Former ambassador talks US-China trade relations at annual conference

Former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles W. Freeman Jr. poses for a portrait. via Wikimedia Commons

Former United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles W. Freeman Jr. took a hard line against the Trump administration’s approach to U.S.-China trade, at one point comparing the “disgusting” and “incoherent”  policies to sheep innards, in a keynote speech at Saturday’s New England Chinese Language Teachers Association (NECLTA) Conference in Cohen Auditorium.

The event began with opening remarks from Senior Lecturer of Chinese Mingquan Wang, as well as from Provost and Senior Vice President ad interim Deborah Kochevar. 

Freeman’s speech provided insight gleaned from his three-decade career in the U.S. Foreign Service, much of which he spent focusing on Sino-American relations. He served as the main interpreter during President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, as Director of Chinese Affairs at the State Department, as United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia and as Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.

December marks the 40th anniversary of the normalization of U.S.-China relations, Freeman said. He highlighted how impactful that initial bond, forged between President Jimmy Carter and Deng Xiaoping, has been to the development of China.

“[Deng] saw U.S.-China normalization and ‘reform and opening’ as parts of a single bold gamble with his country’s future,” Freeman said. “His vision enabled China to risk a search for inspiration in America and other capitalist democracies, to which the Chinese elite promptly entrusted its sons and daughters for education.”

Freeman countered the Trump administration’s opinion that China alone benefits from the current trade partnership, noting that China was the United States’ third-largest receiver of exports last year. He added that U.S. consumers and workers have benefitted directly from the relationship.

“Imports from China have kept U.S. consumer prices low, saving an average American family an estimated $850 each year,” Freeman said. “About 2.6 million American jobs are now linked to exports, imports and investment flows between the U.S. and China.”

He noted that the longstanding symbiotic trade relationship between the United States and China is now on the verge of collapse.

Freeman also unleashed a blistering assessment of the Trump administration’s bilateral-over-global trade outlook, attacking it as impossible and self-defeating to its core.

“The American position is an incoherent blend of unrelated and mutually incompatible demands — the foreign policy equivalent of a haggis,” he said, invoking the Scottish term for what he noted is a “hodgepodge of animal innards.”

Freeman said those inconsistencies have no place in Sino-U.S. trade relations.

“China is home to the most adventurous eaters on the planet, but haggis has not found a market there,” Freeman said. “I very much doubt that it now will. Nor will the disgustingly incoherent American negotiating position on future trade with China.”

Trump’s justification for the trade war is China’s increasing challenge to the United States’ economic supremacy and a belief in the necessity of U.S. self-sufficiency, Freeman said. However, he countered that the increase in American self-sufficiency is simply increasing China’s self-sufficiency as well.

Freeman called Trump’s policies relics of mercantilist economic theory, two centuries out-of-date. The current administration simply does not want American imports to exceed exports to China, even if it is economically beneficial to maintain a trade deficit, he said.

“Under the Trump administration, the United States has come to stand explicitly for mercantilist bilateralism and protectionism, economic coercion, an end to support for foreign economic development or refugees and the unilateral abrogation of international agreements,” he said.

Freeman contrasted Trump’s hardline approach with China’s own emphasis on tapping into the world’s existing global economic institutions, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. He suggested that with the United States isolating itself, China can now expand trade abroad into the European Union and establish a Chinese sphere of influence in the developing world by trading with nations in South America, Africa and East Asia.

He noted the different timelines which each country’s respective policies seem to take.

“It is said that Chinese plan in years, decades and centuries, while Americans calculate what must be done in terms of weeks and [months],” Freeman said. “We are about to have a test of that thesis.”

Freeman also warned that tensions surrounding Taiwan, the situation in the South China Sea and the trade war threaten to transform from ideological disputes into tangible conflicts.

“The solution is something called diplomacy, but that seems to have stopped in 2016,” he said. “[I’m] hoping Trump will just agree to small concessions that will allow him to claim personal victory.”

Freeman ended his speech by emphasizing the importance of studying the Chinese language in the current political climate.

“In a world of fake news and stupefyingly misleading narratives, the ability to speak, read and write Chinese and other foreign languages supplies the key to direct personal observation of what is actually happening,” Freeman said. “To know another man’s language is to know something of his soul.”

Wang, who also serves as the Chinese program language coordinator, reiterated the importance of language in a follow-up email to the Daily.

“Language provides insights into ways of thinking, feeling and perception in a particular culture,” Wang said. “To be able to understand people who come from a different culture and who speak a different language, a good understanding of their culture and a good command of their language are indispensable.”

The Chinese program at Tufts offers courses aimed at giving students a sound understanding of Chinese literature and culture, as well as a proficiency in the Chinese language.

Wang further stated that educators have an outsize role in ensuring smooth relations.

“I firmly believe that Chinese language educators have made significant contributions to the mutual understanding between the people of the United States and China through Chinese language and culture education,” he said. “We will continue to do so in good times and bad.”

Deputy Director of Tufts Sino-U.S. Relations Group Engagement (SURGE) Connor Akiyama described “a sense of regret” over the trade policies in a statement on behalf of the group.

“The general SURGE sentiment supports the international economic order and opposes dangerous escalation,” Akiyama, a sophomore, wrote in an email to the Daily. “We understand the pessimism towards the future of the Chinese-U.S. relations, but ultimately most of us believe that a more positive and bilateral relationship will emerge in the future. All of SURGE, however, values the potential economic, cultural, and economic relationships that the U.S. can bolster with China.”