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Ambassador Burns’ Remarks at the USCBC 50th Anniversary Gala in Washington, D.C.
Remarks as delivered, lightly edited for clarity
December 21, 2023


December 14, 2023


Good evening, everyone. It is a great pleasure to be here. I just came from Beijing a couple of days ago. It’s nice to be back in our nation’s capital. And I’m really proud to be here, to celebrate something very important. And that’s 50 years of the US-China Business Council. That’s the history of this organization as one of the founding fathers and mothers of the U.S.-China relationship.

I want to salute our chairman, Marc Casper of Thermo Fisher, one of our great business leaders in the United States. I want to salute my partner in business promotion in China, Craig Allen, Ambassador Craig Allen, who does such a great job for this organization.  Ryan, thank you, Ryan McInerney of Visa, we’ve worked very closely together, we’ll continue to do that, Visa is a great company.  And I want to thank Rajesh Subramaniam as well from FedEx, who’s been a good friend.  And I’ve learned a lot from Raj.

I so much admire our Secretary of the Treasury.  And I am looking forward to her remarks. And I want to salute her this evening. And I want to ask all of you to join me in thanking her for leading the reopening of our economic relationship with China.

I’m going to say a few words tonight about what has essentially been the revival of a close, coordinated relationship between the two governments. I’m not going to speak about economic affairs because I’ve learned enough in Washington to know that only the Secretary of the Treasury should talk about the nation’s economic affairs. But in doing so, I also want to pay tribute to someone with whom I had 24 meetings in my first year in Beijing when he was Vice Foreign Minister of China, and he’s now the Ambassador of the People’s Republic of China here in our country.

Ambassador Xie Feng, welcome. Great to have you with us.

1973, 50 years ago, that was a very consequential year for the relationship between the American people and the Chinese people. The US-China Business Council was created in that year. And thank you to Bob Hormats who’s a close friend of mine, for having had the idea that we should have this organization. We had had practically no economic ties of any kind between our two countries for 24 years during a real cold war between our countries and the US China Business Council, was the first organization created to bring our countries back together and our economies back together.

That same year, as all of you know, saw the return of official relations, diplomatic relations between the United States and China in the wake of President Nixon’s famous and very important trip to Beijing and Shanghai. To symbolize what Nixon to China meant in practical terms that same year in 1973, our first ambassador, Ambassador David K. E. Bruce, raised the American flag in China for the very first time in July 1973.

The American flag had not been visible in that country for 24 years. And so it was a bit of poetry this summer when 50 years to the week since that historic flag raising, the American who did more than anyone else to create the modern U.S. relationship with China, Henry Kissinger, came to China on his final visit.

I met him at the airport.  It was a blisteringly hot day, 102 degrees Fahrenheit, when he walked off the plane after a 20-hour journey, smiling, visibly energized, 100 years of age. And he threw himself into five days of meetings with the Chinese leadership, including President Xi Jinping. And we had the huge honor at our embassy in China, 700 of us, to welcome him back to the embassy that he built and to honor him for being the founding father in this relationship.

Speaking personally, I don’t believe there’s any other American who did more to create and shape and nurture and build our relationship with China than Henry Kissinger.  His work with President Nixon and Chairman Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai, secret diplomacy in 1971 and 1972. It’s one of the most brilliant examples in American diplomatic history of ingenuity and strategic vision. I think he wrote one of the finest books by an American on China, it’s called On China, 2011.

And he was the only American leader, and Ambassador Cui Tiankai mentioned this to me and I hadn’t realized it. Ambassador Cui said Henry Kissinger is the only American leader, maybe the only world leader, who dealt with every Chinese leader from Chairman Mao to President Xi Jinping. I deeply valued my two-decade friendship with him. I valued the counsel he gave me in Zoom meetings during COVID and then in private meetings about how the United States and China might manage to work out a way to be friends with each other, a way to compete with each other, a way to arrive at difficult conversations.

And I think all of you know that he was buried today not far from here at Arlington National Cemetery. I thought it might be appropriate if we all just stood and applauded for that great American.

Thank you. Thank you very much. And I know that, Ambassador Xie will have something to say about Secretary Kissinger as well.

We’re looking forward to a new year. And I can report to you this evening that both of our governments have found a way to bring a measure of badly needed stability to the U.S.-China relationship. I can also report that as a result of last month’s California summit meeting and Secretary Yellen and I were together there with President Biden, we have deeper channels of communications between our two governments.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the relationship is not contested and not competitive, because it certainly still is. It does not mean that we don’t argue about the major differences between us on many issues, including vital issues, because we still do, including across the board. But it does mean that we’re better connected to be able to work together on issues, difficult issues like fentanyl and climate change and to manage our differences responsibly, which we have to do for the sake of both of our countries and for the sake of the world.  In my world of diplomacy, that is progress. Starting in June, and until this week, we launched a series of visits to each other’s capitals by our senior officials to rebuild bridges, to reconnect our leaders, and to renew a full dialogue in economics, in national security, in commercial diplomacy between our two governments.

This summer, Secretary Tony Blinken, Secretary Janet Yellen, Secretary Gina Raimondo all came to Beijing. We had not had secretaries of each of those departments in China in four and a half years. Our climate negotiator, John Kerry, came to Beijing and his counterpart, Xie Genhua, then visited Sunnylands in California. In fact, just before President Biden and President Xi’s summit, Jake Sullivan and I spent an entire weekend on the island of Malta in September with Foreign Minister Wang Yi, talking about some of the difficult issues in this relationship.

And then we had our first visit by Congressional leaders in four years, a bipartisan delegation led by the majority leader of the Senate, Chuck Schumer.  And then the first visit by an American governor in four years, Gavin Newsom of California to China. We had been pulled apart by the pandemic. Our two governments were not talking at a senior level, were not visiting each other’s capitals. And so we were able to bring the governments together. And then Secretary Yellen was able to meet with Vice Premier He Lifeng in California as a warmup, as a way to introduce the summit meeting between the two leaders.

And we’re going to see much more of that in the next year. We’re going to see a normal diplomatic relationship of our leaders at the Cabinet level engaging with each other. This all culminated in California, Woodside, California, at a beautiful estate just north of the Stanford campus. And I think for all of us who were there, that was a consequential meeting. President Biden said at his press conference it was productive and he thought the most constructive of the seven meetings that he’s had with President Xi since President Biden took office. They agreed to work together on the greatest public health crisis in the United States, and that’s the fentanyl crisis. It’s the leading cause of death of Americans 18 to 49. They agreed to restore military to military contacts at the most senior levels. That’s vital because our two militaries, our navies and air forces are operating in very close proximity to each other in the South and East China Seas and in the Taiwan Strait.

They agreed to begin a conversation, and it’s urgent, about the implications of artificial intelligence for our respective national securities.

And finally, they agreed to reconnect the people of China and the people of the United States, our students, our tourists, our business leaders, so we might have much greater interaction than we’ve had throughout the pandemic.

Secretary Yellen is going to speak about our economic relationship. I will not do that.  But I do want to pay tribute to her and Secretary Raimondo again, because they opened the door to a normal conversation between our private sectors as well as our two governments.

All in all, I do think this relationship is more stable than it was, say, on June 1st of 2023, when we began this diplomatic campaign to reengage. But I have to also acknowledge, as the American ambassador in China this evening, the relationship still remains intensely competitive.

It is often quite difficult. We have contested conversations. I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon. There is systemic rivalry in many ways between our two countries. We’re competing. We’re competing for military and security influence in the Indo-Pacific, where the United States has strengthened its strategic relationships with Japan, with the Republic of Korea, with Thailand, with Australia through AUKUS, and through the Quad with our strategic partner, India.

We have the enormous advantage of strong and trusted allies in the Indo-Pacific. We have first rate technology companies, first rate companies across the board in the American private sector. We have the finest research universities in the world. And we have, I think, America’s greatest power, the power of our ideas, the power of democracy, the power of our deep belief in human freedom, the power of our foundational rights in the Bill of Rights, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly and the rule of law.  The power of our conviction that all men and all women are created equal. We will continue to stand up for those values as we prosecute this very important relationship.

And so I want to salute all of you for being here tonight. This is a night to celebrate the US-China Business Council, the next 50 years of the US-China Business Council. We will be very happy to work with all of you towards the goal of normalizing an economic relationship, of making sure that we’re doing what we can on both sides to bring it forward.

And most important, to have a stable relationship between our two countries, to make sure that that relationship is always peaceful in the long, historic, complicated but vital relationship that all of us are working for.  That’s my message to you tonight. And thank you very much for inviting me to speak.


Source:  Jubilee Gala: Making History Together and Building for the Next 50 (youtube.com)