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UPDATED: June 2, 2015 NO. 23 JUNE 4, 2015
Silk Road or TPP?

The year of 2015 looks set to be a busy year for Sino-U.S. relations. Steering clear of China's latest regional economic initiatives, the United States is pursuing its own cooperative scheme, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), as part of the Obama administration's pivot to Asia strategy. Although this pact involves Asian countries such as Japan and Viet Nam, the United States has thus far failed to extend an invitation to China to join negotiations, in what some have termed a move to contain the country and its influence in Asia at large. To shed some light on these issues, Dr. Patrick Mendis, a leading U.S. expert in international relations and a senior fellow at the Harvard University Kennedy School's Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, answers some questions ahead of President Xi Jinping's stateside visit this coming September.

Beijing Review: President Xi has been invited by his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama to pay a state visit to the United States in September. What kind of issues do you think will be discussed?

Dr. Patrick Mendis: I don't think anyone exactly knows what issues would emerge for Beijing and Washington; the dynamic bilateral relations may raise unexpected issues now and September. Having said this, I think that both Beijing and Washington will engage in the climate change issue. I believe that China and America need to lead the UN climate change negotiations. In more recent years I have noticed that China has taken very positive steps toward meeting this global challenge, and most recently by Premier Li Keqiang. The premier seems to be very firm on China's commitments and advocates for stricter pollution-control mechanisms.

Locally, it's very critical for Chinese people to have clean air to breathe, unpolluted water to drink or swim in rivers, and safe food to eat. Internationally, China and America must lead this issue because our global environment has no boundaries. Air pollution in east China could land in California through Pacific winds, which could have environmental implications for the American economy and its people. If the sea level rises, many island-nations in the South Pacific may also disappear. This is also true with the coastal regions of China.

Another bilateral issue would be global terrorism, a commonly shared issue for Beijing and Washington. China is now increasingly dealing with the extremist violence in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region and other locations. When I was in Beijing in October 2013, some terrorists affiliated with a Uygur separatist group blew up a vehicle in front of Tiananmen Square. Every government has the responsibility to protect its people. I think that the Chinese Government is fully aware of this situation and needs to find a political solution.

I think there might be the cyber-security issue that's important to both countries. It is imperative that Beijing and Washington focus on establishing a code of conduct for such matters. Toward this, I think that both countries should be engaged in a number of confidence-building activities. For example, 100,000 American students would come to China. Now we have more than a quarter million Chinese students in U.S. universities. It is imbalanced. Gradually if we have more educational exchanges and better understanding, we may have less conflict and we could develop friendship and mutual respect for each other's cultures and systems. More recently, there established military-to-military contacts between the Pentagon and the PLA (People's Liberation Army of China) as well as the U.S.-China Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade. The latter is important as Beijing and Washington are continuing their trade negotiations on this very important Bilateral Investment Treaty.

Finally, another possible issue might be the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) reform. The UNSC has five permanent members: the United States, United Kingdom, France, China, and Russia. Now there is a growing concern that the old world order developed after World War II is outdated, and that it doesn't reflect the reality of the world right now.

Has there been any progress in the recent negotiation of the U.S.-led TPP agreement?

Traditionally speaking, the chances are that there is a greater likelihood that the Republican-led Congress will support a trade agreement. Now the challenge for the Obama White House is to convince his own party to vote for it. This is ironic; for a long time, Democrats favored trade agreements, which I explained in one of my previous books, Trade for Peace.

David Shambaugh recently pronounced in The Wall Street Journal that the "endgame of Communist rule" in China has begun. So, from your perspective, what is the root cause of such sentiments coming from U.S. academia?

I just don't know his motivation, logic and observations when he wrote that opinion-page article. In some corners, he is considered to be a "realist" China hand, representing a different ideological camp in the American political spectrum. I try to understand China through a prism of Chinese history and its Confucius culture--a long-view vision of China. I explained this narrative in my most recent book, Peaceful War. If you wanted to know China's current situation, you can't look at yesterday's news. Yes, we talked about the former Soviet Union's collapse, and soon after that many experts predicted that China would be the next in line. Did it happen? No. Instead, the so-called "collapse theories" themselves seemed to have collapsed. I don't think China is going to collapse in a similar way to the Soviet Union, because China is the longest-surviving and still-continuing civilization in the world.

Why is it? Because there is a unifying invisible social-infrastructure in China, which I referred to as "the Confucius mindset." If you talk to Chinese people, they would prefer to consider themselves as Confucians as their Chinese identity, because they like to maintain the values of respect for their parents, teachers, and friends. The very human nature of things is hard to destroy itself; this is your Confucian DNA.

Of course, there might be some challenges and changes in the political future, but China is no Soviet Union, [the] Beijing leadership has a remarkable ability to adapt. So long as you have a cohesive mindset, China will remain a Confucian Union with democratic ideals with Chinese characteristics.

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is stoking discussion within Chinese media. On March 12, the UK joined and on March 17, France, Germany and Italy were reported to have agreed to sign up. However, these actions seem to have met with disapproval from the United States. S. C. Fred Bergsten, the founding director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, pointed out in his recent article that the United States should join the institution. What's your opinion?

I agree with Dr. Bergsten at the Peterson Institute. I think it is a mistake for America not to join. I think America should take the leadership and courage to partner with AIIB because all stakeholders would benefit from this initiative. I'm hoping the Obama White House would change its mind as the pressure from all-sides is mounting.

It's fascinating, because China has not been invited to join discussions concerning the TPP agreement.

I think that the Obama White House is using the same logic and strategy as President Bill Clinton did when he invited China to be a member of the World Trade Organization, forcing Beijing to reform its trade and financial regimes, and asking it to observe the standards, norms, and rules set by the United States.

So China has to obey all the rules?

Well, I think China is an adaptive learner. For example, look at the Shanghai Free Trade Zone, which is a window into welcoming American and European investors and financiers. In this interconnected world, it is harder and harder to exclude China. America needs to fully engage with China; Washington can't be acting like an ostrich hiding its head in the Pacific. 

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