Cultural exchanges “critical pillars’ of relations, former US diplomats stress
Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright and other officials in the United States have called for more people-to-people engagement to improve relations with China at a forum.
“Pathways for people-to-people exchange are needed now more than ever, and we must do what we can to support and promote the sectors and platforms on which that exchange takes place,” said Albright, the country’s first female secretary of state, at a forum hosted by the US-Asia Institute this month.
Albright, who was the top diplomat under former US president Bill Clinton, said tourism, hospitality and cultural exchange that promote people-to-people exchange have “always been critical pillars” of relations between the US and China.
“This relationship must be constantly managed through key formal and informal channels of people-to-people engagement. We all know that difficult discussions are far better than no discussions,” she said.
Albright also said US leaders should be reminded that bilateral cultural exchanges are needed not only to benefit economies, but also to help provide “much-needed ballast, a stabilizing force as we manage a more contentious US-China relationship going forward”.
Kurt Campbell, the US National Security Council’s coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, had said in May that the period of engagement between the US and China had come to an end and the “dominant paradigm” is competition.
“Just because our bilateral relationship has become competitive does not mean that it cannot create value or yield benefits for both the United States and China and for the world,” Albright told the forum.
“A more competitive bilateral relationship should not preclude the US and China from working together to strengthen our economies and meeting the numerous global challenges where our two countries’ interests align.”
Susan Thornton, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said she disagreed that the era of engagement between the US and China is over, saying “that is impossible”.
“It is true that the US and China have different political systems and very complex societies. But Chinese and American people are pragmatic. They’re hardworking, and I think they take their responsibilities seriously. So, I believe it is possible to overcome these differences and to chart a constructive path forward,” she said, acknowledging that exchanges today have become difficult due to the COVID-19 pandemic, new rules and a climate of official discouragement.
“It is precisely when governments are having difficulties in communicating that people-to-people exchanges become even more important.”
Thornton, now a visiting lecturer at Yale Law School, used the university as an example. “In every department, we see evidence of Americans and Chinese working together to do inspiring things. The Yale China program, the first university program between the US and China, still has a robust people-to-people relationship,” she said.
“These contacts make a major contribution to understanding, and they help to paint a true picture of the situation in both our countries. And this is fundamentally important in the complicated times in which we live today.”
Carol Miller, a Republican representative of West Virginia, said it is very important to highlight “our mutual interests rather than our differences” when the commercial relationship between the two states is at a “critical and pivotal juncture”.
“Many in the Congress have called for a total decoupling between the US and China. I am not one of those members,” Miller said. “A total decoupling disrupts the global financial system, and the critical supply chains would be crippled.”
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