual benefits. War is about mutual destruction. A trade war serves no meaningful purpose. It will only destroy trade itself.

Looking forward, China-U.S. relations will have tremendous opportunities as well as challenges. The prospects will very much depend on the choices we make today. It will depend on what kind of mindset we have to perceive ourselves, the world and our relations in this changing world. If we allow ourselves to be dominated by Cold War zero-sum mentality, then we will see traps and conspiracy everywhere. And people could even become suspicious and fearful of new and positive ideas, such as the Belt and Road Initiative. People could even become suspicious and fearful of cultural exchanges and language learning. And for no good reason whatsoever, they could make other people's dream their own nightmare. If we have a more positive and cooperative mindset, we could see clearly the emerging trends in the world, seize new opportunities, and turn challenges into opportunities. That will bring about real benefits for the peoples of our two countries. 

Not long ago I read a book entitled "Hit Refresh" written by Microsoft CEO, Mr. Satya Nadella. He put forward the idea that people should have a positive mindset and learning culture. I was inspired by his open, positive and forward-looking attitude. Maybe in international relations theories, we also have to hit the refresh button, so that we will have a better understanding of the new realities of the 21st century and the emerging trends of the world, and we can join hands in building a new model of international relations and community with a shared future for mankind. Otherwise, we might all be replaced by artificial intelligence someday. 

I came to the United States for the first time in 1981. And now altogether I have spent more than 11 years in this country, as a student, as a UN employee, and then as a diplomat. What I learned in the U.S. has changed my life, my work and my perception of the world to a great extent. And the influence has been quite positive. But more recently, I feel a little bit puzzled and confused. I ask myself, is the America I used to know – an open, confident, optimistic America – still there? Since I cannot find the answer in Washington, D.C., I have come to Harvard today. I am sure you will give me a good answer.

Thank you.


Photo courtesy of The Harvard Gazette 

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