What is Asia to the U.S.? Connecting the Pacific Region to the American Doorstep, with Christopher Hill
September 17, 2020
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to our ongoing series here at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs.
We are very pleased and honored today to have Ambassador Chris Hill with us to speak on an issue which has acquired a great degree of salience in the 2020 election campaign, which is the question of the U.S. relationship with the Asia-Pacific region and its major player, the People's Republic of China, and to look at the issues that arise out of this region and how they connect to the average concerns of the U.S. citizenry. In other words, we will take this discussion somewhat out of the realm of abstract grand strategy and bring it to in essence the doorstep of the American voter: Why does this region matter? Why do U.S. policies toward China and the other countries of the Asia-Pacific region matter to the American citizen's sense of security, prosperity, and enjoyment of the blessings of liberty?
Also within this discussion we will connect the dilemmas that policymakers face in this region, where the United States does not have complete freedom of action, where the United States cannot simply insist upon a long list of values and interests and expect compliance, where policymakers must in fact make hard choices between different types, different coalitions of values and interests, and how this is likely to play out in the foreseeable future and as we move into the 2020s.
Ambassador Hill's biography is being shared with you now through the Chat and will be available through linking into the transcript of this event when it becomes available after the conclusion of our live event, but let me simply say that Ambassador Hill is in my opinion one of America's most distinguished diplomats. He has played critical roles over the last 30 years in some of the most protracted issues that have bedeviled administrations in terms of addressing questions of peace and security: first with the impact of the collapse of Yugoslavia and ending a particularly bloody and vicious conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s; then being handed responsibility for dealing with a crisis that many people have considered to be one of the top three national security challenges to the United States, that is, North Korea, its pursuit of a nuclear weapons program, and the question of that regime's ability or willingness to threaten its neighbors and the world with a nuclear weapons program; then forging a coalition of powers that themselves don't always see eye to eye to try to achieve verifiable results to at least arrest this problem so that we could all sleep a bit safer at night; then, of course, his role in the Middle East, in Iraq, and dealing with all of the issues that have erupted in that part of world and which also continue to be issues that we are confronted with as we move forward.
Also, just as a plug for my other institution, he is a distinguished graduate of the U.S. Naval War College, where I also teach, although I am appearing today in my capacity as a senior fellow here at the Carnegie Council.
We could have asked Ambassador Hill to talk on any number of these issues, but we have brought him here today primarily in his role as an expert and practitioner involved in the Asia-Pacific region, his role in the six-party talks, his role in particularly navigating the U.S.-China relationship in the context of those talks, his role as ambassador in South Korea, to guide our audience as to the importance of Asia to us as Americans, why this part of the world matters, why American involvement in this part of the world matters, and some of the challenges that either a second-term Trump or a first-term Biden administration may need to navigate moving forward.
With that, Ambassador Hill, the floor is yours. We look forward to your remarks.
What we will do as always with our events here at the Carnegie Council is the Chat is open. Feel free to enter any questions or comments that you have. Those will be collated and collected by the Council, and then we will present those to Ambassador Hill for his comments and his opinions.
With that, I turn the floor over to you, Ambassador.
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Thank you very much, Nick. Let me just say what a pleasure it is to be here with the Carnegie Council. It is a special pleasure to be here with a professor from the Naval War College.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Thank you.
CHRISTOPHER HILL: The last time I was talking to a professor I was explaining why I didn't get all my homework done since you tended to assign three books per night. As one officer said to me, "It's only a lot of homework if you actually do it."
Anyway, great pleasure. It's a great pleasure and frankly a great challenge to talk about the U.S. relationship in Asia. Many Americans are very familiar with the alliance system in Europe, that is, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and very familiar with the threat that emanated from the Soviet Union. When we now transfer that body of knowledge and instincts and approaches to Europe it doesn't quite work in Asia because it is, I would say, in many respects a far more complex animal to deal with.
First of all, there is no multilateral alliance system there. There is certainly the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but that is more of a consensus approach to things and one in which security is probably not the most important element. It is an effort to try to have countries get together in annual meetings, talk about problems, and see if there is a way forward.
The United States is one of the participants in something called the ASEAN Regional Forum, and we were trying to get people used to actually doing things and to try to have countries cooperate in things. The Singaporeans pushed for a tabletop exercise on maritime security at one point, but all the countries have very different attitudes to maritime security, especially if you're a country like Indonesia that has something like 14,000 islands or the Philippines, which has a similar number of islands, and you have issues of what is the sovereignty of the sea among those islands. There are extraordinary complexities of trying to get people to work together, develop consensus on those types of things.
In Europe meanwhile we had something called the Partnership for Peace, so back in the 1990s you could see a Russian ship bringing U.S. Marines onto the Polish coast, and the Marines would get off the landing ship and manage to set up a hospital for a drill in case you had some kind of natural disaster. So there were efforts to do this, and I think in the Pacific it has proved very difficult.
We might as well start talking about the elephant in the room very quickly, and that is China. I think it's fair to say that if you look at American history, we do seem to go without a foreign policy every four years, and we are all comfortable with that. We know that not a lot is going to happen in foreign policy during an election year. In particular, when we have someone out there or something out there that has caused a lot of concerns in the United States, whether it's trade, whether it's security, or whether it's ethics and human rights as well, that country gets particular scrutiny, and certainly China has led the way in this regard in recent elections.
Not to call it "China bashing," but there are a lot of aspects of, "Let's let the Chinese know what we feel about them." Something is different. Something is more serious.
To back up a little, we always have the Soviet Union for that purpose: Were we being tough enough on the Soviet Union? Were we looking for some channels of communication? But there is something, I think, different about China.
By the way, we also have issues with countries that are actually our allies, such as Japan. If you go back to the 1980s and you remember when the Japanese bought Rockefeller Center, there was this sense of: Oh, my goodness, today it's Rockefeller Center, tomorrow it will be the Empire State Building. What's going to be left in our country? So we do have these issues in foreign policy, and they usually come up in the context of fear and loathing during a campaign.
I would argue, however, in 2020 we have something a little deeper, a little more serious, and a little more intractable in terms of how we are going to move ahead with China. I don't think it has been easy to say: "Well, China is just the new Soviet Union. We had challenges with the Soviet Union, we have challenges with China. We just need to increase military spending and ramp up our support with allies, and we'll handle it. We'll take care of it."
But in fact China presents enormous challenges for us also in our economy. The Soviet Union never understood economy. They were never real players in the world—maybe a few raw materials—but China is a big player. They are probably the greatest manufacturing power the world has ever seen at this point.
As we look at the issue of whether we are dependent on China—and we certainly felt this during the onset of the COVID-19 crisis, where we didn't even feel we could get more personal protective equipment, more masks, and other materials like that because it was all made in China, which is a long way away from the United States, and that began a whole discussion about supply chains. Most Americans go through their lives without talking about supply chains, but certainly in the last few months a lot of people are talking about supply chains, and how do we shorten them, how do we make sure that we have materials that we need closer at hand rather than depending on the Chinese?
In addition, China has run enormous surpluses with the United States. As any economist will tell you—and the Chinese have a lot of economists, and good ones, by the way—"Bilateral deficits don't matter. It's about a global trading system, and you cannot expect any two countries to have a balance of trade between them or a current account or merchandise trade, so you Americans go back to what you wrote in the first place, which is the liberal economic world."
But in fact when you start running bilateral trade surpluses that get into the high hundreds of billions you start having a problem, and there is a question as to whether this is sustainable for any one country to run those kinds of surpluses with another country. In fact, I would say China emerged on the economic stage at a time when the world was also going through a technological transformation, which had the effect of reducing jobs in the United States in the manufacturing sector, whether or not there was a country called China.
China, I think it is fair to say, became a symbol of job loss and economic transformation in the United States, and that has been a very difficult thing to work on. To be sure, we want China to buy more soybeans and things like that, but that has not necessarily fixed the problem, especially for people in the upper Midwest. Without becoming political—I know that's the last thing we do at the Carnegie Council—today we have a president who is quite willing to exploit these issues of job loss and who is to blame for job loss. That is one very important aspect of what we are dealing with in China.
We also have a country in China that has enormous ambitions. Again, the Soviet Union was always seen as not a problem that was going to be with us for centuries but rather a short-term problem, a dangerous problem. In some ways it still is, but I think many political scientists would describe the Soviet Union now, if not the Soviet Union back in the 1970s, as a declining power, and as a declining power they present some short-term dangers, and we need to be addressing those.
But China is not a declining power; China is an ascendant power, a power whose military expenditures are going up every year, and a power that seems to have in its mind a military that can challenge the United States not just on the Chinese littoral, but in a broader scope in the world.
So there is a lot of concern. What does it mean when we see 14 percent increases in China's military spending? What does it mean that they are the only country besides the United States to be building—frantically, frankly—aircraft carriers and turning what was essentially a littoral-type navy into a blue water navy? I think there is a lot of concern about that.
Even during the time of the Soviet Union, when they were bringing out new weapons systems, especially in the nuclear area but also in the conventional area, there was always the sense that we had the technological upper hand. If they were going to bring new T-80s through the Fulda Gap, well, by golly, we had some very fancy anti-tank missiles. It wasn't just in aircraft, but we could do stuff with precision guidance that the Soviet Union could only dream about.
Now as we look at the Chinese military, we see that they also have a lot of computer chips in their weapons systems, so I think there is a real concern: What are they going to do with all this? Why are they building all this? They don't have an alliance system. They have not worked with many other nations in the case of NATO to talk about peaceful purposes, etc. They have their own, and they essentially have no allies as they pursue this, so there are a lot of concerns there.
So you have the economic issue, you have the military issue, and then you have a China that is increasingly willing to engage itself throughout the world, whether in the North Pole or elsewhere, and to be real players politically and as a model of their country, that is, that somehow they have this new model; our model is over, it's passing by, it's not something that people want to emulate, but China has this model.
To round out the picture, you have a China model that is not tending toward democracy. The hope for China—the hope that animated deals such as the Hong Kong deal back in 1997—was a sense China was embracing democracy, embracing participatory processes. In fact you saw some signs of multi-candidate elections, and there was overall a tendency to move toward us. It was not so much as we used to talk about during the Soviet times where somehow the Soviet Union and the United States would meet in the middle. I would immediately point out that that was never going to be the case. But there is this sense that China is just not interested in this and sees it as a failed model.
Finally, to round this out, you have a China that is pretty harsh on dissidents, pretty harsh on minorities, and capable because of its technological prowess of following these people from morning until night with face recognition technology and the like. The most the Russians ever had were a few traffic cameras. There was nothing at all like this. So you see this marriage of technology and illiberalism that is very concerning to people.
Of course, COVID-19 became a case where China's illiberalism seemed to contribute to its inability to warn the world and otherwise do what it should have been doing to protect us from something that, for better or worse and for whatever reason, did come from China. So now we have an election and, amazingly enough, China is front and center on this.
You listen to all these issues about China, and you think: Well, maybe we ought to either start building our bunkers and crawling underground and hoping that this country somehow passes like some terrible storm. Or you start thinking: What are we actually going to do about it?
The problem right now—very much exacerbated by COVID-19 because COVID-19 brought itself into many homes in America. It has had a devastating effect on the economy—if not on Zoom technology, then on just about everything else. I think COVID-19 was the latest and greatest challenge that we faced, and we look at where did this all come from, and sadly the answer is China.
How are we going to deal with China? My own feeling is China bashing and China hatred is not going to get us there, and I think we ought to turn down the volume a little. To be sure, the Chinese have a pretty amped-up volume themselves. I think many of you have heard of "wolf diplomacy," and you wonder, What in the world is wolf diplomacy? What it refers to—this is interesting because there is a kind of parallelism here—is that the Chinese worry that their diplomats have not been tough enough, that after all the diplomats stand around at these cocktail parties and sit at these diplomatic dinners, and when they're confronted with the Americans, lo and behold, they seem to knuckle under. They don't seem to push back, they don't seem to say what China is really doing. So there is this criticism within China that they are not tough on us, and you can imagine that is happening in the United States as well.
We also have—and again, I don't want to be political—a secretary of state who goes to China in the fall of 2018 to brief the Chinese on the North Korea talks, and I hope we have time to talk about that. The idea is to brief the Chinese on what is going on in the nuclear talks with North Korea. That day, probably because the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing, Vice President Pence gives a bloodcurdling speech about the new Cold War and how China is now, in effect, the Soviet Union.
The Chinese didn't really appreciate that, so when Pompeo met Wang Yi, the senior Chinese official dealing with foreign policy, Wang Yi extended his hand, and then held onto Pompeo's hand in front of the television cameras, and, directing himself to the television cameras, told him why the Americans are all wrong in how they're dealing with China.
Pompeo, who is not known for a particularly thick skin on this, smiled wanly, went into the meeting, chewed out the Chinese foreign policy leader—he's not the foreign minister; he's above that—and then proceeded to say, "I'm not coming back here again." Since the fall of 2018 until now, the U.S. secretary of state has not made a visit to China. I would submit to you that that is not the right approach.
So often when I was dealing with the Balkans people would say: "We should stop dealing with Milošević. We should not see him. We should stop dealing with these people." I have found that when you stop dealing with people the problem tended to get a lot worse.
We do need to keep up dialogue, but I don't think it should be a dialogue of the deaf, nor should it be a dialogue through press conferences. It needs to be some no-kidding discussions with the Chinese about how we can find better ways to talk to each other.
There are a host of issues as I laid out, but I would start with one of my favorites, and that is the always cute-and-cuddly North Koreans and how we can better deal with that problem. Anyone who thinks the United States can deal with that problem alone, I think is wrong. The United States is not going to be able to deal with that problem, and the process that President Trump has had on North Korea has proven that. He went to talk to them in Singapore. I didn't think that was such a terrible idea, but as with a lot of things, I don't care whether it's cooking or whatever, you should do some preparation before you get to the stove, and I think there was very little preparation for Singapore. There seemed to be even less preparation for the meeting in Hanoi. Finally, we have basically nothing to show for it with North Korea except three years of lost time.
In the meantime, we have not worked closely with the Chinese. We have not worked closely enough with our two allies, Japan and South Korea, and one has the impression that, if there were a second Trump administration, we would go along in this direction with nothing being done.
Most worrisome, I think, is that the president indicated in Singapore that he would like to bring U.S. troops back from South Korea, and you have to ask yourself the question: If we bring troops back from South Korea, what will happen in the South Korean-Chinese relationship? Would we see an emboldened China? Would we see a South Korea that has to work more with China?
What would be the relationship in Japan? Japan has just changed prime ministers in the last 24 hours. Whether you liked Prime Minister Shinzo Abe or not, he was a veteran ballplayer there. He knew how to play the game. But now he's gone, so how would that work if the United States decided to pull troops out of South Korea in the expectation or hope of getting something from the North Koreans? Would the Japanese be okay being the only country in Asia with U.S. troops? After all, those U.S. troops went there in 1945 for, how should I put it, a different purpose, and would the Japanese be satisfied with that?
There is a lot at stake here in these relationships. I think the United States does need to find some more patterns of cooperation, not only with China, which is a very big challenge, but also with some of our partners and neighbors. Clearly we need to hold some of those partners and allies closely with respect to China's effort to unilaterally take the South China Sea and turn it into a southern Chinese lake.
We cannot accept that, but at the same time our non-acceptance of that would be a lot more effective if we could work with the maritime countries in Southeast Asia so that China can be brought to understand that they may have a policy position that we don't like, but they don't have to act on the policy, and I think that is the big problem. Many countries have policy positions, countries have territorial disputes. You would be amazed at the territorial disputes that go on in places like Europe, but there is never any acting on it. I think the issue is to try to get ourselves in a position where China realizes it is not in its interest to act on these issues.
We need to work with these other countries so that we are not always taking point. In the case of some of the Chinese issues, on the economic issue, where we have been very concerned about what we consider theft of intellectual property rights, the Chinese would disagree, but whatever it is, it has been an extortion attempt to take technology when our companies did not want to give it up and felt they had to in order to have some economic benefit that they really needed.
Many of our European allies have the same problems with China, so why are we creating problems with European allies when we should be working with them on China? We should have much more of an effort to say to the Chinese: "It's not just us. We have European allies as well." I think the United States needs to overall leverage our position.
Some would argue that by calling the Pacific the "Indo-Pacific" we are leveraging our position. What a brilliant strategy this is, to re-jigger the world map and somehow make India an East Asian country. It sounds like a pretty brilliant idea until you look at a map. It doesn't really work that way. It is not to say that India doesn't have a lot of concerns with China, and we have seen some of those concerns going on in the Himalayas, and it doesn't mean that we can't work with India on issues of how to manage China.
But I think we need to be very careful that we're not appearing to try to encircle China. Because when you go back to 1972 to the Shanghai ports, what we were able to do essentially was to make China—they were already feeling the sense of Soviet encirclement, you will recall at the time that the Soviet was always talking about bases in Cam Ranh Bay and places like that. China was very concerned about this potential of encirclement by the Soviet Union, and that was for us a great source of leverage that we were able to work with China, and I would say—this is not my thought but a very profound thought—that the Sino-U.S. rapprochement essentially ended the Soviet Union and ended the Cold War, something that was clearly in our interest to pursue.
I think we need to get a little smarter now and think of those issues of how to pursue them. These ethics issues, these issues of human rights in China are very real. We need to help shape a world in which China looks at the shape of that world and decides it has to do things differently. That is going to be a lot more effective than banging our fist at the United Nations, or as Khrushchev used to do, taking off one of his shoes and banging his shoe at the United Nations. But in some cases it looks to be the same sort of thing. So we need to work on this.
Most of all, we need to have some dialogue, some capacity to talk to people not just in public, not just through social media, which I consider the bane of diplomacy, but it's here to stay. I'm not going to argue it. But I think we need to have a much better dialogue.
Step by step is always good. I always felt you get the North Koreans to move one step, they would look around and say, "It's not so bad, let's move another step," rather than expect some circus act where they will do a double backflip and land on their feet, and that's the end of the show.
So it's going to be a process, but we need to get a lot smarter about diplomacy. I would argue to be smart about diplomacy is to engage in diplomacy with actual diplomats. There is nothing wrong with diplomats, and I would say American diplomats are a lot better than our country may think we are. You look at Hollywood's portrayal of American diplomats, and it's always some craven-looking person behind a big desk with a couple of flags behind him—and it's always a him. We need to get over that idea and understand that diplomats can be a real force multiplier, especially in a part of the world that is as important and as vast as Asia-Pacific.
Nick, I think I have talked a lot too long, but we can now start much more of a dialogue on this.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Perfect timing. You've covered a lot of issues. You have anticipated some of the questions that we have. I will take my prerogative as the moderator to start us off, and then I believe Alex Woodson from the Council is moderating and curating the queries and comments from the audience, so I will invite him after to begin giving you those reactions.
A very important point that you raised at several points—you talked about this with regard to Yugoslavia, North Korea, and China—is that we have to talk, that there are regimes out there that have influence, they have power, they can "affect the board," as it were, and not talking to them is not an option if there are other things at stake. We don't want North Korea to use nuclear weapons. China is simply too big of a country in the international system; we can't ever hope to isolate it.
In the past it does seem that we were able to square that circle. As you noted, 20 years ago the narrative was that "China is liberalizing," so that they are going to move closer to where we are on certain issues of values, of governance, and of human rights, and therefore that justifies the engagement, whereas now it does seem that China has drawn some very clear lines saying—not the term they're going to use but from our perspective—that they are committed to an "illiberal" form of governance and that they are not going to continue moving in a direction that we would like.
For a diplomat who has a mandate to get certain concrete things accomplished—we don't want conflict in the South China Sea, we want to ensure smooth running at the United Nations, where both China and the United States are veto-wielding powers, we want to make sure that the global commons remain open—the values questions, say, of human rights, how do they get assigned and ranked when you are engaged in talks across the table and when you're engaged with talks—thinking in the case of the North Koreans—where you are dealing with people that metaphorically or even literally may in fact have "blood on their hands" for things that they have done, yet we still need to deal with them? Can you give us a sense of what it's like as a diplomat to have to navigate dealing with governments and representatives where, on the one hand, you would like to say, "I don't want to give you the time of day," but on the other hand, "If I don't talk to you, there are worse outcomes which in turn will have worse outcomes for values"—it will risk war or some great catastrophe? How have you been able to reconcile that or deal with that in your own career, and do you have any advice moving forward for people who have to grapple with that question?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: As your question implies, it is very difficult. There is a point at which you don't talk to people. I think the United States was entirely correct not to talk to Nazi Germany. There is just a point at which you have to stop or not start.
The question is: Where do you get to that point? I think a key issue is: What do you think you can accomplish from the talks? Can you make something better? In making something better can you also affect the situation of human rights?
Often you can. I have been in discussions—again, I don't want to draw analogies between Slobodan Milošević and the Chinese; I think it's unfair to the Chinese—but there were times when if you can't change an overall system, you can change that system for a few people. You can spring people from prison. You can make sure that when you talk to these regimes you do not lose track of these issues of ethics and human rights, and they have a role in how you approach things.
With North Korea my own view, I remember, not to quote one of my Russian counterparts, but he said: "You Americans, you don't think this is hard enough, and now you're going to be talking about human rights? You don't think it's already hard enough on the nuclear side?"
He had a point, but I had a point too, and I told my North Korean counterpart: "We are prepared in the context of a denuclearizing North Korea to pursue a normal relationship with North Korea," not a North Korea that doesn't denuclearize. We pursue a normal relationship and stand around and wait for them to do the right thing. These are all action-for-action: "You do this, we do this."
But then I told them that when we get to the point of establishing any kind of relationship, we are going to have to—and I said "have to" because it's part of our value system—pursue the issue of human rights. I know you don't want to hear that, but what we would do is have a track in the context of any normalization with North Korea to measure where we are on human rights and what can be done to improve it.
As I said, you often start by saying: "Can we spring these people from prison? Can we do this?" It has to be very incremental. The problem with human rights abusers is that they believe that this type of roughness with their own public is how they hold onto power, so it's very tough to get them to stop that because they feel that they are not going to be able to hold onto power the minute they stop that. What you try to do is get a few things done, and what you don't do is try to humiliate them publicly.
I'll give you another example with China. North Koreans would escape into China, sometimes with amazing journeys, but they somehow made it into China. And they sometimes made it into China with the great help of private groups. I am all in favor of that. What I am not in favor of is that the private group drop the refugee family at an American installation and then has a press conference to the effect that they have succeeded in getting these North Koreans into an American diplomatic establishment, and, by the way, send us more money, and we'll do this again.
When you're talking about people's lives—and it's individual's lives—you need to be very careful how you do that, and you need to be very careful not to use individuals in the pursuit of your own goals. In the case of North Koreans who ended up in U.S. hands in China, sleeping in the basement of our consulate somewhere, I found it very useful, especially if we could keep it out of the public eye, to go to the Chinese and figure how we could get them out. I found it very useful to have a good relationship with the South Koreans and an understanding that we were doing as much for that relationship as we could, and therefore they would do as much for us as they could.
People who think that diplomacy is just about individual transactions miss the point of a broader approach. I served in Macedonia at one point, and I was talking to the Macedonian prime minister. The issue was Albanian language and Albanian-majority villages, and could they learn Albanian in the schools rather than Macedonian, which was the majority language but not in these Albanian-dominated towns.
I remember the prime minister said to me: "You know, this is very hard for me. This is very hard. You have no idea of the opposition I get in Parliament when I suggest going along with these types of issues."
But then he said to me: "But I value the relationship with the United States. I know that my country's future is tied to our ability to have a good relationship with you,"—with the United States—"and therefore we're going to try to get this done."
Essentially you first convince them that the relationship is important. By the way, to do that you have to swallow a couple of things, and pick your battles, and not blast—if you are a tiny country like Macedonia, there are more than a tiny number of things that you can complain about. So you're careful with that, but what you are clear about is the degree to which the United States cares about Macedonia, and when people feel that, they're prepared to do things because they know the relationship is important.
By the way, diplomacy is no different from one's personal life. When you are dealing with somebody, you try to understand where they're coming from on an issue. Americans have been so blessed to live in this country and to be far away from some of these terrible issues, and you ought to stop to think: How would I do if I were that prime minister of Macedonia, let's say? How would I handle that issue? You just develop a little empathy, a little understanding of where the other person is coming from, and then read a few history books, and you'll be ready to be a diplomat.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That's wonderful. I think that's important, both the empathy question and also understanding that every country has domestic politics, and political leaders have constituencies, and understanding how to navigate those are quite important.
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Weirdly, even brutal dictatorships can have them.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Yes, even brutal dictatorships have domestic politics.
CHRISTOPHER HILL: The issue isn't to knuckle under to this stuff; the issue is to understand it.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Yes.
CHRISTOPHER HILL: I think as any negotiator does, you try to take something that you know is more valuable to the other guy than it is to you, and then you try to take something that you know is more valuable to yourself than to the other guy and see if, through this process of policy arbitrage, you can find ways to make progress because neither side feels they're giving up a lot, but each side feels they're getting a lot. If you can figure out the relative value of stuff—and the only way to do that is to listen hard and kind of get a sense of what they really care about. I will tell you, though, dealing with the North Koreans, you would think they would want something, and you would go and move heaven and earth for it, and then they wanted it until they didn't want it.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Until they didn't want it, yes.
CHRISTOPHER HILL: They can be a real challenge, especially on this nuclear question. I used to tell them: "We've got a lot of options for dealing with that." That was diplomatese as a threat. "We have a lot of options. We don't have the option of walking away. We're not going to walk away from this, and we're not going to accept you as a nuclear state."
I think some points that you want to make you had better be willing to make them 50 times. Advertisers do it all the time. You don't just see one beer ad. That wouldn't make you want to drink beer. You would see another 49 beer ads and then say, "Maybe I'll try it."
I think in diplomacy you have to keep emphasizing and repeating yourself because that's the way you establish a kind of level of effort: "This is important to me. Okay? Got it?"
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: That's wonderful.
Alex, if I could ask you to give us a sense of the Chat and questions and comments for the ambassador.
ALEX WOODSON: Sure. Thanks, Nick, thanks, Ambassador Hill.
We have some great questions. For the first one I'm going to ask one that connects back to the United States, which is the subject of this webinar. This is from Krister Lansing: "Is the focus on economics, trade deals with China, and soybean purchases overblown? Is this simply a political football to pander to U.S. heartland voters? How much economic influence does China have over the U.S. situation?"
CHRISTOPHER HILL: I would be shocked if there is really politics involved in this. On the other hand, I think we need to understand that, you bet, there is politics.
That said, it's a good idea to pursue trade negotiations that help employ Americans and presumably create a circumstance where maybe those bilateral deficits will go down, not that it's necessarily meaningful in terms of the economy directly, but I think it's meaningful in terms of the political setting that you're dealing with so that you can make more and what are often tougher decisions to, for example, open the Chinese market, have better protections for your intellectual property rights, etc.
I don't fault the current administration for pursuing these economic deals. Obviously I don't rule out the fact—and we know this from a number of sources, I never thought I would quote John Bolton, but he was "there in the room," as he likes to say. I think it has probably been the right thing to approach these things. Where I worry is trying to turn these things into cliffhangers and otherwise to, I think, create a lot of enmity where we are trying to calm things down. I think this administration needs to learn the value of calming things down because people think straighter when they're calm.
ALEX WOODSON: Shellie Garrett has the next question: "Is there something happening in China's internal politics causing China to become more aggressive on several fronts—Hong Kong, East and South China Seas, Xinjiang, etc.?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: That's a very important question, and it's because usually when you see a country misbehaving externally, you can bet that there are pressures going on internally. The trick is to figure out what they are and to understand the dynamics and especially to understand the relationship between the external and internal.
For example, a few years ago I was surprised to learn that in China on their equivalent of these social media platforms there was criticism of the Chinese government to the effect: "Why are you allowing the Vietnamese to get away with this? Why are we allowing them to push us around in what really should be our South China Sea?"
There is cynicism to go halfway around the world on this. You could say the government is pushing people to say stuff, and then the government says, "Oh, we have to act because our people want to." There is a lot of that. But don't discount the idea that if you're a citizen in China and you're basically not happy with the government, you may try to flank it on the nationalist side and not just on the, "Gee, government, can't you be more liberal?"
I do not rule out these things. I would have thought—and I did think—that Xi Jinping would have said: "Hey, enough already. We have taken good relations with Southeast Asian nations and turned them into bad relations because of our aggressiveness. We need to stop this." And he sure as heck has not stopped it at all. It's not just creating facts on the ground in these islands or islets around the South China Sea. He keeps creating the ground itself by dumping dirt on these atolls and otherwise creating more of China there. I think the questioner is right to look at this, and I think it does happen, but I think one has to hold the government accountable, whether or not it has pressures.
I remember in Iraq you would hear all these excuses for everything, and usually it was, "The people don't want me to do that." Well, that's what leadership is about, to convince people that you're doing something for the country's greater good, and I just don't accept every politician who says, "I can't do this because my base doesn't want me to."
I'm not making any current analogy with any politician.
ALEX WOODSON: This is a somewhat related question from George Bulow: "Xi Jinping not only has 'hardcore' nationalists with an anti-colonialist bent who are largely in the ascendency. He also has hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Western-educated bureaucrats who are not as hostile to the United States, Japan, India, and other Southeast and Northeast Asian countries. What chance, if any, is there for this alternative faction to gain more traction within the Chinese Communist Party?
CHRISTOPHER HILL: Xi Jinping is a very powerful leader, but if I were a U.S. president, I'm not sure I would want to switch inboxes because I think he has, as the question implies, a lot of different forces behind him.
If you look at polling data of the ones who come back from overseas education, they tend to be kind of hardline. I wouldn't necessarily take that to heart. If I were coming back from four years at some U.S. university, I might be careful not to say that I have bought the line there.
At the same time, I think China has a lot of internal tensions. It's quite a nationalist country. You go to any city in China, and you see flags everywhere. Don't assume they are all being put up by the flag installers of the Communist Party. There is a lot of pride in China. There was a lot of pride in the Olympic Games they had; there will be a lot of pride in their Winter Olympics coming up. China is a very prideful nation, and I think one has to understand that when you deal with them. If you want to try to humiliate them publicly, you had better anticipate what their next step might be.
We need to get back to some traditional forms of diplomacy where you go in a room—you don't have to fill it up with cigarette smoke; even the Chinese banned cigarettes at the foreign ministry—shut the door, and what happens in the room should stay in the room until you have a real deal. I think there is just too much of this idea that you have to repeat everything you have done in social media.
ALEX WOODSON: This one just came in from Francisco Castaneda: "Do you think the United States should get more involved with ASEAN to understand better the region and have different views on it?"
CHRISTOPHER HILL: I think we should. During my watch it was frustrating because we held ASEAN at arm's length. Why did we hold them at arm's length? Because ASEAN wanted to do more with Burma than we wanted to do with Burma. Therefore, we thought that having our president go to too many ASEAN meetings was somehow giving in to the ASEAN view that Burma needed to be one of them. I think that was wrong-headed.
There was a certain point during the Bush administration where the United States was trying to throw the book at Burma for maybe many good reasons, but I remember the Singaporean foreign minister at the time told me: "You look at Burma as a big human rights problem. We do too. What you don't understand is that it is also a big piece of real estate, and it has a choice of being part of the China world, part of the Indian world, or part of the ASEAN world, and we want that last outcome, so we will continue to pursue relationships with Burma." I think that made a lot of sense.
No question the United States needs to be working more closely with an association that, after all, embraces some half a billion people—that's the population of the ASEAN members in Southeast Asia. No question we should be doing more, and no question we can bring up our issues that are more important to us than maybe to others, but we should be careful not to expect them to knuckle under to our views while we don't necessarily listen to their views.
The problem of multilateral organizations, which ASEAN represents, is that Americans need to understand that you need to work with what people are interested in. Most politicians understand that. You don't just go and tell everyone what you want to do. You go a little listening too, and I think the United States needs to do a better job of listening when we meet these multilateral organizations because they won't have the same agenda that we do. It's not necessarily contrary, but it's things that we may have not wanted to necessarily deal with, but you do it because that's the best way to get them to focus on your agenda as well.
NIKOLAS GVOSDEV: Ambassador Hill, thank you very much. It feels like we have covered more than just one hour's worth of topics, but being able in this timeframe to have had such a wide-ranging discussion and I think, in the end, to the point that diplomacy is not something that pundits do on social media but that requires investment, time, expertise, and giving a little to get something and having that link to a long-range assessment of where you want to go and what matters to you.
This has been an excellent presentation. I hope that everyone benefits from it. I certainly hope that your voice will continue to be one that administrations will be soliciting as we move forward into the future as we continue to grapple with these issues.
Also, thank you for this act of education to a broader audience that is interested in these things and getting us to appreciate a lot of what happens behind the scenes and the challenges that you have faced and that others will continue to face in trying to, as you put it, in the end create outcomes where everyone benefits and we move forward in a positive direction.
With that, I would like to thank everyone for joining us today. Please do look at the Carnegie Council site for future webinars that will be happening. Of course, all our previous webinars are archived both by video and by transcript so you can consult that. If you have friends and colleagues who could not be with us for this live event, certainly pass along to them that the repository of today's conversations will be made available both at the Carnegie site as well as on our YouTube channel.
With that, thank you very much, and I bid everyone a wonderful afternoon.