Finding Common Ground in a Changing World

Max Baucus, the former U.S. senator and ambassador to China, gave this year’s Zeidman lecture.

As the changing relationship between the United States and China continues to garner headlines, local China experts, scholars, and others with an interest in Chinese studies gathered in the Robert L. Smith Meeting Room recently for the 36th Annual John Fisher Zeidman ’79 Memorial Lecture.

Addressing current events head-on was this year’s lecturer, former U.S. Senator Max Baucus, who served as U.S ambassador to China from 2014 to 2017. On Capitol Hill, Baucus worked extensively on international trade issues, securing the passage and enactment of free trade agreements with 11 countries, as well as congressional approval of permanent normal trade relations with China in 2000.

In times of uncertainty like these, Baucus told the audience, it’s absolutely critical for Chinese and Americans from all walks of life to know more about each other. Continuing and expanding current Chinese-American educational, cultural, and business exchanges can help promote a more nuanced understanding of the differences and similarities between us.

“Much of our future is going to be tied to China,” he said. “Even a senator from Montana can figure that out!”

Citing Henry Kissinger, Baucus spoke about national identity and the traditional view that Americans tend to focus on winning while the Chinese prioritize patience and long-term positioning. Our vastly different governance structures and norms can also impede understanding and agreement.

“As we look down the road, whether it’s trade issues, tariffs, the South China Sea, or North Korea,” Baucus cautioned, “we have to keep in mind that it’s a big difference, and we have to understand it.”

Cultural awareness plays a critical role in brokering agreements among nations. For example, he said, the Chinese ignored an international tribunal ruling about their increasing presence in the South China Sea, saying it did not apply to them. But after President Obama warned President Xi about it in a face-to-face meeting, the Chinese backed off their expansion efforts, at least temporarily.

Baucus believes that the Chinese are feeling increasingly confident about their economic prospects and will likely continue to make it harder for U.S. companies to do business with them. And he doesn’t think the tariffs recently proposed by President Trump will work: “These tariffs are going to cause more problems than they solve,” he said. “I don’t think our government has thought them through.”

As the two nations struggle to find common ground economically, Baucus said, it’s important to remember our common humanity. Living in China made it clear to him that American and Chinese people share many of the same basic goals: “They both want decent incomes and to be able to take care of their kids” with good, readily available health care and education. “That’s where we have commonalities,” he said.

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