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Q&A with Nina Hachigian on the US-China Relationship

U.S. President Barack Obama meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, June 7, 2013.

U.S. President Barack Obama meets Chinese President Xi Jinping at The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, California, June 7, 2013.

The understanding of views, ideas and values from two very different areas of the world has always been essential to building mutual respect, trust, cooperation and peace. As China grows in prominence, its relationship with the United States has gained greater attention. Often we hear and read about this relationship examined from mostly one point of view. Nina Hachigian, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, had a different idea. Contemporaries from the west and China regularly discuss complex issues at conferences and meetings, but rarely share those exchanges in public. Hachigian tells Daybreak Asia host Jim Stevenson about how she invited experts to share their conversations in a book appropriately titled Debating China, The U.S.-China Relationship in Ten Conversations.

STEVENSON: What were some of the surprises and similarities and differences that you found as you got as you got these viewpoints from opposing sides together?

HACHIGIAN: A lot of these pairs of experts knew each other from many conferences. That is the interesting thing is that these exchanges happen all the time. It is just that the public never gets to hear them or see them. Some of the conversations are two old colleagues talking together. Some are a little feistier than that. Actually even when some of the people that have known each other for a long time, it can get fairly feisty. All of these people are known quantities in their field. Each and every one has a stellar reputation. So in that sense there was not a big surprise. What is interesting to me is that the attitudes of everybody on both sides were similar in the sense that they really believe deeply in the importance of a constructive relationship between the United States and China. Nevertheless, there was still a lot of distrust that came out in the various essays, and some to a much larger degree than others.

STEVENSON: As you just look down the list, a topic you would think would create quite a discussion would be Taiwan-Tibet.

HACHIGIAN: Indeed. Alan Romberg and Jia Qingguo are both terrific scholars and both have decades of experience on the Taiwan issue. We just fundamentally see it differently - China and the United States that is. It was interesting to read their analysis. I guess they agreed on a few points. For example, that part of what the mainland needs to do is make itself and its form of government more attractive to the people who are living in Taiwan and that will help their case (for reunification) in the long run. But it is an area where the Chinese think that arms sales are highly destabilizing whereas the United States thinks that actually they are stabilizing.

STEVENSON: The discussion of China’s military has always been a rather interesting topic for us.

HACHIGIAN: This is a chapter where you can see the tension perhaps the most clearly. Chris Twomey of the (U.S.) Naval Postgraduate School and Senior Colonel Xu Hue (National Defense University, China). They have known each other for quite a while. Chris starts the discussion by asking why China has modernized and spending so much money on its military when its environment has gotten more peaceful over the years. Colonel Xu comes back right away asking, well why does the U.S. spend so much more on its military every year since its environment has also become more peaceful in recent years. Colonel Xu makes the point that part of the relationship is mentally constructed as he puts it, that if you want to see a hostile force, you are going to see a hostile force. There is a degree of truth in that. Both militaries have the job of protecting their people and for scanning the horizon for any possible threats. Those who are countering those possible threats in the future are given more budget to work with. And so both militaries are really just doing their jobs, but they both think they are acting defensively and the other side sees their actions as offensive.

STEVENSON: I understand this book probably will not make its way onto the mainland, but what are you hoping it will do here, at least in the West?

HACHIGIAN: I would love as many 20-year-olds as possible to read this book. I think it is really great to have this opportunity to read what both sides of the story are. I just think that will much better inform our relationship. It will maybe let people pause and think about how the other side is going to react before we act. I think it is a more rounded way of learning about the relationship. I hope people are able to read it in classrooms everywhere here.

Listen to Jim Stevenson's interview with Nina Hachigian:
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    Jim Stevenson

    For over 35 years, Jim Stevenson has been sharing stories with the world on the radio and internet. From both the field and the studio, Jim enjoys telling about specific events and uncovering the interesting periphery every story possesses. His broadcast career has been balanced between music, news, and sports, always blending the serious with the lighter side.