US-China relations: the pre-Trump warning shot that signalled trouble ahead

The souring relationship between Washington and Beijing was forewarned in 2005 ‘responsible stakeholder’ speechFormer State Department official Robert Zoellick provoked anger when he said China should not take access to the US for granted

Ethan Paul

Ethan Paul

Published: 12:00pm, 21 Sep, 2020 SCMP

Former US State Department official Robert Zoellick, who later served as president of the World Bank, gave a speech in 2005 warning of a rise in protectionist sentiment. Photo: AFP

Former US State Department official Robert Zoellick, who later served as president of the World Bank, gave a speech in 2005 warning of a rise in protectionist sentiment. Photo: AFP

When former deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick stepped up to the podium to deliver the keynote address at the National Committee on US-China Relations’ annual gala in 2005, he was expected to offer the usual rosy celebration of the relationship reserved for such occasions. That did not happen.

Instead – 15 years ago today – Zoellick, who went on to head the World Bank, delivered what became known as his “responsible stakeholder” speech in reference to China‘s place in the world order.The talk gained something of a reputation as a juncture in China-US relations, as Zoellick warned the honeymoon for China and the US might soon be coming to an end. Protectionist pressures in the US were growing, he said, pointing to China’s large trade deficits and theft of intellectual property.

“Many people hated it at the time, particularly Americans,” said Evan Feigenbaum, then a senior adviser to Zoellick who worked closely with him on the speech. “Some in the crowd with close ties to China were uncomfortable with the tone, objected to the substance, hated the entire thrust.”

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He described the faces of prominent Americans on the dais as “turning green” as Zoellick made his case, adding that one prominent American sinologist came up to him afterwards, jabbed a finger in his chest, and demanded: “Did you write that speech? Did you write that speech?”

Telegraphing a debate that would emerge with the rise of Donald Trump a decade later, Zoellick said much of the business community at the time had already started to sour on China.

“Many Americans worry that the Chinese dragon will prove to be a fire-breather,” Zoellick said, adding that Beijing “cannot take its access to the US market for granted.” He went on: “The United States will not be able to sustain an open international economic system – or domestic US support for such a system – without greater cooperation from China.”

Trump’s 2016 victory in the US presidential election would prove Zoellick more prescient than perhaps he had imagined.

Some of the states claiming most economic damage from trade with China – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan – became crucial to Trump’s ascent to the White House, where he would launch a trade war with Beijing, along with a campaign to decouple from China that has rattled international markets.https://open.spotify.com/embed-podcast/episode/7ARN6qBIZiMj4PtDxz5jTI

Yet, in retrospect, Feigenbaum said the speech was an effective tool for making discussions between the US and China more productive. Zoellick, in remarks he has made in recent years, seems to agree.

“Those who assume that China has not acted constructively within the US-guided system – who assume that China is only a disrupter – are misleading themselves,” Zoellick said in a speech last year at the US-China Business Council.

Zoellick declined to comment for this story, saying he was tied up with events to promote his new book, America in the World: A History of US Diplomacy and Foreign Policy.

Although Americans with close ties to China saw the 2005 speech in a negative light, the initial reaction from China was cautious. This was mostly from not knowing exactly what the policy implications would be, Feigenbaum said.

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In a December 2005 visit to Washington, China’s then vice minister of foreign affairs Dai Bingguo met with US officials in the State Department, according to Feigenbaum.

He brought with him a stack of legal pads, containing pages of notes, and proceeded to outline to the officials present – Zoellick, Feigenbaum, Senior East Asia Director on the National Security Council Dennis Wilder, and State Department officials Josette Sheeran, Christopher Hill, and James Keith – the numerous ways that China was already acting as a responsible stakeholder.

While Zoellick later gained a reputation as a “dove” on China – a fact Feigenbaum said was “amusing” considering the audience response on the night – there are elements of the 2005 speech, tucked into its closing passages, that are relevant to the changing tone of today’s China-US debate.

“China needs a peaceful political transition to make its government responsible and accountable to its people,” Zoellick said. His speech concluded with the line: “We can cooperate with the emerging China of today, even as we work for the democratic China of tomorrow.”

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In media coverage at the time, it was this section of his talk that gained prominence.

“Mr Zoellick on Wednesday made the Bush administration’s most explicit call for a political transition in China,” the Associated Press reported. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman responded: “Internal affairs should be handled by the government and people of each country,” the AP report said.

“There’s no question in my mind that when Chinese officials hear language about why a particular US policy might democratise them, they see that language as threatening,” said Rush Doshi, director of the Brookings Institution’s China Strategy Initiative.

“Within China there has long been fear – particularly since the end of the Cold War – about the possibility of what they call ‘peaceful evolution’,” he said.

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According to Doshi, this has not been the result of rhetoric by US officials such as Zoellick, but as something hard-wired into the party itself, stemming from an unshakeable view that liberal values are the greatest threat to its rule.

Zack Cooper, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said this later section of Zoellick’s speech runs counter to those in the Trump administration who claim that past US officials were too willing to accept the Chinese Communist Party as it was.

“Zoellick was very clear, at least in 2005, that this whole effort was predicated on ultimately changing the Chinese model and China,” Cooper said.Doshi said tension with the US was inevitable as China rose, but had been worsened in recent years by Beijing’s renewed embrace of authoritarianism under Xi Jinping.

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Despite this, he holds that cooperation is possible, pointing to what the US and the Soviet Union were able to achieve at the height of the Cold War, such as working together in the medical field on the eradication of polio.

Both the US and China needed to identify domains of cooperation, such as climate change and nuclear non-proliferation, he said.

“That is a choice that leaders of both countries can make. And we’ve seen great powers make that choice before, and certainly it’s possible they can make it again,” he said.

“In fact they’re going to have to make it again, because the tension is unlikely to just automatically dissipate on its own.”

Ethan Paul

Ethan Paul

Ethan is a Graduate Trainee reporter at the Post. Previously, he was a freelance writer focused on US-China relations. He graduated from Peking University’s Yenching Academy and Pennsylvania State University.

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