March 15, 2019

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Before she retired from the State Department in July 2018, Susan Thornton had served most recently as acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
Before she retired from the State Department in July 2018, Susan Thornton had served most recently as acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
China’s position on the world stage may be a far cry from what it was 40 years ago, but some of the themes that inform diplomatic approaches to China date at least that far back.

 

So observed Susan Thornton, a retired senior diplomat with extensive experience in Eurasia and East Asia, in her forward-looking remarks on “U.S.-China Relations, the Next 40 Years.” The event on March 8 was sponsored by SIPA’s China and the World Program.

Before she retired from the State Department in July 2018, Thornton had served most recently as acting assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific affairs at the U.S. State Department, leading East Asia policymaking amid crises with North Korea, escalating trade tensions with China, and a fast-changing international environment. In previous State Department roles Thornton had worked on policy for China and Korea; highlights included stabilizing relations with Taiwan, the U.S.-China Cyber Agreement, the Paris climate accord, and the Agreed Framework on North Korean denuclearization.

Thornton spoke about the difficulties that China and the United States faced in their efforts to move forward, suggesting that the current adversarial U.S. policies toward China may be misguided. Indeed, she said, the United States is hampered because it does not have a clear overall strategy toward China.

While theorists have proposed different types of interactions, from “collective pressure” to a policy that “combines engagement with China with attention to nurturing a balance of power around Beijing as a hedge,” the Trump administration does not appear to have a clear approach. Furthermore, Thornton said that any approach is meaningless without a better understanding of U.S. goals with respect to China and an outline of what China may want from the United States. In the absence of nuanced knowledge on those concepts, it will be difficult for the United States to move forward with an effective foreign policy.

This is even more pressing as China continues to grow and promote its influence in its region and on a global stage. Emerging powers tend not to shrink back, and by stepping to the side of the world stage, the United States has only increased the potential for China to exert its influence in other countries and regions.

More importantly, there are some issues that the United States cannot deal with alone—like climate change—and others that are not unique to the country: Aging populations, clean water, and food systems present opportunities for collaboration or shared solutions that could help both countries.

Thornton emphasized that there is real space to find mutual benefits through a well-tailored strategy and managed U.S.-China relationship.

“ We shouldn’t allow our fears to rob us of the great opportunities that are out there,” she said.

— Alexandra Feldhausen MIA ’19