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July 11 “U.S.-China Relations" with Ambassador J. Stapleton Roy. Lecture V of the Policymakers Seminar Series.

Ambassador Roy discussed the major issues facing China as a growing regional and global power. He touched on many facets of Chinese society, including the economy, the military and the government, delineating the problems each of these sectors face. Ambassador Roy also spoke in depth on three specific issues facing an emerging China: US-China relations in a post Iraq war world, the Taiwan issue and China’s new leadership and the transfer of power. Ambassador Roy stressed the need for US understanding about the necessary timetable for Chinese social change. The US sees a China “on the brink,?and would like them to change immediately. What American policymakers fail to realize, however, is that genuine social change cannot happen overnight. It must be a pervasive movement, from the ground up and often can take 50-100 years to take hold. However, Ambassador Roy urged us to have hope for China, as he believes they now truly understand the problems they face, and are taking steps to correct them.

With regards to the US-China relationship in the wake of the Iraq war, Ambassador Roy said he believes that it did not create new issues, it simply brought underlying post-Cold War issues to the surface. He believes that the US preemptive strike on Iraq resulted in a total change in the common threat perception. Ambassador Roy noted that the United States is by far the most important country to China; we are the most helpful to them, while at the same time causing the most problems. China has also benefited from the US policy of pursuing a bilateral approach to foreign policy, with Beijing showing an increased willingness to take actions that do not include the US. The economy is no exception to this shift, with economic factors changing such that the US is becoming increasingly less important to China, while their regional trade partners?importance is on the rise.

Ambassador Roy spoke candidly about cross-strait relations, expressing his belief that China has little interest in attacking Taiwan, and that the Taiwanese feel no need to “rock the boat.? Taiwan, however, continues to be a highly militarized source of contention between the US and China, as both seek to prevent the other from using Taiwan as a platform to project power in East Asia. Washington’s unflinching support for Taiwan to be left alone has made ripples in Beijing, and it seems that now, more than ever, China is hinting that they may be willing to step away from the conflict.

China’s new leadership will be integral to pushing forward the necessary social change. The new Chinese leaders are comparatively younger than those previously in power, and have a different, more progressive perspective. They are not career military men, and have had far more exposure to global culture either personally or through their children studying abroad. Some experts are worried that Jiang Zemin and his loyalists are still making designs to control the country from the background, but Ambassador Roy believes that the new leaders are making great strides to cement themselves in a position of power. As an example he pointed to the SARS crisis, where the new leaders did an excellent job of taking charge and greatly increased their prestige. Things look promising at the moment with the first peaceful transition of power in China’s modern history, but as for any marked progress towards a democratic society, we will simply have to wait and see.
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