Ambassador Curtis Chin
Ambassador Curtis Chin served as the US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. In doing so, he became only the fourth US ambassador of Chinese heritage. As one of the world’s foremost experts on the Asia-Pacific region, Curtis now serves as the Asia Fellow of the nonpartisan Milken Institute and works with a range of startups and impact funds in Asia. Curtis joined Misha Zelinsky for a chat about the US-China trade war, what a deal looks like for both countries, the future of global trade and governance, and how the world should respond to countries that want to break the rules.
Misha Zelinsky: Curtis Chin, welcome to Diplomates. How are you?
Curtis Chin: Hey, doing well. Great to be with you.
Misha Zelinsky: And I should just reference for the audience, that we’re doing this through a web chat interface, so you’re currently in Bangkok, which is three hours behind Sydney time. So thank you for joining us. You’re an American in Thailand, but thank you for joining us as an international guest.
Curtis Chin: Delighted to be with you. I think though with so many of us, it’s one city one day, another city the next day, but very clearly, I spend most of time here in Asia, really Southeast Asia. And I’m with the Milken Institute out of Singapore, but yeah, from the US, but back and forth between the US and Asia-Pacific. So great to be with you today, chatting about Asia-Pacific, sharing some thoughts on Australia, the rest of the region, and some of the big stories of these weeks, and probably the whole year, which is the front and foremost, China and the US.
Misha Zelinsky: Yeah. I think that’s actually a good place to start. So you’re obviously an Asia-Pacific expert, you spend a lot of time in the Asian region. Big news at the moment, and certainly the last six to twelve months has been this question of trade, and certainly this trade tensions between China and the United States, and what increasingly now looking like a trade war. So I suppose the first question is, is this a trade war and what should the world make of the sort of these trade tensions between the United States and China?
Curtis Chin: First let me go back to your comment that I’m an expert, I don’t think there’s anyone that’s an expert in terms of what’s going on right now between the US and China. I mean, it really is unprecedented. You know, I was very lucky to serve primarily in Republican administrations, but I was lucky to serve also in the Obama administration as our US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. And I’d say for a long time Republicans and Democrats … and no one’s really been a big fan of tariffs. So today we’re at a situation where back and forth, whether you call it a trade war, or let’s say a tariffs war, we’re seeing the United States and China continue to raise tariffs on each other’s products. For me in the short run, clearly not a good thing. In the long run my hope is that both sides will come up with a way that will lead to a more balanced, more sustainable relationship between China and the US.
Curtis Chin: But also if both sides succeed in moving this forward, it will be to the benefit of the entire region, of all of Asia-Pacific, including Australia. When you think about countries that in my view, have become so dependent on China as a source of purchases of their commodities, Australia comes to mind, but also as a place where you move supply chains because labor costs have been cheaper there. So you’ve seen this movement over the what? Last decades, but that needs to change. One, it’s already changing even before these tariffs back and forth, because the cost of production in China is getting more expensive. But also I could say quite frankly, that as we think about China’s behavior, what might have been acceptable two or three decades ago … I mean, clearly China was a poor country, is not acceptable today. Bluntly we might say it’s time for China to grow up and take on some of the responsibilities that come with being again, a great economic power.
Misha Zelinsky: It’s interesting you said there, you touched on that for a long time the bipartisan consensus in the United States, certainly globally too, is that free trade is good, tariffs are bad, interventionism is bad. What’s interesting is … I suppose firstly, and I’m keen to get your take on this, a lot of people will say that this is a Trump thing, but it’s actually, interestingly, perhaps the only thing that both sides of the United States, of the aisle politically agree on, which is that sometimes the war on trade is popular and bipartisan, because you saw Trump tweeting as he does, about tariffs that he’s going to put on, and being encouraged by the House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the Senate Minority Leader, Chuck Schumer, saying he was doing the right thing and to keep going. So it’s interesting the US in a very quick way, in a bipartisan way, to have a more assertive approach to Chinese trade in the United States. So I’m curious to get your take on what that journey is and how the United States has gotten itself to this point.
Curtis Chin: Well, you know I think your points, it’s clearly not just a Trump thing, I think President Trump to his great credit, has really captured kind of the moment, the feeling, the frustration of not just Americans, but people all around the world who have tried to engage with China. Clearly the world has benefited from less expensive products made in China because of traditionally what have been lower labor cost. And in may ways it was a gamble, with purchasing products from China, with making products in China, lead also to a more economically, politically liberal nation. That gamble has not paid off. We’re seeing a China today that is much more strict in term of how it treats its own people, in terms of its crackdowns on Christians and Muslims, in terms of its behavior on human rights. And it shouldn’t take away from the successes that China has achieved in lifting really, hundreds of millions out of poverty. But again, I think to one of my earlier points, China also has to evolve, China has to grow up.
Curtis Chin: And so Trump has in a way, come into this moment, really perhaps, he was the president for this moment, and even China in the past has said this trade imbalance between the United States and China is not sustainable, because ultimately it will lead to a pushback, and we’re seeing that, not just in the United States, but really throughout the Southeast Asia region in particular. Again, I’m based mainly in Southeast Asia, and when I speak to chairmen, CEOs, senior leadership of Southeast Asian businesses, you also find tremendous support, tremendous sympathy for the points that Donald Trump is making. I was out actually recently with the chairman of a Southeast Asian company, he stepped down as CEO from his role, and what he said to me was very interesting, he said that in many ways, they would all love to go on record and say what Trump is saying, but China has been a vindictive nation, that we’ve seen records recently, of where they’ve punished companies for doing things that went against China’s foreign policy.
Curtis Chin: One specific example would be South Korea. In South Korea, there’s a big conglomerate called Lotte, big South Korean company, respected company. The South Korean government, to protect its own people, made the decision to install kind of like a missile defense system. The land that was used was once owned by Lotte. So what happened? China sought to punish Lotte in terms of its business transactions in China. So just one very real example of how the Chinese government behaves against individual companies. President Trump to his great credit is saying, “We the United States will speak up on these issues,” because in many ways I think his language was, “China has been ripping off the US and too much of the world. We need to rebalance that.” And that rebalancing also will be to the benefit of China itself. I’m sure China is not happy with it being kind of like the country that’s increasingly kicked around in rhetoric not just in the US, but in public and in private, in parts of Asia.
Curtis Chin: That’s not good for China. China really should be embraced for what it has done in terms of lifting millions out of poverty, but its treatment of foreign businesses, both in China and outside of China really has to stop. And so where I would say that I think the Trump administration needs to evolve, is they’ve identified very clearly and spoken out very clearly on the issue, but I think they have to evolve in a way that also brings in their many natural allies to come together, to help China move forward in this situation.
Misha Zelinsky: Yeah. One of the things I’m curious about, Trump sort of is always promoting himself as the great deal maker, but the question of tariffs is obviously that it sort of punishes the country that’s taking their export for some sort of practice, but at the same time it obviously lifts prices for households. Now, a figure I saw was that if they end up putting up this 25% tariff on all Chinese imported goods into the United States, we’re talking about $2,500 a year per household increase in the cost of living. The thing I’m curious about is does this have implications for Trump in the domestic policy sense, and also to your mind, what does a deal look like? Trump focuses a lot on trade deficits, but what does a deal look, and what does victory look like in this situation, because the grievance is clear, but it’s not as clear one who wins, households in the United States get punished, and secondly what does a deal look like in the minds of Trump or other experts?
Curtis Chin: Yeah. A number of interesting points you raise. First, when you have tariffs … and I’m no fan of tariffs. Tariffs openly I hope, are means to a more balanced relationship between the United States and China. The other is that question, who pays for a tariff? So let’s say you’re selling a product, a tariff is imposed, one question will be, “Can that tariff be passed on to the end consumer?” Right, then of course the consumer will most ultimately pay. Will that company though first try to absorb it because they’re afraid of losing the business? It’s a little bit more complicated than what people say. But I also underscores, there are always winners and losers when it comes to tariffs. Another tricky point. We talk about the impact of tariffs on the American consumer, but I remember I did one interview where someone said to me, “But don’t you benefit from cheap products at Walmart?” Though again, it’s a big American store. Of course we do, but clearly I can only afford those cheap products if I have a job, and have I lost my job because of all those cheap products?
Curtis Chin: It’s really kind of a balance that we need to seek, and then likewise, when people raise the point of American consumers ultimately in the short term pay, I wonder if people will pose that same interpretation to China, or is it just China cares less about its consumers, and they’re thinking that the US will worry about its consumers but China will not, as it tit for tat, tries then tariffs the other way around? So I think we need to look at the individual winners and losers. I think the Chinese are now trying to target agricultural areas, big support areas for President Trump. As we think about the politics of trade also, President Trump of course, is running for reelection. Election is next year, next November. That’s a lot of months before that election, to get a deal done. So we’ll see how it plays out with this timing. Your second point, what will a deal look like?
Curtis Chin: My fear is that ultimately there will be a face-saving deal, where each side claims victory, but really nothing changes. And so that goes to you, what is success? For me success isn’t simply that Chinese buy a lot more US exports. Clearly that’s a short-term win. But it doesn’t address the longterm issue that many countries … maybe the US is at the forefront, but many countries are facing with regards to China, which is theft of intellectual property, which is forced technology transfers, which are non-tariff trade barriers. It’s a range of things that companies, whether they’re Australian, or American, or from somewhere in Southeast Asia are facing. For me a real success would be if some of these things change. You know there was some talk that actually, that the Chinese as part of the negotiation process, had agreed to some of this, because perhaps they saw that it was in their interest too.
Curtis Chin: On this war, who knows the backstory and all these reports and tweets? But then you saw, most recently, leading up to the latest announcement by President Trump, about really, a move to impose tariffs on all Chinese exports, was this point that China reneged, that China moved backwards in terms of edits on the agreement that the negotiators had already agreed to. So only the people involved will know the truth to that, but I can tell you as business person who’s worked in Beijing, who’s worked in Hong Kong, and now worked throughout Southeast Asia, business people from all kinds of companies, American, Australian and others, have seen that same reality, where something that you thought was negotiated with a Chinese counterpart, all of a sudden doesn’t seem so negotiated as the process moves forward. So I would not be surprised that there is quite a bit of truth to that comment, to that tweet from President Trump, “The Chinese reneged, the Chinese moved backwards.” And so again, that needs to change.
Curtis Chin: So again when we talk about what is victory, victory ideally is a victory for both sides. That both sides, China and the United States, to go back to their really important domestic constituencies, and say “We’ve come to an agreement, we moved these things forward.” But then ultimately that victory will be a more sustained trading relationship between the United States and China. One of the point I always want to make though, is that we looked at some of the drivers of where we are today. Clearly for decades the Chinese have in a way, been gaming the system, taking advantage of the system, something that might have been tolerated when they really were a much poorer nation and a less militaristic nation than they are today. So that has to evolve. But I think one thing that we need to think more about more, and hopefully media can talk about more, is that in the world today, exports are both of goods and services.
Curtis Chin: So we talk a lot about things that were made, or grown, and exported, but we also need to think about the services. United States, developing nations, are also trying to move this way, but the United States has moved to develop the economy, where a lot of things we produce are services, are intellectual property, are things that again, are of great value, of greater value added than something simple that might have been made 10, 20, 30, 40 years ago. As we talk about the balance between nations in terms of what they import or export, I think we should ideally spend also more time talking about both goods and services, versus the focus on the easy number to understand, which is how many widgets or bushels of this has a nation purchased. Out of all this I think back about our evolving sense of trade, of Asia. Ultimately, and I say to people, “Things have moved forward, it’s a positive thing. Trade has been a wonderful thing.”
Curtis Chin: But the reality also is that in this more globalized world, this globalized economy of ours, many people have not done so well. So Trump has captured that moment, and spoken to people about what can he do to fight for them. But I see that across this world of ours, and across Europe, but very much across here and Asia, where in the Philippines, they had a recent election also, a very populist leader, India is going to an election, Indonesian had its own election, where leaders have to respond to their vast number of citizens who maybe don’t see that they’ve become better off as part of this globalized economy.
Misha Zelinsky: And we’ve certainly seen that with Brexit as well. I think you’re right. I mean, the question of trade and who benefits, and it might … it looks good in a headline number, but often say trade destroys and distributes unevenly. And I think there’s a lot of people that have been left behind or dislocated, and it’s expressing itself in this politics in a worrying sort of way. So I think certainly a lot to think about there for policymakers. One thing I’m curious about is, and you sort of talked a lot about the trade relationship, that seems to me now that the United States very much considers itself or it sees China now as very much a strategic competitor.
Curtis Chin: I think in every US administration, every country around the world, even your government hopefully, is working to give its citizens a better life. And so I think what we’ve seen is this continuing movement to a richer world, but also a more unequal world. And so you’ve seen so much talk about inequality kind of bubbling up over these last, really two decades, and I think we’ve reached that point where people are trying to look for what are the drivers of this inequality, how do we address that? And so very clearly, the two biggest economies in the world, China and the US, ought to be very much part of that conversation. You raised an intriguing question when you talk about China and the US, China versus the US. For me taking a step back, in many ways I see things also as not just China versus the US, but a US-driven system versus an alternative that China is pushing when it comes to concepts of competition, economics, of trade, and governance.
Curtis Chin: In general, I think no country wants to chose and say, “I’m on the US’s side or on the China side,” but I would say to nations, I would say to the people of Australia and elsewhere, “It really it’s up to you to decide which system is better for your own people.” For me, clearly I’m biased, I am for a system of free markets, free trade, and free speech. This is not what China is for, right? But often people will say, “But I got to follow the money, I got to pay the bills, I got to do what I need to do. It’s China that is the big customer.” And so that’s what people think to think through. It’s a very difficult question sometimes. I spoke recently at a Bloomberg event in Singapore on this whole same issue of China and the US, and I was struck by one of our fellow panelist, a friend … he’s actually from the Democrat side versus Republican side, but clearly we’re both Americans. Kirk Wagar, the former US ambassador to Singapore.
Curtis Chin: It was very interesting when he made a comment, and that comment was basically, “Western businesses, when they deal with China, the big question for them is, ‘Do you have to sell your soul, or to what degree do you sell your soul?’” So I’m paraphrasing his comment, but that’s that challenge of you’re going to make so much money hopefully dealing with China, the reality is many companies lose money dealing with China. But in pursuit of that market, or in Pursuit of that cheaper production base, do you simply look the other way on all the terrible things that China is doing? Maybe case number one, we see these days are these reports coming out of Xinjiang, this Northwest part of China, of where they put, by some accounts, one million to two million people into camps. Some would say concentration camps, of all the terrible connotations that raises from World War II. But they put people there simply because they’re Muslim.
Curtis Chin: That clearly, I would hope the world would speak out about. But we’ve seen how Muslim nations, many nations have looked the other way. “It’s China’s right,” I think one Saudi leader said, “as to how they deal with what China perceives as a terrorism threat.” But for me, maybe I’m not getting any business in the near term in China, because I want to speak up on behalf of all Chinese people, whether they’re Muslim, or Tibetan, or Han Chinese. You know I’m ethnic. People can’t see me on your podcast, but I think my great-grandfather went to the US way back in the late 1880s to help build the railways or something. I’m ethnic Chinese, but for me it shouldn’t be about your ethnicity, really even your nationality, but people should willing speak up on behalf of those that really need speaking up on behalf. So clearly the Muslims, the Tibetans, but even Christians. We’re seeing reports that the Chinese have been particularly aggressive in tearing down Christian churches, which they don’t recognize. These are all not great things.
Curtis Chin: But what if you want to do business in China? Do you say nothing because you’re going to make some money? That’s a very difficult question for people who again, who have to pay the bills. But for me, you can’t, in my mind, simply chose to say nothing because you want the money. There is some balance and each individual, each company needs to think through what is that … and in the long run, my hope is that all Chinese people will appreciate this notion that every single individual has value. There I go sounding like an American.
Misha Zelinsky: Well, that’s okay. It’s good to be of your people. But it’s so curious, you were touching quite a bit there about the rule of law, I think largely, I mean. And the United States is larger] since World War II certainly, in this so-called rules-based global order. China’s really bumping up against that now, and one of the things I’m sort of curious to take on, I mean, where are the areas that you think that the United States is prepared to turn the other way? So for example, if you take South China Sea where Barack Obama, President Obama sort of didn’t do a great deal as the Chinese government sort of constructed these artificial islands in the South China sea, and then militarizes on, has in effect sort of annexed a part of the South China sea.
Misha Zelinsky: How do you see things of that nature when it comes to getting the Chinese government to obey and respect maritime law in that instance, where the international courts very clearly ruled against China, and it essentially ignored them? How do make your earlier point that China, and they need to be a responsible grown up actor? How do you actually enforce that with the Chinese government?
Curtis Chin: I think the reality here, even when I go back thinking about that question you asked, the reality is it cannot just be China and the US deciding. What are the regional bodies, global bodies that can play really, a shaping role? I mean, the reality is that at the end of the day, and sadly this goes back to a statement, even when you think about Chinese history that, “Power grows out of a barrel of a gun,” Mao famously said in the civil war in China. And the reality is that when you look at some our regional institutions like ASEAN the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, they act by consensus. Many of those nations have a stake in the South China Sea, and the Philippines even calls it the West Philippines Sea, but China has been very aggressive in building up … I don’t know, we call them [islandets00:25:55], or little islands, or fake islands, I don’t know. And then despite saying they wouldn’t, moving into to militarize them.
Curtis Chin: But China’s got the guns, and maybe other countries don’t have the guns, or they want Chinese investment. So lets deal with that. But to your point, I would hope that a nation let’s say like Australia, can step up. It’s what we call like freedom of the seas, freedom of navigation, trips to the South China Sea. That nations throughout the region can seek to come together to engage with China. The Chinese strategy has always been one of like picking off countries, some would argue that ASEAN already has in a way, been nullified because China has bought out Laos and Cambodia. And for a associations that acts by consensus, if Cambodia has in the past said, “Well, no, no. We’re not going to issue a joint statement because we Cambodia, don’t agree,” it blocks efforts. So hopefully that will evolve and all. Your question also raised this point about systems, and organizations, and governance.
Curtis Chin: One I know very well, is this whole issue of how will we support and fill the financing gap? How will we support the building of infrastructure in the region when there’s been a big gap? The region’s infrastructure needs and how they will be financed. So four years, nearly two under Obama, nearly two under Bush, I served as our US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank. For those who don’t know, that’s kind of like an Asia-Pacific base, Philippines headquartered version of the World Bank, primarily focused on ending poverty in this region, mainly through building infrastructure, a lot of core infrastructure, roads, power, water systems, sanitation. Really doing good things there. But how do you build those infrastructure projects? So World Bank, Asian Development Bank, they’re all in this region. For the last couple of years we’ve seen Chinese rivals.
Curtis Chin: And so we’ve first and foremost seen the rise of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. We’ve seen something called the New Development Bank, some people call it the BRICS bank after Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, the key players there. That one’s based out of Shanghai. We’re see moves by bilateral financial institutions like the Chinese development banks, or that will be just working with one country, versus these multilateral banks. We’re seeing a lot of new players challenging that old, what they call this old Bretton Woods type institutions to finance and move Asia forward. In many ways that’s a good thing, hopefully it makes some of those old bodies, like my old colleagues at the ADB, a little bit more hungry, innovative, focused on acting quicker to serve the needs of this region. But it’s a bad thing if what it is, it’s also a push to the bottom, who will get the money out the fastest. When I was on the board of the Asian Development Bank, I visited a nation whose engagement with the ministry of finance, is they seek to get funding for key infrastructure projects.
Curtis Chin: ADB, I think to its great credit, like the World Bank and others, we’ll try to push for certain, what we call safeguards, so that if you put in an infrastructure project, the environment would be in some ways be protected. There’d be … the lingo today is ESG, so there’d be like environmental, social, governance safeguards put in place. These are all good things, but then it makes a project take a little bit longer to develop. So if you’re a country just in search of financing, what if all of a sudden there are Chinese-backed banks? There’s nothing else. “We don’t care about those ESG, those safeguard standards, we trust you as the borrowing country to decide what’s right for your own people.” You can see there will be sympathy for that, “You decide what’s right for your own country in term of protecting the environment based on your own spot in that kind of development line.” But then the Chinese might say, “But if we do the financing for you, maybe Chinese state-owned enterprises were going to do a lot of the work, maybe it will come with 500 to 1,000 Chinese employees and workers.”
Curtis Chin: So I think any nation, they decide. It’s their money, they ultimately have to pay it back, but read the fine print. So don’t think that because maybe the Chinese aren’t insisting on certain safeguards that others might, that it doesn’t come with other things that they might well insist upon. And so that’s how it should be. As long as it’s transparent, these institutions are accountable, that’s how it should be. Let the market compete. What the big problem is though, and we’re beginning to see it even in China’s One Belt, One Road initiative, this is a big infrastructure funding push, is that what if decisions aren’t made fairly? What if corruption is involved? What if money changes hands? And case in point has been what we’ve seen has happened in Malaysia. In the last year or so, Malaysia brought back its longtime prime minister, probably the oldest prime minister in the world, Mahathir came back in with … was swept his party back into government, overturning the rule of, I think for decades, of what is not the opposition party.
Curtis Chin: And when Mahathir came back in as leader of Malaysia, he raised questions, it certainly raised eyebrows in China, but he raised question about some of the big infrastructure deals that were signed by his predecessor Najib, with the Chinese government. And to his great credit, forced renegotiation. And so one that’s come up most recently is … I think is calling it like an East Rail, a project … Really so much money in his huge infrastructure projects. Mahathir was ultimately able to shave the cost of the product or project. Not exactly apples and oranges because the project did change somewhat, but shaved the cost of that project by a third. And so it makes you wonder where was that extra third, you were talking really tens of millions of dollars, where was that money going? Into Chinese pockets? Into construction company pockets? Into Malaysian pockets? And then a question for the region, for countries that haven’t had this kind of democratic revolution bringing back an old prime minister, focused now on corruption.
Curtis Chin: What about all of those countries with deals other than the One Belt, One Road initiative, that haven’t had a Mahathir, to try to renegotiate and bring those costs down by a third? Where has that money gone? And so these are some of the questions that I think individual citizens may well raise when they see deals signed with China. But sadly in so many nations, those citizens are ignored, because the deal is done with leaders, and those leaders know for good and for bad, where that money has gone or will be going. So yes, China can be a constructive force in this region, but for that to happen in this changing world of ours, China too must evolve. And so bringing this all kind of full circle to how we began talking about China and the US, clearly we see this rivalry between the Chinese and the US government at this time. Hopefully it’s not a rivalry between the peoples of these nations, where people just want a better life for themselves.
Curtis Chin: But it’s also a rivalry, I believe, between different systems. So this Chinese system is one again, of subsidizing their own companies. To what degree is that acceptable or should it be acceptable, and then how do you have a level playing field when you’re up against a state-owned enterprise that’s completely subsidized by the second largest economy in the world? And I think these are important questions, that again are just not US versus China questions, and hopefully they’re questions that are also being asked within China. But we’re seeing now in some of the reports that are coming out of China, few and far between, where China itself is cracking down on its own Chinese economists and their own people who would dare challenge what Xi Jinping is pushing through right now. As I think a Chinese American, as somewhat Asian American, someone who’s living in both the US and Asia, I in particular want China to move forward and to succeed just like every other nation, but China must evolve, and my hope is that it’ll be done peacefully versus all the turmoil that China has gone through this last century.
Curtis Chin: My hope is that that does not come back. In a weird way, that may be what Xi Jinping fears, but is he putting in place a system which might encourage or increase the odds of that coming back. A case in point, Xi Jinping, president of China, pushed through a way for him to serve as really president for life. So in a way governance has moved backwards in China. Xi Jinping has a lot of rivals within China that maybe aren’t so happy with how he’s done things. This US-China back and forth, this trade war really emerged under his watch. So there’s a lot of questions within China about he’s doing things, but those people are increasingly kind of squashed. In the old days, if you were a senior Chinese leader, maybe you’d wait out whoever the president was, you’d wait five years, you’d wait 10 years, but that has now changed. Maybe there is no waiting out Xi Jinping.
Curtis Chin: And so are people moving sadly, back to that old system? Are they trying to bring him down, stab him in the back? Things that are not good, because that’s how China has evolved. It’s evolved backwards, and it’s gone back to the system where actually it’s almost like there’s a new emperor in town, that emperor is Xi Jinping. And what happened to emperors in the past? They either died or were overthrown. So that’s not a good thing for China, and I think no one should welcome turmoil in China. And so again it’s in China’s own interest to rethink about how it treats not just the US, but how it treats all its neighbors. The Chinese version of rule of law is not one that I would hope the world seeks to emulate. We look right now at an imprisoned … out on parole I think, the technical term is, but an imprisoned Huawei, this big Chinese tech company CFO in Canada under the Canadian version of rule of law.
Curtis Chin: I think that Huawei executive has just moved from one of her multimillion dollar houses in Vancouver to another multimillion dollar house in Vancouver while she goes through the Canadian legal process as will she be extradited to the United States regarding charges of was she really directly involved in her company’s trying to avoid sanctions on Iran, create shell companies, all these things. Right? So the rule of law is proceeding. Meanwhile in China, and I dare say it’s not coincidentally, but connected, China has retried one Canadian, I think sentenced him to death. China is now putting I think two Canadian citizens under arrest, alleging that they’re spies. There was one, I think social media post, that’s never all …. as you know never sure how accurate some of these posts are, but this particular social media post contrasted the treatment of those Canadians under the Chinese version of the rule of law, versus the Huawei CFO, her name is Meng, CFO Meng, among under the Canadian rule of law.
Curtis Chin: And so I say to countries, I say to people, “As you think about the systems that are really contending now, a Chinese way of doing things, a Western way of things, what is better for you?” And so my hope is that this notion of East versus West isn’t one of really of East versus West, it’s really what’s right for a nation. And as I think about even one person … I did an interview when someone said to me on air, “Well, isn’t this stealing of property by the Chinese cultural?” And I had to push back, one because I’m ethnic Chinese. But when you think about what does that mean, culture, because very clearly when I go to a dynamic place like Singapore, or a dynamic place like Hong Kong, or Taiwan, mainly Chinese people, ethnic Han Chinese people, I don’t see them ripping off and stealing other countries’ or other companies’, other countries companies’ intellectual property like you do in China.
Curtis Chin: So if it’s cultural, it’s because of a business climate that the communist Chinese have created, it’s not because people are ethnic Chinese or Caucasian or whatever. And I think that’s how we need to look at things in order to move things forward. And again, I keep coming to this point that moving things forward are also in the interest of the Chinese people. And so it’s always intriguing where people say that, “How long will you as a citizens stand for tariffs?” If indeed those higher costs are passed on to them. But then we can throw that same question at the Chinese, how often will Chinese citizens stomach and tolerate all that their leaders do, then impose this higher cost and burdens on them, whether it’s the money they spend, the lives they live, or what they can say? And unlike in a democracy, where the Chinese citizens say, “No, we want to change things. We’ll have different leaders,” how do people change things in China? Their track record has not been good when it’s been a system where the Chinese people have no way to peacefully speak up. And that’s the challenge for our world today.
Misha Zelinsky: So the question I have … So you sort of talked a lot about this sort of the competing models and the hope that I suppose, over time the theory always was that China would gradually adopt Western norms of global leadership and rules-based order. The thing that is curious in all this is that the United States has always been the underwriter of these systems and has always had great confidence in these systems. One of the great strengths of the United States model of global leadership has been its alliance system. Now, people have thought about Trump’s approach to the strategic rivalry with China, but one of the things I’d like input is Trump’s administration approach to United States’ friends in a way that has attacked NATO allies, it has attacked allies in Asia region, such as South Korea for not pulling their weight, etc. How can the United States’ friend believe in the system that United States has underpinned and expect China to adopt a system that perhaps the United States itself seems to be walking away from somewhat.
Curtis Chin: I don’t know if the answer is walking from a system that we’ve all benefited from, this global trading system, but very clearly, the United States is saying it needs to be change and fixed. One case and point I look at is think about all these global bodies, and that’s where my hope … We talk about West versus East, but I hope some of these global bodies are really seen as global bodies, because I think part of the challenge is we say it’s a Western system or, “I’m from the East. I don’t want that system.” But I would argue that things like human rights, free speech, worship whatever you want, your religion, or whatever your faith is, isn’t a Western concept, but then I hope would be more universal concepts. So going back to your point, so one of the institutions that I think needs to evolve, one example would be the World Trade Organization, and I think even the WTO leadership has said, “Yeah. We need to change too.” And it’s the Trump administration that is pushing for some of these changes.
Curtis Chin: One example would be under WTO rules right now, that China is still treated as a developing nation. So maybe it’s allowed to do certain things, can it have more state-owned enterprises, more support for state-owned enterprises, but then a developed nation can’t? So doesn’t that need to change? For me it’s kind of ridiculous also that this second largest economy in the world that is China, some would say largest economy based on purchasing power parity, that this nation still borrows money from the World Bank, still borrows money from the Asian Development Bank, because they say, “Oh, we’re a poor country.” So again it goes back I think, to these metrics, but very clearly, China has resources that other nations do not have. China again, amazing, has put like this little rover on I think, the far side of the moon, and yet it still borrows money from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank because it says, “Oh, we’re a poor country, we need these subsidized loans to help us fight poverty.”
Curtis Chin: And so I think these institutions need to change, WTO, ADB, World Bank, and how they treat a nation like China. And what’s great about these rules-based organizations also, it would be that, it’s not just about China. If it were another nation in that same kind of role as they move up, they also should in a sense, graduate from these kinds of assistance like grants and subsidized loans. And so I think, we think about this China and the US, I think that’s part of the challenge that right now because of this tariffs war, it’s seen as China versus the US. But in many ways, there will be many allies in the battle if they could speak freely, and also many more allies in a sense, if the Trump administration to your point, I think were more adept in how it handles its long time allies and friends. The US relationship with Australia, with Thailand, with Singapore, with the Philippines, these are relationships that will continue to evolve, but really are foundations for moving things forward in a way that will I think, benefit the countries involved, but also benefit this region, this Indo-Pacific region as well as the world.
Misha Zelinsky: So one question I want to ask you, are you a member or do you have an involvement in the International Republican Institute, the IRI which is responsible for promoting democracy globally? There’s a sister organization to Democrats version of them. Traditionally people have always thought that China would grow rich and then it would grow democratic. What we’ve seen as it’s grown richer, unfortunately it’s become more autocratic. You touched on the fact that Xi has made himself emperor for life. With your sort of background in what makes democracy great and how democracies flourish, do you hold any sort of hope … is there anything to hope for people that want to see China become more democratic, or is that just a lost hope now to your mind?
Curtis Chin: Are both the International Republican Institute and this National Democratic Institute, they’re both come under this umbrella, National Endowment for Democracy, which really comes out of … started to work way back when I began my career, like an intern under Ronald Reagan. But something that Ronald Reagan sought to encourage, was the spread of democracy. So these are nonpartisan groups, even though one sounds Republican one sounds Democrat. And their job really is to encourage democracy, but I think more importantly and this goes to the heart of your question, to encourage institutions, and systems, and processes that allow democracy to flourish. I’m usually always like the most hopeful person in the room, even though like the room’s falling apart. And so I’m always hopeful that things will be moving forward. But I think it’s important that we talk about democracy, that we realize that democracy is not just elections, democracy is about balance, it’s about systems, checks and balances, it’s about institutions.
Curtis Chin: And so like the work of both IRI, NDI, would be things like encouraging political parties, it doesn’t matter which party you are, but encouraging political parties to think through the use of research, degree that is allowed or easily done in a given country, so that they can better understand what citizens are worried about, what they’re concerned about, and then think through how they can best address those concerns. It’s about how do you strengthen a democratic process? Where people don’t like whoever is running, there’s a chance to get rid of that person. So yes, I’m hopeful for China in the long run, but clearly what we see in these last what? Five years, is a China that’s become much more economically assertive and militarily aggressive in the Indo-Pacific region. And so what will happen over time? The reality is that it won’t just be China and the US contending, it will be the other rising powers in this increasing … what they call multipolar world.
Curtis Chin: They will also have to contend with a rising China. One day we’ll see India come into its own, we will see Indonesia, the largest economy in Southeast Asia come into its own. How will China engage with an India, with an Indonesia, with a stronger ASEAN, Association of Southeast Asia Nations? How will they deal with this? Probably one of their biggest headaches is their friend, North Korea. At the end of the day, I believe, here I’m being hopeful again, I believe that Korea will be united one day, but clearly when it unites, the reality will most likely be a democratic, in a way, westward-oriented democracy, versus the model that China and North Korea itself now present to the world. That’s really what holds back these two nations from coming together, North Korea and South Korea, is China. China would probably prefer kind of a somewhat unstable North Korea on it’s border than a united westward-looking Korea.
Curtis Chin: And so China has a lot of headaches to contend with, this trade war is really just one of them. And as you think about the calendar of this year, China has so many worries to contend with. An anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen, I say massacre, Chinese doesn’t like that word, incident, I would say. But when we think about the June 4 anniversary coming up, when you think about labor unrest in China, Xi Jinping is in a difficult situation, and maybe in some ways much less secure and stable than he would like the world to think he is. And so this trade war at a time of an already slowing but still growing Chinese economy, is not good for him either. And so maybe he will pursue the route of again, trying to unite the Chinese people in a very nationalistic way. You’re seeing some of the rhetoric coming out of China, “China will never back down.” Very nationalistic, trying to unite his own people against an enemy, when the reality that maybe his biggest challenge is what’s happening at home, in his country.
Misha Zelinsky: Thanks. I could probably talk to you about this all day I think, it’s so may fascinating different areas we could go to, but of course you’re a busy man, you’ve got things to do. So as I always do, very clunkily segue to the fun part of the show. I get a lot of good feedback on this really lame question that I ask everyone. But of course you’re an American guest on our show, just curious about the three Australians that are coming to Ambassador Curtis Chin’s barbecue and why? And I should disclose, earlier he said, “What if I can’t think of three Australians?” I said, “Well, just do your best.”
Curtis Chin: Yeah. What if I can’t think of three Australian? But yeah, I kind of laughed when you asked me that question earlier, because in the United States when we think of Australians, they’re like people we’ve taken from Australia like Nicole Kidman and Keith Urban, but I think … wasn’t Keith actually born in New Zealand? But again, I think they live in Tennessee right now. So I’m going to cheat and only give you two, but because they live in Tennessee, I bet they have some of the best barbecue in the United States. So I’d certainly love to have them because then maybe we wouldn’t talk politics, or we wouldn’t talk about China and the US, and we’d just have a great time …
Misha Zelinsky: Well, it’s funny you should say that …
Curtis Chin: … and enjoy American-Australia hospitality.
Misha Zelinsky: It’s funny you should say talking about Americans stealing Australians, because Australia is very famous for stealing New Zealanders like Russell Crowe. So it’s sort of … it’s all just [crosstalk 00:52:52].
Curtis Chin: That’s right. I think Keith Urban, I think he’s really a New Zealander. I don’t know what he is, but …
Misha Zelinsky: I’m not sure, but that’s a cute …
Curtis Chin: Nicole Kidman is Australian for sure …
Misha Zelinsky: She’s absolutely Aussie.
Curtis Chin: … and maybe they both Americans, I don’t know. But let me close by just saying that US-Australian relationship is a great one, it’s a solid one. I think United States, we can learn from Australia. I mean, look at your economy, you haven’t had a recession in a long time. A lot though has been driven by China, and so also how will Australia deal with this evolving economic world. Australia also, I think for a while, kept changing its prime ministers, I don’t know. It seems like there was a new one all the time, but maybe that’s also a broader point for all of us, that no matter who’s in charge things will be okay if we leave it to our people to run things, just American, Australia, Chinese whoever. They just want to move things forward, but maybe it’s the politics that gets in the way of everything. And sometimes when government does nothing, maybe things just move on forward.
Misha Zelinsky: A very positive message of hope to finish on there, Curtis. Thank you so much for joining Diplomates, mate.
Curtis Chin: All right, my pleasure. Take care.
Misha Zelinsky: Take care, mate.