A Report of "The U.S. and China: 1980, 2012, and 2030"
A Lecture by Harold Brown, former U.S. Secretary of Defense
Sponsored by the Wheatley Institution at Brigham Young University
January 19, 2012
“I was the first U.S. Secretary of Defense to visit the People’s Republic of China,” says Harold Brown. “That trip came almost exactly a year after normalization of relations with that country, which had taken place January 1, 1979.” Harold Brown discusses the historical and present relationship between the U.S. and China and then speculates about the future of that relationship.
In his first trip to China, Brown explains, he helped initiate military-to-military talks between the nations. When China then agreed to joint monitor Soviet missile tests, Brown took that as “additional evidence of their willingness to collaborate.” The Carter administration went to great lengths to normalize relations with China. This, says Brown, was crucial in containing the Soviet Union.
“At the time, the U.S. State Department objected to my going to China,” says Brown. They argued that the Secretary of State should go instead in order to avoid Soviet retaliation. Nevertheless, President Carter approved the trip. Regarding the discussions, Brown states, “We and the Chinese saw things the same way then. Things have changed.”
Both the Chinese civilian economy and military, as he saw on his visit, were retrograde, says Brown. “The P.R.C. had a long way to go to become a modern, prosperous, militarily up-to-date nation, but my meetings with Deng Xiaoping suggested that the P.R.C. leadership had sensible ideas for how to emerge from its backwards stance.”
“Thirty years later,” says Brown, “the success of those ideas and the amazing rise of China are not only evident but, in retrospect, have been the most important international development of those years.” The relationship between the U.S. and the P.R.C. will likely be the most important factor in future world affairs, even more so than developments in the Islamic world. Over those thirty years, China has experienced rapid economic growth, “an alternative model of economic performance and of governance that challenges the Western model.”
“We in the United States are used to preeminence after enjoying it for more than sixty years,” Brown notes. China does not overtly challenge that role, but it also does not passively accept our status. “To maintain political control, the leadership relies on economic growth and nationalism,” explains Brown. However, “China’s increased influence has not been matched by an acceptance of responsibility for maintaining the international system.”
China also struggles with domestic issues. “The P.R.C. faces internal strains that make it more fragile than is generally understood,” says Brown, “and that will not be easy to resolve.” He expresses uncertainty as to whether the Chinese model of governance can be sustained or whether it will evolve over time.
Regarding possibilities for the future of U.S.-China relations, Brown first notes that “the existence of nuclear weapons inhibits direct military conflict, as it did during the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union.” Close economic relations also reduce the chances of military conflict. “But the imbalances in trade have exacerbated U.S.-China tensions,” says Brown, “and seem as likely to worsen as to ease them.”
“My own conclusion is that the P.R.C. as a rising power will inevitably expand its influence, but not only in East Asia and the Western Pacific,” Brown states. Most of those neighbors will look to U.S. capabilities to offset P.R.C. influence while also fearing a U.S.-P.R.C. military confrontation. Considering all these relations, Brown believes “there’s a real risk of a self-reinforcing, downwards cycle.” He is also certain that both countries will have continuing internal problems.
“The principal risk over this decade and the next is an economic and resource competition that would create political and strategic conflict between the two nations,” says Brown. Short of armed conflicts, there are other ways to inflict damage, like cyber and economic attacks. The close U.S.-P.R.C. economic entanglement is more likely to exacerbate than ameliorate geopolitical differences. “Getting to 2030 without a major confrontation will be an important achievement,” says Brown.
According to Brown, “U.S. policy should include preventing successive adversarial incidents and actions that could set relations on the wrong track.” Americans, he says, tend to want others to be like them, where the Chinese tend to expect deference. This can lead to a clash by exacerbating natural tension. However, Brown concludes, “A seriously adversarial relationship, risking conflict between the U.S. and China, is not inevitable. Avoiding requires skill on the part of both sides, perhaps more skill than has in recent years been shown by either side.”