Let’s strengthen our relationship with China

Earlier this month, the Senate concluded a two-week recess and reconvened in Washington, D.C. I spent the first half of those two weeks doing some of the things I enjoy most — covering Delaware from top to bottom, meeting with businesses and people from all walks of life, and breaking ground for a highway improvement project, as well as visiting schools and one of our beautiful national wildlife refuges. During the second week, though, I traveled to China and was joined there by a bipartisan group of nearly 20 members of the U.S. Senate and House.

It was my first visit to that country, but not my first visit to that part of the world. Years ago, I served three tours in Southeast Asia as a naval flight officer during the Vietnam War. Two decades later, I would return to lead a congressional delegation of Vietnam veterans on a mission to find out what happened to the thousands of M.I.A.’s from that war whose bodies were never recovered.

Our president during much of the Vietnam War was Richard Nixon, a Republican. He was regarded by many as a staunch anti-communist. Nixon surprised many Americans and much of the world in 1972, however, when he accepted an invitation for a state visit from the leaders of Communist China, essentially opening the door to the most populous country in the world, and one of North Vietnam’s strongest supporters at the time.

The China awaiting Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, bore little resemblance to the China that our delegation visited a couple weeks ago. In 1972, China was struggling through a Cultural Revolution launched by that country’s leader in 1969 in an effort to fend off the emerging market forces that he feared could someday undermine the revolution he launched there over 20 years earlier.

For several years after Nixon’s historic visit to China, that nation continued to struggle as it sought to decide what path it would follow — Soviet styled Communism, socialism, capitalism or some kind of hybrid that incorporated elements of all three. In the end, China chose a path that was uniquely Chinese. It would be neither fish nor fowl, and it continues to evolve to this day. While some of China’s more than one billion citizens still live in deep poverty, incomes and the quality of life for a majority of the country’s people have measurably improved over the past 30 years.

The Chinese economy continues to be in a period of transition today. As their economy evolves from one that’s focused largely on manufacturing and exports to a more consumer-driven service economy, our nations have an opportunity to better balance and strengthen the trade relationship between us, benefiting both Chinese and Americans alike. A key to achieving this goal is for our two countries to successfully conclude the negotiations now underway on a bilateral investment treaty and to implement it. Doing so hasn’t been easy, but it’s important that we succeed.

As it turns out, trade is only one of many issues on which America’s and China’s interests converge. Others include climate change, energy and transportation policy, Iran, Afghanistan and North Korea, just to name a few. We need to work together where we can, and when we disagree, engage in ways that promise to narrow our differences even if we don’t eliminate them entirely.

During our stay in China, I traveled in the provinces closest to Beijing by air, by train and by bus. It was hard not to notice the fruits of the enormous investments that the Chinese have made in modernizing their transportation system. Instead of dilapidated roads, highways and bridges, I saw a modern highway system being built that is reminiscent of the United States’ interstate highway system in its earlier years. Sleek, beautiful trains and train stations help to connect the new urban areas, enabling the movement of people and goods.

Visitors to China will still see quite a few bicycles on streets and roads along with a growing number of low-emission buses. Construction of brand new subway systems in larger cities continues unabated, and the growing number of modern automobiles we saw on China’s roads, highways and bridges surprised me. Many of them are familiar American brands, too. Last year, the sale of new vehicles there approached 25 million units compared to roughly 17 million in the States. In fact, more Ford and GM products were sold in China last year than in America.

During one part of my visit to China, I traveled to the City of Hangzhou, which is approximately 100 miles southwest of Shanghai. There, I met with Dr. Lu Guanqiu, chairman of Wanxiang, believed to be China’s largest automotive parts business. Wanxiang has made many investments in the United States, including the acquisition of Delaware’s former GM plant near Wilmington, which has been idle for over a half-dozen years. We discussed Dr. Lu’s genuine affection for the First State, as well as the future of the auto plant. It was a good conversation, and while I’m still not convinced that Wanxiang will one day build cars there, Dr. Lu made clear to me his intention to make investments in the Boxwood Road facility in the months to come that will foster real economic activity and job creation there over time.

Another thing that struck me during our visit to China was the values that are held in high esteem in Chinese culture. For instance, most Chinese people continue to revere their elders. In fact, while we were in that nation, we witnessed a three-day holiday during which large numbers of Chinese returned to their roots, visiting the places where their ancestors’ remains are buried or kept.

Chinese families also place high importance on education. Their emphasis on the value of education helps to explain why China now produces more engineers than the United States or any other country. I was also pleasantly surprised to come into contact with Chinese citizens of all ages who spoke at least some English or attempted to do so. Many of them study English in school. This year, 300,000 of them will study abroad in America in undergraduate or graduate programs, too, and as many as a third that many Americans study in China now. Both numbers continue to rise.

The freedom of religion that we take for granted in America is not yet a reality in China, but that, too, appears to be gradually changing. I was told that Buddhism has attracted the most followers thus far, but Christianity is the fastest growing religion there. That may well be true. One day, we visited a large printing plant where a million or more Chinese-language Bibles are printed and distributed throughout the country each year. Many more are printed in other languages and distributed to nations around the world.

The freedom of speech and freedom of the press that Americans take for granted are not yet a reality in China, either. Concerns over access to platforms like Google and Facebook have kept them out of the country because of fears that they could eventually be used to help undermine the government or even send it spiraling out of control someday. My guess is that, while those restrictions may be eased over time, they aren’t going to disappear any time soon.

As many Americans know, China’s rapid development over the past few decades has brought with it serious problems with the pollution of their air and water. Following the widespread outcry of many Chinese people, these problems have started receiving the attention they deserve. I like to run and was pleasantly surprised to be able to run outdoors on several of the days we were in China without having to worry about air quality. Still, we saw a number of people wearing facemasks, and several people told me if I’d been there a week earlier, I’d have been wearing one, too.

Nonetheless, the Chinese government has begun making concerted efforts to meet the ambitious carbon reduction goals it has adopted for 2030 by launching a multi-prong strategy: shutting down older coal-fired utilities; replacing them with lower emission plants, as well as with wind and solar power; constructing dozens of new nuclear power plants; and, building millions of low-emission vehicles large and small, while also building modern transit systems in many urban areas. Achieving the emission reduction goals the Chinese have set won’t be easy, but they appear to be making a real commitment as they’ve come to realize that climate change is real and that they don’t have to choose between clean air and water in order to have a strong economy.

Another thing that I hadn’t anticipated in China was the generally warm welcome we received from many Chinese people, young and old, when they realized that we were Americans. Again and again, they told us of the connections that many of them had with the United States. Some of them had either visited our country, were planning to do so someday, or knew friends or relatives who had visited, studied or even lived in America. One of the biggest attractions for Chinese tourists in America are our national parks. I’m hoping that a number of them will make their way to Delaware before long and visit one of America’s newest national parks in the First State!

Before we get too carried away, though, all of this isn’t to suggest that China and its people are ready for a love affair with America and Americans. There are still very real differences between China and America. China is unlikely to become a Jeffersonian democracy anytime soon. Their aggressive actions in the South China Sea, where my squadron flew many missions during the Vietnam War, are cause for concern. In addition, for many years, the Chinese have utilized cyber theft to steal America’s intellectual property in order to gain an economic advantage in product development. An agreement reached last September between President Obama and Chinese President Xi gives rise to the possibility of making progress on that front, though, if it’s faithfully implemented. One other bone of contention between us for many years has been the alleged manipulation by China of its currency to keep the price of its exports artificially low, allowing them to flood American markets with Chinese goods. That may be changing, too, however, as agencies like the U.S. Treasury Department and the International Monetary Fund seem to be softening their respective stances on the issue. We need to remain vigilant to ensure that it doesn’t recur.

Perhaps no issue better highlights the potential payoff for continuing to strengthen our cooperation with China than North Korea and its pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them. For decades, North Korea has remained isolated in the international community. China serves as the only ally and — aside from South Korea — the only trading partner of this pariah state. Until recently, China resisted calls by the international community for it to exert greater influence over North Korea’s leaders, including the unstable young despot now in control of North Korea’s large army, its significant cyber capabilities and a growing nuclear weapons program. Fortunately, that now appears to be changing as China has joined much of the international community this year in imposing harsh sanctions on North Korea to compel it to give up its nuclear weapons and missile development. China’s steadfast support of tough, multilateral economic sanctions against Iran helped bring that nation to the bargaining table and led to Iran agreeing to forego a nuclear weapons development program. If China shows the same kind of resolve with respect to North Korea, a similar outcome becomes possible, and that would be a blessing for the world.

In closing, I would just add that America has important relationships with a number of nations in the world, but I came away from our trip to China feeling more strongly than I had expected that our relationship with China may be our country’s most important one today. It’s essential to both nations — to their people and to ours — that we continue to work hard to get it right.

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