High-Level Plenary
Max Baucus:We can't undertake negative actions which undermine what we agreed to in San Francisco
January 17, 2024

Max Baucus

11th U.S. Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China

Thank you, James was very much. Thank CUSEF. Thank you, CCIEE. Thank you all very, very much. I'm, I'm really impressed with the degree to which CUSEF and your sister organization has really stepped up, the standards are even higher today than before, more deeply engaged, more honestly addressing questions, partly because the issues are more challenging. But you're stepping up to the challenge. Thank you very, very much.

We all agree what needs to be done. There's not much disagreement here at all. The nice question is, well, how do we do it? How do we get stuff done? How do we get the greatness that we want? How do we work with China, with all other countries, that's really the questions we're all facing here. Before I get into that, though, I want to just add a little dose of reality. This is not going to be easy. I don't want to overstate the degree to which China is toxic in America. And the same is probably pretty much true, America is toxic in China.

There is virtually no member of the United States Congress who will stand up on the floor of the Senate or the House and say anything constructive about the relationship. No one. I speak to my friends privately in the Congress, why isn't there someone? Is there some idea of how do we get some dialogue going? Nada, nowhere at all. A lot of Americans are really worried about China. It's basically that the old facilities question, rising power, established power. We Americans kind of think that we're kind of preferred. You know, we're the largest country we basically set up these institutions post World War II that are ours, founded we did. We pride ourselves on a rule of law, independent judiciary, or declaration dependence, our Constitution, we think we're pretty big stuff. We tend to think the world should follow, to be honest. And we really don't recognize the degree to which other countries are just like us they're equal.

People in other countries have the same hopes and desires, as do Americans: have a decent income, food on the tables, take care of their kids, decent education for their kids, clean air and clean water, decent health care, maybe left alone a little bit, pursue their dreams, we're all the same. Americans really quite don't fully understand that yet. In China, I think the main concern is, as has been stated here, because of mostly driven by national security, which is sort of a smokescreen for some of the local indigenous innovation that Charlene and others have talked about. The Chinese think, it's my impression, that the United States is trying to stop China's rise. I asked that question my friends in China. Do you think United States has tried to stop China's rise? Absolutely. I hear that in spades. Correspondingly, other side of the coin. Americans think that China wants to be the hegemon in Southeast Asia, say by the end of this decade, or maybe farther.

General Mark Milley, about a month ago, he's the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on a TV program just flat out said: ‘China wants to be the original hegemon by middle part of this decade and wants to be maybe push farther and be maybe the world hegemon, by midcentury’. He said that publicly, strongly. Now why did he say that? We must have some reasons, I don't know. But the very least he gives cover to the hawks in the United States, which is very, very powerful. Most members of Congress want to get re-elected. How do you get re-elected, you do it with people back home. And right now, it's so easy to blame China. It's very, very easy. It's very easy for China to blame United States. Recently my wife and I were in Shanghai, I met a couple friends in China who just basically given up, we've given up on the United States, we don't know what to do. That just we're not getting anywhere. We're stuck in the relationship is really deteriorating.

Fortunately, and many have talked about it today. It looks like maybe there's the we might be reaching a plateau. Maybe we're not going to sink much farther. What is that? That's all the meetings back and forth between United States and China with Secretary Yellen, Secretary Blinken, you name it back and forth. And that's really it constructive. I want to just report a little bit about the Schumer meeting. Ambassador Xie Feng is really good guy. I was very impressed with the statement here today. He clearly cares. He really is sipping up a little bit. And I just want to thank you very much for that. Secretary Burns told me how hard he worked to make sure that Schumer delegation when it came to China worked. And I talked to Ambassador Xie would say the same thing. There's a lot of work that went into making sure that when that congressional delegation came to Beijing a few weeks ago, that was very positive.

When I was serving as ambassador, a couple of delegations would come over. But no way could I get the leadership to meet with my delegation, maybe they can meet with a commerce minister, Minister. Maybe they can meet with, you know, several high-level people, not at all with, with President Xi. This group, met and I've talked to them, they're very impressed. This group met with President Xi for 80 minutes. And they met with other top officials for same length of time. After that, each of the leaders was very well prepared. They knew their brief, they asked lots of very good questions and made very good points. That was not the case when I had delegations came over, those were just formal talking points and talking past each other. This one was real. Add to that, the members of the delegation I've talked to said that exchange really cordial, really friendly. It's clear, there's some kind of a charm offense going on here. There's no doubt about it.

Both sides of both sides, worked really hard for these trips back and forth. The congressional delegation, add to that the Shanghai CIIE conference just a few days ago, huge success, where people tend to that in a previous conference, for example, President Xi is going to have over 300-400 people, businessman, meet with him personally. After he meets with President Biden in San Francisco. There was lots of efforts to both sides are putting together to try to help put a floor on this relationship. It's really impressive, frankly, that you're talking to both the people I mentioned.

One member of the delegation, was afraid to come over. He said, I'm a Republican, you know, I'll be pilloried by my party, if I go over. The lead Republican was you know, a guy named Mike Crapo. And this other senator said: ‘Well, Mike, if you're going I guess I can go too’. They were afraid, two other Republican senators were very afraid to come over, but at least they did. There is a little bit of progress there. I talked to one of those senators later, after we came back, and he said: ‘You know Max, I learned a lot in that trip. You know, I learned China's not going to go anywhere. Why we have to deal with China? And, you know, hey, you take what you get. And we start talking, we have a long conversation about China and he wants to follow up with me as I get back to Washington, DC. So there's things are kind of moving ahead a little bit here.

My concern however, is what follows after San Francisco. Remember, people kind of felt good about Bali. Bali didn't work out too well. For a couple of three reasons in my judgement. One is when leaders meet and they want to work together and so forth. Nice sounding statements, but then they go home and they face the local politics at home. They had so much to do at home, it just takes so much time. Both Xi and Biden I think face that same problem. And then of course the big problem is after Bali — the balloon.

So after San Francisco, we can’t have any more balloons. We can't have any more mistakes. And we can't be critical of the other. And we can't undertake actions, negative actions, which undermine what we agreed to in San Francisco. Post-Bali, the United States, you know, enacted more export controls, and China started to, you know, under its national security laws, started to corral some people in China as well. We cannot let that happen. And when I talk to Ambassador Xie and to others, I make that point as strong as I can. I met with Vice Premier He Lifang just three or four days ago, and that was my main point to him. Just make sure your government — and I'm telling the same thing to my government — don't do anything stupid after San Francisco. Let's keep things going here.

Which leads to my next point, and it's kind of trite, but in my judgment it is so, so, so important, and that is really honest, continued communication. Vice Premier He told me that, you know, we have these working groups set up between Raimondo and others and Wang Wentao, for example, well that's fine. You know, I've been part of more working groups that I like to shake a stick at. They’re boring, they're dull, not much really happens. So I said to him, make sure these working groups are real, not just turn the crank, formalities, but they got to be real, honest. And I said, Mr. Vice Premier, get on the phone. Call, somebody: “Hey, Janet, what about this?” Or call up Secretary Raimondo: “Hey, Gina, what about that?” I mean, be honest, direct, informal and just start talking a little bit. And it's really important that we do so much more of that.

When I was serving as ambassador, I tried to get work delegations that come over to China. We got a few, but it was really, really hard. And obviously, since Trump was elected, the door closed, and there's not much communication. It’s really important for us to get it back. And I really want to thank our youth program and all you kids here getting involved, because the more we talk, clearly, the better. So thank you so very much for what you're doing.

When I was serving too, I tried to get conversations to be really candid, be honest. I’d be sitting across the table from somebody, a senior minister, he'd have his talks prepared by his crack staff. My talks were prepared by my crack staff. It was boring, nothing happened. And so I was rude. I would just interrupt mid-sentence. And I'd say: “Mr. Minister, that's very interesting. Can you give me an example of that? Can you explain that more fully?” To get him off his talking points. And guess what? They liked it. They liked the candor, they like not to have to go through their talkers all the time. Now, they said some of the same things. But still it was progress. And when cabinet secretaries come over, I make the same point to them. Be honest, be direct. Don't be too nice. Ask questions, be constructive. Don't be personal to ask good positive questions. And they think that okay, yeah. It's something I've just tried to encourage us to do much more.

So, I will finish a couple of points here. I just can't over-emphasize just honest, real communication. You know, Charlene Barshefsky had a good idea. With this is formal, complex. Understand what, what it all is. But I've got an idea too. It's going to knots that have to work with it. If it will occur, I think President Biden, and President Xi should meet quarterly, lock it in, we're going to meet every quarter. And when we meet, it's not just going to be drive-by. It’s going to be a couple, three days to go and with few people in the room as possible. So you get to talk to each other get to know each other a little bit. And after two, three or four of these, you know, things might start to get a little better work out a little more positively.

We have to get this relationship straightened out. We know we have to, we have no choice. We have to do our best. I have a kind of corny construct. This is what it is: I think the world global tectonic economic shifts have caused this relationship — rising power, established power, U.S.-China. Neither country is going anywhere. China is always going to be here. U.S. is always going to be here. Neither country can get off the globe. We're here. So we got to figure out some way to kind of get along with each other. So my construct is this. It's like an arranged marriage: The global forces geopolitical have just arranged this relationship. It's here. It's not a marriage based on love. We clearly don't love each other. But it's an arranged marriage. And we're stuck. Neither country can get off this globe. We're here. There's no divorce. We're here. So the real question is, in this arranged marriage do we try to accommodate each other or not. And obviously, the more we accommodate, because we're not going anywhere, the more it's probably going to work out pretty well.

So I'll just stop there and say, thanks so much. And in the spirit of CH Tung, let's really go the extra mile, do all the things that we know we have to do, because this is not rocket science. This is pretty basic, but we know we have to do just get started and make it happen. Thank you very much.

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