Final Column: Is There Any Way To Resolve the Mutual Distrust Between the US and China?

March 16, 2015. 4:50 PM. Beijing, Great Hall of the People, Fujian Hall.

General Secretary Xi Jinping ushered in Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, and offered the following words of welcome: “I am so glad to have this opportunity for us to meet again. The last time we met was in 2008, and it was in this very same hall. Harvard University has a long history of collaboration and exchange with China’s educational, scientific, and technological institutions, and together they have left an impressive legacy.”*

After expressing thanks for General Secretary Xi’s welcoming remarks, Harvard President Faust responded with the following: “The last time we met, I had only just become the president of Harvard University. Since then, relations between Harvard and China have progressed beautifully.”*

General Secretary Xi, at the same time as providing a briefing on the “two meetings” (the National People’s Congress Assembly and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference), which had wrapped up the previous day, emphasized his intention to move forward with his personally advocated “New Type of Major Power Relations” during his official visit to the U.S. this September.

In her speech, Harvard President Faust said, “Tomorrow, I will be delivering a speech at Tsinghua University. Your alma mater, isn’t that right, General Secretary Xi?”* According to someone affiliated with the Communist Party who was present at the speech, “General Secretary Xi’s expression, gestures, and tone were all softer in comparison to his typical demeanor at meetings, and although maybe it was out of respect for a fellow head of school, there was even a sense of reservation in his manner.”*

It’s not that hard to believe. Ms. Faust is president of the same Harvard University from which General Secretary Xi’s own daughter, Mingze, just recently graduated. Almost like a parent interview, a student’s parent behaving modestly when interacting with their child’s school — especially when it’s the school’s president — could hardly be considered odd.

Xi Minze was born in 1992, and was enrolled at Harvard University from 2010-2014 as an undergraduate psychology major. Refusing to simply fall under the shadow of a general secretary father, she applied herself in her studies and graduated on May 29, 2014 with honors. (Reference: Kenji Minemura, One Man in 1.3 Billion: Ascending China’s Throne in the Greatest Power Struggle on Earth, Chapter Two “Find Xi Jinping’s Only Daughter!” Shogakukan, March 2015.)

The aforementioned CPC contact continued by saying, “This time around, we’ve arranged a scenario wherein Secretary Xi will deliver an address at Harvard University during his September trip to the USA, after having Harvard President Faust speak at General Secretary Xi’s alma mater of Tsinghua University. General Secretary Xi is very particular about this speech, as it will be delivered at the highest institution of education in America. For this reason, despite all the commotion having just wrapped up the “two meetings,” in spite of the need to prepare for yet more work ahead, General Secretary Xi chose to meet with Harvard President Faust.”

By nightfall on March 16 (Beijing time), General Secretary Xi’s meeting with Harvard President Faust had made the headlines of a number of Chinese web media outlets (Xinhua Net,, Sina, NetEase, QQ, etc.). An old friend of mine working at the management level in the publicity department confirmed that all these outlets had been directed to publish the news in a big way. “General Secretary Xi took his meeting with Harvard President Faust very seriously. While it doesn’t mean there was direct instruction from the General Secretary himself, in our estimation there was undeniably a request for publicity” (same source).

Using Harvard as the Basis for Policy-making toward the US

There was one thing that bothered me looking over these news stories. That being — as mentioned above — how General Secretary Xi and Harvard President Faust spoke of cooperation and relationships in terms of “China” and “Harvard”: “Harvard University and China have built a significant long-term cooperative relationship. I hope to contribute to the development of US-China relations by continuing to strengthen cooperation and exchange with China’s educational and technological institutions.” (Harvard President Faust)

Tsinghua University and Harvard University acting as counterparts to one another is perfectly understandable. However, as a matter of diplomatic etiquette, General Secretary Xi and Harvard President Faust cannot personally position themselves as counterparts. Despite this, there is a reason for General Secretary Xi, as representative of the People’s Republic of China, to treat the head of Harvard — a private university — like an equal.

I am personally of the opinion that the Chinese Communist leadership is positioning Harvard University as a strategic buffer zone for the advancement of policy toward the U.S. as part of a long-term plan. Harvard is neither the White House, nor the Pentagon, nor the CIA, nor the State Department. The leadership wishes to ensure long-term stability in U.S. policy by establishing an exchange with Harvard University, which, despite its geographic distance from Washington, nonetheless exerts a considerable influence on its policy-making processes from the standpoint of human and intellectual capital. In this context, I think the Chinese leadership has come to a firm conclusion that, for the time being, U.S.-China relations will not be dealt with in a straight-forward fashion.

As I touched upon in a prior column, when looking at U.S.-China relations from a short-term perspective, any realistic analysis reveals that the differences in structure and values between the U.S. and China are too many to count. In addition, between China, with its attitude that “the U.S. is deliberately trying to confine China,” and the USA, with its attitude that “China is attempting to alter the rules of the existing global order,” lies a yawning chasm of mutual distrust that seems impossible to avoid extending into the future. Over the next 10 years, as China’s economic, military and political power come to the forefront, this sense of mutual unease is almost certain to continue.

Gathering Attention, Recruiting the West for the AIIB

Let’s take the recent issues surrounding the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that have been stirring up global controversy as a case study.

The white-hot international debate surrounding the AIIB issue throws the mutual distrust between the U.S. and China into sharp relief. The U.S. has a strong inclination to view the AIIB as an attempt to change the rules of the existing global order the U.S. has personally brought into being with efforts like the Bretton Woods system. On the other hand, China has made no attempt to hide the fact that it sees the U.S. refusal to cooperate and its lobbying of other Western countries to refuse to join the China-led AIIB as a blatant attempt to confine China’s development.

However, as the deep-seated mutual distrust continues, in the short term, there has been some activity to the contrary.

As has been reported, beginning with the U.S. ally the United Kingdom, developed nations, including Germany, France and Italy have already declared their intention to participate in the AIIB. Australia and South Korea have also been swayed. In addition, the U.S. itself has an increasingly vocal contingent claiming that it would be more constructive to participate in the AIIB and watch China from the inside. The argument goes that, rather than focusing on “containment,” “engagement” should be prioritized.

For example, Elizabeth C. Economy, a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations, made the following statement on her blog: “Washington’s priority should be on advancing U.S. ideals and institutions through the pivot or rebalance rather than blocking Chinese initiatives unless absolutely necessary. (Let’s not confuse China’s effort to develop the AIIB with its push to implement an Air Defense Identification Zone, for example.)”

AIIB’S Many Unknowns

Even though it’s precisely because of China’s distrust of the U.S. that they have established an independent strategy that seeks to defy the rules and order of U.S. leadership, this is sure to bring additional difficulties. There remain a large number of unknown variables to the AIIB. As developed Western countries declare their support for the AIIB one after another, there is a tendency to view the shifting opinion — visible even in the USA, the supposed ringleader of the opposition — as a “victory for Chinese diplomacy.” However, I don’t think this is the case.

What is the true nature of the organizational entity known as the AIIB? How will issues with transparency, with the regulation of investment allocation be resolved? Will the recipient economies of Chinese leadership-guided infrastructure investment be able to achieve sustainable development? And how to quell the doubts from China’s own citizens, asking what business China has in foreign infrastructure development with so many impoverished regions remaining at home?

The Chinese leadership is not confident that these issues can be dealt with in a straightforward manner. Further, they are aware that it is not possible to maintain the trust of the world with unilateral administration. It is entirely because of this understanding that China is “inviting” participation by other countries — particularly developed Western nations — so that their knowledge and experience can be borrowed in order to further the AIIB’s goals.

While there may be short-term wavering and uncertainties, the composition of the U.S.-China mutual distrust seems likely to only get more complicated and extend well into the future.

Harvard as a Base of Intelligence between the US and China

Let’s bring the stage back to Harvard University.

When I was at Harvard from August 2012 to June 2014, I had no shortage of encounters with the “U.S.-China exchange” in real time. There were daily forums and seminars on matters related to China. Distinguished persons from China made frequent visits. Famous industrialists and researchers made Harvard their personal broadcasting platform. High-achieving Chinese exchange students made liberal use of their right to speak on campus, deepened mutual understanding with the faculty, and were tirelessly building personal connections.

On the Harvard campus, there was also frequent exchange of ideas and discussions on policy-making on important matters in U.S.-China relations. Cabinet-level, high-ranking officers visited Harvard from China, and relayed messages to the White House via debates with professors who once held multiple offices of importance in the U.S. government, or received information about policy proposals from said professors, and brought the information back home to share at the Zhongnankai. Harvard University also acts a base for the exchange of high-profile intelligence on matters relating to U.S.-China relations.

The Future of Mutual Distrust Rests on the Younger Generation

I’m reminded of July 1971, when then-presidential aide Henry Kissinger visited his alma mater of Harvard University, picked the minds of experts on U.S.-China relations, and then made a visit to China in absolute secrecy. On March 17, 2015, on the same day that Harvard President Faust gave her address to Tsinghua University, General Secretary Xi met with Mr. Kissinger in the Great Hall of the People, and extolled his contributions to the U.S.-China relationship.

What left an impression on me more so than anything else during my campus life at Harvard was when I visited an undergraduate dorm, and had an exchange with an American female junior who had begun studying Chinese. For someone with only one year of study abroad experience in Taiwan, I was taken aback by the dynamism and fluency of her Chinese ability. Despite my 10 years of experience in studying the language, I found myself competing in earnest to discuss topics in current affairs with her. She said to me, “I want to put the Chinese I’ve learned to use, and challenge myself as an individual. Whether it’s in Taiwan or in China doesn’t matter: there’s a lot of opportunity in U.S.-China relations to make this a reality.”

It isn’t only her: There is a large number of students at Harvard who are breaking heavy sweats in their academic pursuit of Chinese, seeing the future of U.S.-China relations as uncertain but full of infinite possibility, as a perfect opportunity to make the most of themselves. Watching all this, I can’t help but be reminded of my seven years spent on the Beijing University campus. The image of the determined looks on the students’ faces, waking up before dawn to recite English and repeatedly rehearsing their presentations floats up into my mind. They saw prosperity in U.S.-China relations as their own means of escape.

With a mountain of leadership problems in areas including trade, cybersecurity, national security, the military, currency, territory, and the international protocol facing the future of the U.S. and China, there is no doubt that their mutual distrust is going to continue for a long time.

When I first left my home country of Japan, I was 18 years old. After studying for nine and half years in China and two and a half years in the USA, now, in the U.S. capital of Washington D.C., when I think about whether or not the mutual distrust between the U.S. and China will worsen, whether it will lighten, it’s clear to me the answer rests on the shoulders of the next generation, who have pinned their hopes and dreams on the development of the future of U.S.-China relations.

With that kind of U.S.-China relationship and exchange looming before us, what should we Japanese think? What path should we take? It was to make us ask ourselves that, that I first began writing this column.

*Editor’s note: Correctly translated, this quote could not be verified.

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