Remarks as Prepared
Good morning everyone. Thank you, President Knapp, for that kind introduction, and thank you to everyone at GW for hosting me. I wanted to come to this distinguished university to speak directly to younger people, because my topic this morning will impact your futures—whether you decide to open a business, develop cutting-edge internet technology, or work in national security. That’s the relationship between China and the United States, the most consequential in the world today.
But allow me to start with a little bit of history.
“There is special news this afternoon—you are lost.”
That was how Zhou En-Lai greeted Henry Kissinger at their now-famous meeting in Beijing on July 9, 1971. The trip was a closely guarded secret. No one knew where Kissinger was—he had feigned an illness and decamped from a Pakistani airfield in the dead of night for face-to-face talks with the Chinese. He didn’t even pack a clean shirt for his 48-hour mission. But, that first meeting between President Nixon’s National Security Advisor and Chairman Mao’s Prime Minister led directly to the first visit by a U.S. President to China and the opening of relations between our nations—a trip that was dubbed, “the week that changed the world.” Over the past four decades, we’ve seen how prescient that assessment was.
I recently returned from my own visit to China—my third since becoming National Security Advisor. None of mine had to be secret. I always brought clean clothes. On each visit, I met with President Xi and China’s top leadership, conveying President Obama’s personal commitment to advancing the relationship between our countries, while candidly addressing our differences. On my last trip in late August, I spent more than eight hours in intensive discussions with my Chinese counterpart and many more with other senior officials discussing our nations’ priorities, our expectations of one another, and our visions for the future—where they overlap and how we will handle disagreements.
President Obama will continue our frank and comprehensive discussions when he welcomes President Xi to the White House later this week for a State Visit. Over the past two years, President Xi and President Obama have spent many hours meeting in formal and informal settings, as well as communicating through phone calls and letters, because many global challenges today can only be met with China and the United States working in concert.
It can be easy to lose sight of the larger arc of progress in our bilateral relationship with China amid the headlines that understandably focus on the differences between our countries. Our differences and America’s concerns are real. At the same time, it’s important to recognize the long-term trends that increasingly anchor this complex relationship. So today, I’d like to speak about how the United States approaches China, how far we’ve come, and how we view the future we want to build together.
Let me start with the broader context. Pursuing a productive relationship with China is a critical element of our larger strategy for the Asia Pacific. The United States is a Pacific power. We’ve been the guarantor of stability in the region for the past 70 years. President Obama has made it clear that we have vital interests in Asia and the Pacific, and a good part of our foreign policy has been focused on our rebalance to Asia—the President’s commitment to expand America’s engagement in this region, which had waned under the strain of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our determination to shape the future of this dynamic region continues to benefit the Asia-Pacific today—enhancing security, expanding prosperity, and advancing human dignity.
America’s unmatched leadership is grounded in our treaty alliances with Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. We’ve modernized these essential partnerships to tackle a full range of regional and global challenges—from providing humanitarian assistance to fighting pandemic disease. We’ve strengthened our defense posture in the region to ensure our collective security, including new access agreements to rotate U.S. forces to Australia and the Philippines. These alliances, rooted in our shared values, are powerful platforms for advancing a rules-based international system. The work of keeping our alliances strong and prepared for the future is never done, which is why President Obama welcomed Prime Minister Abe of Japan for a State Visit in April, and in the coming weeks, he will host President Park of South Korea.
At the same time, we’re building productive new partnerships with emerging regional powers. We’re engaging vital voices like India in regional discussions, and in the last year, Prime Minister Modi and President Obama have exchanged formal visits to deepen the relationship between our two great democracies. We’ve overcome past conflicts and are strengthening cooperation, as when President Obama welcomed Vietnam’s General Secretary Truong to the Oval Office this summer. We’ve explored an opening to Burma and will continue to press for follow-through on the democratic reforms that have been initiated there as the country prepares for a landmark election. And, we’re collaborating with regional leaders to advance our shared agenda, as we will when President Widodo of Indonesia visits Washington next month.
We’re also investing in regional institutions like the Pacific Islands Forum, as well as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), and the East Asia Summit (EAS). President Obama is the first U.S. President to help shape this architecture of cooperation in the region through sustained personal engagement at these regional summits. In November, President Obama will again travel to Asia—to the Philippines and Malaysia—to participate in APEC and EAS. Through our active involvement in all these institutions, we’re promoting regional growth and economic integration. We’ve helped strengthen their capacity to resolve conflicts, support democratic development, advance human rights, and ensure that all countries in the region play by the same rules.
That’s especially important for spurring broad-based economic growth in the fastest-growing region in the world. The landmark Trans-Pacific Partnership that we’re working to conclude will unlock greater trade and investment among countries in the region, while raising standards for worker rights, environmental safeguards, and intellectual property protections. It will bring us closer to our allies and partners, demonstrating our commitment to a shared future. We’re working now to complete negotiations for TPP so that we level the playing field for American businesses and workers.
It is against this backdrop—as President Obama has often said—that the United States welcomes a rising China that is peaceful, stable, prosperous, and a responsible player in global affairs. It’s natural that China take on greater leadership to match its economic development and growing capabilities. When China is invested in helping resolve regional and global problems, the United States – and the world – benefits. We also recognize that China has prospered within a secure environment and international economic system that depends upon the United States’ long-standing commitments to the region. And, we will continue taking steps to build a productive, cooperative relationship with China that delivers benefits for both our peoples. That’s a central pillar of our strategy in Asia.
Under President Obama’s leadership, we have deepened our engagement with China at every level—maximizing our cooperation on areas of mutual interest while confronting and managing our disagreements. We reject reductive reasoning and lazy rhetoric that says conflict between the U.S. and China is inevitable, even as we’ve been tough with China where we disagree. This isn’t a zero-sum game. Our capacity to manage our differences is greater than that.
The United States comes to this relationship as an unquestionably strong player—an historic and enduring global leader, with a resurgent economy and a diverse and innovative people—and we welcome a China that joins in upholding the rules-based order that has served both our nations so well for so long. We invite China to work with us to adapt existing regional and international institutions so they are better able to address current realities. That’s why President Obama elevated the G-20 to be the premier forum for global economic cooperation. And, that’s why we’re committed to passing legislation to implement International Monetary Fund reforms, so that fast-growing nations, including China, can contribute more to the international financial system.
Deeper engagement between our countries yields dividends for both Americans and Chinese. Since President Obama took office, our exports to China have nearly doubled, and China is now the third largest market for American-made goods, following Canada and Mexico. Over that same period, Chinese investment in the United States surged from just about $1 billion to more than $10 billion.
We’ve extended visas for travel between our countries for business people, students, and tourists, making it easier for our citizens to study and work together. We’ve increased the number of visas we issue to Chinese travelers—from less than half a million in 2009 to more than 1.7 million last year. And that’s important, because the average Chinese tourist contributes more than $7,000 to the U.S. economy when they visit. That adds up.
As two nations that will shape the direction of this century, we want our young people to learn together and develop early connections, so we’re encouraging student exchanges and study abroad. Today, there are almost 275,000 Chinese students studying in the United States—up from less than 100,000 in 2009. And, we’ve already exceeded President Obama’s goal of sending 100,000 Americans to study in China. We look forward to setting an ambitious new target during President Xi’s visit and continuing to strengthen our people-to-people ties.
Since creating our Strategic and Economic Dialogue with China in 2009, we’ve used that forum to find new areas for practical cooperation on global issues. This summer, at the seventh session, we committed to strengthening our cooperation on everything from disaster response to combatting wildlife trafficking to establishing civilian cooperation in space.
We’re also working together to advance our shared security. During the past five years, we’ve bolstered our military-to-military ties with China. We’ve increased military exchanges and made high-level visits a regular occurrence. China now participates in our multilateral RIMPAC exercise—the largest naval exercise in the world. And last year, when President Obama visited China, we agreed to institute confidence-building measures between our militaries that increase transparency and predictability, thereby reducing the risk of unintended incidents. We’ve seen a marked improvement in operational safety since we signed these measures and believe this engagement is critical to avoid inadvertent escalation, while promoting constructive cooperation.
China has been a constructive partner in advancing the non-proliferation agenda, supporting efforts to secure nuclear materials and drive global action through the Nuclear Security Summits. Most recently, we’ve worked through the P5+1 to ensure that Iran does not obtain a nuclear weapon. China and the United States are in firm agreement that a nuclear-armed Iran would pose an unacceptable threat to the world, and we cooperated to build and enforce a tough sanctions regime that brought Iran to the negotiating table. China voluntarily agreed to reduce their purchases of Iranian oil to build pressure. And, now that we have a deal, we will coordinate closely with China and all our partners to ensure Iran meets its commitments.
China and the United States are equally united in demanding the complete and verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. We firmly oppose North Korea’s efforts to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that threaten regional stability and our respective national security interests. China is a fulcrum of influence for the DPRK, and this week’s meetings between Presidents Obama and Xi will be another opportunity to discuss how we can sharpen Pyongyang’s choices between having nuclear weapons and developing economically. Neither the United States nor China will accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons state.
In recent years, we’ve expanded our cooperation with China to increase stability and spur economic growth in Afghanistan. We’re investing in Afghanistan’s development and supporting efforts to advance an Afghan-led peace process. Our joint programs train Afghan diplomats, health care workers and farmers, and we’re doing more to embed Afghanistan into regional institutions and economic systems and to increase its resilience to threats.
As the two largest consumers of energy and the two largest carbon emitters in the world, our cooperation on climate change is vital to the security and the prosperity of our world. Here, China and the United States are taking decisive action. We’ve built an unprecedented bilateral partnership to drive down carbon emissions and promote clean energy in key sectors, including power generation and industry, transportation and forestry. Through initiatives like the Clean Energy Research Center, we’re jointly developing solutions to improve energy efficiency in buildings, advance electric vehicle technology, and explore carbon capture. And, last year, President Obama and President Xi made an historic announcement in Beijing, committing our countries to cut carbon emissions and meet ambitious climate targets—the first time that China has ever agreed to reduce its emissions. Both leaders are personally committed to ensuring that the world agrees to a strong, comprehensive climate agreement in Paris this December. This is an example to the world of how sustained U.S.-China engagement can yield historic results to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
We’ve also seen impressive evidence of the difference China and the United States can make when we work together to lift up the lives of people in other countries. At the peak of the Ebola crisis in West Africa, America’s leadership, along with the contributions of international partners, helped beat back a devastating epidemic. American and Chinese healthcare workers labored side-by-side to save lives. Moving forward, the U.S. and China will help Africa set up its own Center for Disease Control. To prepare for future epidemics, we’ll work closely with China to jointly advance our shared Global Health Security Agenda.
So, we are steadily and methodically expanding the breadth and depth of our cooperation with China. Our story is, overwhelmingly, one of progress. Still, the reality is we face difficult challenges. And, we never shy away from pressing our concerns.
In our interconnected global economy, American companies and workers can compete and succeed anywhere. But the competition must be fair. When China’s economic policies impede the free flow of commerce and worsen trade imbalances, it distorts the global economy. When China forces firms to hand over their technology as a condition for market access, it discourages innovation. When American businesses increasingly question whether the cost of doing business in China is worth it, that reduces trade and investment for everyone, and undercuts the support for the U.S.-China relationship here at home. And, as the world’s second largest economy, China’s actions reverberate through the global financial markets – as we saw recently with China’s stock market.
So, we want China to advance market reforms that level the playing field for foreign firms, reduce barriers to trade, and unleash its massive domestic consumer potential. China’s economy has gotten too big to rely on an export-driven growth strategy. And, we’ll continue to insist that China refrain from competitive currency devaluation. We want a future where businesses in China succeed or fail on their merits, without discriminatory subsidies or markets that are closed to competition. We want a business climate where intellectual property rights and trade secrets are respected, not stolen.
In his meetings with President Xi, President Obama has repeatedly made plain that state-sponsored, cyber-enabled economic espionage must stop. This isn’t a mild irritation. It is an economic and national security concern to the United States. It puts enormous strain on our bilateral relationship, and it is a critical factor in determining the future trajectory of U.S.-China ties. Cyber-enabled espionage that targets personal and corporate information for the economic gain of businesses undermines our long-term economic cooperation, and it needs to stop. So, we’ll continue to urge China to join us in promoting responsible norms of state behavior in cyberspace.
We’ve also made clear our position on maritime disputes in the East and South China Seas. The United States takes no position on competing territorial claims, but we insist upon and will continue to underscore our fundamental national interest in preserving freedom of navigation and commerce through some of the world’s busiest sea lanes. The United States of America will sail, fly, and operate anywhere that international law permits.
We have an interest in preventing territorial disputes from growing into larger conflicts that destabilize the region. The G-7 and ASEAN share our concerns, and we will work with all our partners to establish a peaceful process, based in international law, for resolving maritime claims with diplomacy—not force or coercion. We call on all claimants to reciprocally halt land reclamation, construction of new facilitates, and militarization of outposts on disputed areas. Instead, we urge China and ASEAN countries to conclude a Code of Conduct and set clear, predictable, binding rules of the road in the South China Sea.
We also have candid exchanges on Taiwan. The longstanding position of the United States is unchanged. We remain committed to our “one China” policy based on the three Joint Communiques and the Taiwan Relations Act. Our fundamental interest is in peaceful and stable cross-Strait relations, and we oppose unilateral changes to the status quo by either side.
Another profound difference between our two governments is human rights. Around the world, the United States never backs away from difficult issues. With China, we speak openly about persistent human rights violations, pressing our concerns at every level. We raise the cases of individuals like Liu Xiaobo, Xu Zhiyong, Gao Yu, Ilham Tohti, and Pu Zhiqiang, who are unjustly detained. China’s increasing restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly – including their visa restrictions on American journalists – are not only wrong; they are short-sighted. They hollow-out China’s potential. Already the environment for civil society organizations is so repressive that many groups are heading elsewhere. The draft foreign NGO law that China is considering would be another step in the wrong direction, threatening the very organizations that have promoted China’s development and advanced the friendship between our peoples.
Denying ethnic minorities like Tibetans and Uighurs their fundamental freedoms, or closing churches and removing crosses, or placing restrictions on who can enter a mosque—these actions only fuel grievances and raise serious questions about China’s commitment to protecting freedom of religion. Detaining lawyers and journalists and anti-corruption activists only reduces the credibility of China’s efforts to address its challenges, hampering its ability to achieve a prosperous and stable society. Blocking free access to the Internet, at a time when the rest of the world is moving toward greater openness and connection, only cuts off opportunities for the Chinese people to advance.
I raise each of these issues in my meetings with Chinese leaders, and I say the same thing to my counterparts that I have said to you. As my critics allege, I am rather direct. I assure you that President Obama will be just as direct when he sees President Xi. This is a vital relationship of the 21st century, and we have to be upfront about our differences, because they are preventing us from reaching the full potential of our cooperation.
Many of our concerns stem from a common root. Steps that erode the international system or that slowly eat away at a rules-based order and universal rights or that give one nation an unfair advantage are detrimental to all. This is true whether we are talking about maritime concerns or cyberspace or human rights. China cannot expect to wield influence selectively or lead only when it’s convenient, opting in or out of international norms at will. Everyone has to play by the same rules, regardless of size or power, because that’s the way everyone can compete and be treated equally.
I know that some people question why we host China at all. That is a dangerous and short-sighted view. If we sought to punish China by cancelling meetings or refusing to engage them, we would only be punishing ourselves. It is determined, constant engagement that allowed us to reach a climate agreement, while overcoming long-standing trade disputes. And determined, constant engagement is necessary to manage our differences. If America chose to remove itself from China, we would only ensure that the Chinese are not challenged on the issues where we differ and are not encouraged to peacefully rise within the international system that we have done so much to build.
We want the Chinese people to succeed. When China and the United States work together, the world is more secure and more prosperous. That’s the truth. But, success isn’t winning at all costs or getting ahead at the expense of others. In this century, success is measured by the partners you draw together through principled leadership. It’s growing your economy while giving everyone an equal chance to compete. It’s tapping the talents of all your people by expanding the space for them to contribute, not shrinking it. It’s applying your strength to reinforce international norms, not to revise them. And, when we welcome President Xi, we will continue exploring practical ways to advance our agenda for shared success.
At that first secret meeting back in 1971, Henry Kissinger delivered a message about how the United States came to the table with China. “We consider,” he said, that China, “must participate on the basis of equality in all matters affecting the peace of Asia and the peace of the world. We consider it in our interest, and above all in the interest of the world, that you play your appropriate role in shaping international arrangements.”
That bottom line continues to hold true today. Perhaps more than ever, it is in our interest for China to participate and play an active and responsible role on the global stage, because the futures of our two nations—the futures of people around the world—grow more deeply intertwined by the day. In the coming decades, strong and wise American leaders must, necessarily, maintain a relationship with China that promotes cooperation, while allowing for healthy competition.
China and the United States can do great things together. We have unmatched resources and unique capabilities to address global challenges. The real points of friction between us cannot be papered over, and we will continue to deal forthrightly with our differences. But, this relationship is too big and too important to treat with anything less than our full, good-faith effort. And, you can be sure that our relationship with China—one that is stable, productive, and resilient—will remain at the center of American foreign policy for years to come.