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Ambassador Nicholas Burns spoke to Foreign Affairs Editor Daniel Kurtz-Phelan for ‘The Foreign Affairs Interview’ podcast, published on October 26.  
 
To listen to the podcast, please click on the link below:
https://www.foreignaffairs.com/podcasts/alone-beijing-view-embassy-nicholas-burns(October 26, 2022)
 
The full transcript is below : 
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
This is “The Foreign Affairs Interview.”
 
NICK BURNS
We’re trying to show respect, civility, interest in the Chinese people, in their culture and their history. And at the same time, we’re being very straightforward and honest in criticisms of the government here.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
When Nick Burns arrived in Beijing as the U.S. ambassador earlier this year, it was hard to imagine a more challenging—or consequential—diplomatic mission. It’s not just the zero-COVID restrictions and constant surveillance; the relationship between the United States and China seems to grow more tense by the day.
Beijing’s relationship with Moscow and its plans for Taiwan are at the center of US foreign policy concerns. And that was all before last weeks’ Party Congress, when Chinese leader Xi Jinping secured a historic third term in power.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
Ambassador Burns, thank you for doing this.
 
NICK BURNS
Dan, great to be with you. Thanks very much for this interview.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN  
Let’s start with the subject that is dominating most discussion of China at the moment, and I imagine is taking up a lot of your time right now, and that’s the Party Congress that’s taking place as we speak. It has already made official Xi Jinping’s third term in power—but has also started to provide some clues about the direction of Chinese foreign and domestic policy going forward. What is your read of the Party Congress thus far? You know, Xi kept repeating the term ‘New Era’ in his speech. Does the Congress suggest continuity or changing direction to your mind?
 
NICK BURNS
Well, you know, we’re right in the middle of the Party Congress here in Beijing—we don’t know the identity of the new Standing Committee. This is the body that has most power in the Politburo and the Central Committee. We’ve seen, of course, this remarkable speech by President Xi Jinping the other day, more than two hours long. And it—we’ll have to see the result of this, but it does speak to a China that, under his leadership, is increasingly assertive, assertive with its neighbors, increasingly nationalistic at home. A country that—a government, I should say—that is in some ways turning inward, if you think about the PRC, the People’s Republic, trying to readjust its supply lines to insulate itself from potential sanctions down the road. 
And it’s a country that is dealing with a wide variety of economic problems, from the debt crisis here to the property crisis—which, I think, you cannot exaggerate the importance of that, not just for the central government, but the government in the 31 provinces of China—to the fact that zero-COVID, the policy that is, that has been in place here for nearly three years, has slowed down GDP growth. China’s looking at, by most economic projections, two and a half to three percent GDP growth this year, which for China is a dramatic slowdown. The demographic crisis, 20 percent youth unemployment: I think one of the big questions that will emerge at the end of the Party Congress is, what is the strategic direction of the economy here? Are we going to see Xi Jinping and his colleagues go in a more statist approach? Are we going to see a continuation of what in many ways Deng Xiaoping started decades ago, reform and opening, which is more of an opening to the international markets and to the private sector? And I think that’s on everyone’s mind here in China. 
So we’ll look for indications of that. We won’t know, of course, for several weeks or even several months, because what happens is, the party officials will become clearer, and the new government, as of the coming days, but we’re not going to actually know who the new government ministers are until March, when their Lianghui sits, the double conference. And so there’s a bit of a transition coming up—not unlike American presidential transitions, it’ll be for three or four months. We really won’t know the identity of who’s going to be the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, that kind of thing. So we’re watching all this very carefully, obviously, because China is a country with which we have a challenging relationship in many ways.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
There’s a lot to unpack in that challenging relationship. But I want to jump back a bit to the early part of your tenure as ambassador. You arrived in Beijing, spring of 2022, I think a little over six months ago. It was probably the most fraught and high stakes moment in the U.S.-China relationship in decades; it was a moment when very few American officials had been able to travel to China, when there’d been very little interaction between U.S. and Chinese officials in person—hard to imagine a more consequential post for U.S. Ambassador. What surprised you when you arrived? Were there preconceptions you had before getting to post that you’ve since revised?
 
NICK BURNS
Well, I think what hit my wife and I—my wife, Libby, and I—immediately was just the intensity of zero-COVID. The policies here that restrict movements; that have people testing, all of us, every 48 to 72 hours; the fact that it’s extremely difficult to travel around the country, because if there are infections—if you travel to Shanghai, from Beijing, if there are infections there, or infections in Beijing—you can be locked down in Shanghai for 10 days and pay that tax on the ability to move. We had, like everybody else, Libby and I quarantined for 21 days upon arrival; that’s now been reduced to 10 days. But still, that has meant that we’re in an extraordinarily unusual time in this relationship. 
Maybe this is my biggest early impression, Dan: we haven’t had a member of Congress visit China in nearly three years. We haven’t had any Biden administration cabinet officials visit Beijing during the entire course of this relationship. This is very unusual for a relationship that’s very broad, that’s vital for both countries. If you think of the Trump and Obama and George W. Bush administrations, we had at least intense engagement with each other. And now we’re in a situation where, really, it’s our mission here, our embassy in Beijing, that has to represent the United States, because all of our colleagues in the administration can’t travel here. And as long as zero-COVID is in place, and as long as there’s this quarantine period—so if you wanted to come to China tomorrow, you’d have to quarantine for 10 days, it’s very difficult to get in, because there are just a small number of flights by American or Chinese carriers from the United States to China, very difficult to get out. I think that’s been the dominant impression that everyone who lives here has had, it’s an unusual time. 
And of course, you know, one of the big questions for the 20th Party Congress, in its aftermath, is, will China adjust? Will they diminish the quarantine period? Hong Kong has done that; Taiwan has done that; most of the countries in this part of the world, Southeast Asia, the Indo-Pacific, have done that. But China has not. And that’s going to constrict both economic activity here—but also, it’s going to constrict the ability of the government here, and the Chinese people, to interact on any basic level with every other country.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
You’re one of the most experienced American diplomats alive today. What is it like trying to engage the Chinese government at this moment? In what ways is that similar to experiences you’ve had in the past, and in what ways is it really different as you see this new—this more assertive—China, along with zero-COVID?
 
NICK BURNS
Well, I think it’s unique, actually, in my own diplomatic experience. I’ve, you know, I’ve lived in a lot of countries, and I’ve lived both in authoritarian and democratic countries. This is a country that is centralizing its power in the Communist Party; the Party has been strengthening. President Xi Jinping is a stronger figure, likely than any previous Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. It’s a time of nationalism here, and you feel that: you feel it when you talk to the Chinese people about their country, its role, its future, about Taiwan. You certainly feel it and see it online; there is an extraordinarily online conversation going on here on Weibo and WeChat, Chinese social media—a little bit less on Twitter because Chinese people don’t have access to that. 
And you know, since Speaker Pelosi’s visit—and we supported her right to visit Taiwan back on August 2nd, 3rd, and 4th—we saw the overreaction of the Chinese, a gross overreaction by the Chinese government. They have shut down most of our channels of communication—eight specific ones, military and civilian. They won’t talk to us. They have shut down our ability to work with them on climate change, on counternarcotics. I do have contact with the Foreign Ministry; we’ve had a series of contentious meetings, most of them running, you know, two and a half, three, four hours. And I must say, we want to get to a place where we can air our differences in a very detailed way, and get beyond our talking points and have real conversations about how to lower the temperature here,.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
It is really striking that at a moment of growing competitiveness, when there are increasing opportunities for risks of crisis, of some kind of conflict, we don’t seem to have the channels that you would want to have in place to respond to a crisis and prevent it from escalating into a conflict. You know, plenty of pieces in Foreign Affairs calling for guard rails in the competition—it seems very, very hard to have guard rails if military leaders can’t get on the phone and talk to one another to resolve a crisis. I mean, are you worried about the lack of that connectivity and what it might mean in a time of competition?
 
NICK BURNS
Well, you know, here we have the two strongest economies in the world, the two strongest military powers, probably the two certainly strongest all-encompassing global powers—and obviously, we have a substantial number of differences between us. So our instinct, of course—and this was true during the crisis in Taiwan, surrounding the speaker’s visit—our instinct was to talk, because we wanted to make sure that we had the ability to get our point of view across, to advise the Chinese to stand down from the extraordinary over-the-top reaction that they had to her visit. You know, we’ve had hundreds of members of Congress, including a former Speaker of the House, travel to Taiwan. This is a co-equal branch of the United States government, and the speaker had every right to go there. And you’ve seen what happened after her visit. We’ve had many, many more members of Congress visit Taiwan—I’m sure that will continue. We’ve had members of the European Parliament, the Japanese Parliament, the South Korean Parliament all go there. 
I think because of their overreaction, they’ve produced, you know, a flood of visitors to Taiwan to show support for a democratic society, so clearly they miscalculated there. And clearly in a crisis, the right thing to do is to have conversations, private conversations—doesn’t have to be public. And just a couple of days after the Speaker visited, they shut down those eight channels, and we were disappointed, and I’ve been telling my Chinese counterparts that we’ve got to get back to normal conversation—because, look, we’re going to compete, and this is systemic. 
I think that competitive aspects of this relationship are going to continue for a long time to come—many years, probably into the next decade. So we’ve got to find a way to manage that competition—as the President has been saying, President Biden, as Secretary Tony Blinken has been saying, just in the last week or so in his public appearances—so that we avoid conflict, and we learn to manage this relationship in a productive way.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reminded all of us of the dangers of a, you know, personalist autocratic leader making decisions in a bubble without necessarily having a system or people around him that can challenge decisions or deliver bad news—you know, everything that you’d get in a more open system. Do you see Xi Jinping making decisions in a constrained information environment, in a bubble of his own? You know, how much clarity does he have on how his policies are affecting both China, whether it’s the economy or the political system, and the world?
 
NICK BURNS
It’s very difficult to say, as you know, the system here—the political system, particularly surrounding the leadership—is a rather opaque system. And so it’s hard to have these kinds of specific insights. But I will say this: clearly, the February 4 ‘no limits’ partnership between China and Russia, President Putin and President Xi Jinping announced—clearly, it’s had a big impact, and how other countries see that relationship. And as of February 24, with the brutal, illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine, you know, the Chinese have been doing two things. To their own people, they’ve been saying, NATO’s the problem, and the United States and NATO, you know, drove Putin to invade Ukraine—which is ludicrous, of course. And yet, to the rest of the world, whether in the United States, in the European Union, they say—this is the Chinese leadership—we want peace, we want a resolution of this, we don’t want war. 
Well, there’s two very different messages out there. And our own view is that the government here in Beijing ought to be giving strong advice to the Russians to cease and desist from this barbaric war against the people of Ukraine. And what’s ironic here is that, you know, China has been saying, since the inception of the first government of the Communist era in 1949, that what it truly, truly values is the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its own country and of other countries. And here, we’ve seen a blatant example of Russia misusing its power to assault its neighbor, Ukraine. So there’s a contradiction there. And, you know, I’ve never really felt in my own conversations that they’re comfortable, the Chinese leadership, in trying to decide which of these messages is their main message. So, you know, they’re a member of the Security Council: they ought to act responsibly, and they ought to be giving Russia advice, Putin advice, to stop this war.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
What do your interlocutors in the Chinese government say when you raise these arguments with them?
 
NICK BURNS
Well, it’s interesting, you know: this, from my very first meetings here, obviously, this has been a major topic of conversation. I give them the American point of view, I represent President Biden here, and our government. And that is that, you know, you’ve seen the reaction of the entire world: 143 countries voted 10 days ago in the United Nations to repudiate the Russian position in incorporating these four provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk and the two others into the Russian Federation—you know, it’s very hard to get 143 countries in the United Nations General Assembly to agree on much these days. But they agree on that. You’ve seen the extraordinary reaction of the Europeans, of all the countries of Europe, in the European Union, standing up. You’ve seen the sanctions against Russia. 
So, you know, I think the Chinese have to be observing this, and understanding that when a country like Russia, when any country takes these outrageous measures that violate the most fundamental aspects of how we organize the world—and the United Nations Charter. That, I think has had an impression here, and we hope it does. And we hope that Beijing will speak more clearly about the need to get the Russians to back off in Ukraine.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
Looking beyond just the Russian war in Ukraine, there does seem to be a convergence between Russia and China more on a strategic level that I think would have surprised and dismayed most observers and the U.S., and among U.S. allies, a few years ago. Do you see that convergence as something that’s going to be sustained? Is there any hope of splitting the two? Or is this a kind of, a unified challenge, that we’re going to be facing definitely at this point?
 
NICK BURNS
You know, I think it’s a difficult question to answer over the mid- to long-term. They are very different countries. They have different interests. I think it’s fair to say that, you know, China is a trading nation—it’s the number one trading partner for a lot of countries in the Indo-Pacific and Central Asia, which is where Russian and Chinese geography and interests come together and where their historic interests come together. We’ll have to see how long this partnership lasts and whether it is indeed no limits.
We’re finding here in the Indo-Pacific that, you know, countries are worried about the assertiveness of China and Russia. I think you’ve seen a really important strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance in the course of the Biden administration. We have a new opportunity with President Yoon and South Korea, the Republic of Korea, to have a stronger relationship with that country. Australia has always been, and continues to be, an extraordinarily close and supportive ally of the United States. And now you’ve seen the emergence of AUKUS: Australia and the United Kingdom, the United States, working together in critical military areas, technology areas. And we’ve seen the revival of the Quad, the four countries—Japan, Australia, the United States and India—that are working together in a variety of ways to strengthen the foundation of the democratic countries in the Indo-Pacific. This is a very important part of the world for the United States—in a military sense, certainly for thinking of the future of the global economy, and, frankly, of the ability of countries around the world to solve big problems like climate change. 
And so I believe, and this administration certainly believes, we’ve strengthened our position in the Indo-Pacific. I think the Chinese, the Russians, clearly see that; it clearly unnerves them. And we’re going to continue to pay a lot of attention to strengthening those alliances. You know, the trilogy that President Biden, Secretary Blinken have talked about in our China policy is invest, align, and compete. We have to reinvest in the foundation of our economy—and you think of the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed a year ago to rebuild our bridges and roads and airports. Think of the CHIPS Act, which is direct investment to stimulate our ability to be a manufacturing power of semiconductors again. And then think of the Inflation Reduction Act: we’re going to invest $369 billion in clean energy technology, the largest investment we’ve ever made. And many economists think that will allow us to reduce our carbon emissions by up to 50 percent in the next eight years, and we’ll be able to meet our Paris climate change agreements. So that ‘invest’ part is very important. You know, you can’t compete on a long-term basis if your economy, the infrastructure of your country—and particularly our ability to be proficient in advanced technology—is not set. 
And then you have the ‘align’, which I’ve just talked about—strengthening our alliances—and then you have ‘compete.’ And that means that in a very specific way, we’re competing with China to create a level playing field on trade and economics for our businesses and for our workers. We are competing, certainly, on technology. And I think in many ways that’s become the heart of the competition. If you think about AI, machine learning, quantum sciences, biotechnology—they have both commercial and military applications. We’re certainly competing in the security space of the Indo-Pacific, where the United States has this string of alliances. And we’re competing on values. We’re a democracy, we believe in human freedom—and we’re happy to have that conversation globally, because we think it’s a strong suit, and a comparative advantage of the United States. So this trilogy is all encompassing, and I think it informs a competition that’s going to be with us for some time.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
I want to come back to some questions of U.S.-China policy in a moment. But first, let’s linger on Taiwan, which you’ve raised in a couple of your previous answers. We’ve heard from a slew of U.S. officials and military leaders, a heightened sense of warning about what Xi Jinping may be considering doing when it comes to unification with Taiwan, that he may feel more urgency than people thought a few years ago and may be increasingly inclined to take the risky step of an invasion or some kind of blockade, or some other step that would be destabilizing. I believe Secretary Blinken said recently that China has made a decision to seize Taiwan on a much faster timeline than previously thought, and that was shortly after Xi Jinping reiterated his intent to take the island by force if necessary at the Party Congress. So I’m curious what your on-the-ground view of the Taiwan issue is. Do you see Beijing operating on a certain timeline, with a sense of urgency? Where’s your level of concern on this question?
 
NICK BURNS  
Well, there’s no question that Taiwan is one of the most sensitive and difficult issues in our relationship. And it has been going all the way back to 1972, when President Nixon, Secretary Kissinger came out for discussions with Zhou Enlai. You know, we’ve never had—obviously, we’ve always had these disagreements with the government here in Beijing. 
I think the core of it, Dan, is that they overreacted to Speaker Pelosi’s visit. You’ll remember the nine or 10 days of air and naval activities; they fired missiles over the island of Taiwan, which they had not done before. They simulated, you know, enforcement exclusion zones, simulated a blockade around the entire island. They tried to erase the median line—this is the line that for 68 years in the middle of the Taiwan Strait had been able to keep military forces separated. And as Secretary Blinken has been saying over the past week or so, you know, we’ve had, Republican and Democratic administrations, have had a lot of success, in at least keeping this on a low boil and keeping those forces separate. And so what we’ve been saying to the Chinese, and what we’re saying publicly is, the bottom line here is that this dispute, this cross-Strait dispute, has to be resolved peacefully. And I do think that’s the challenge for China that all of us around the world, particularly the United States, have to continue to insist upon. 
If you talk to a Chinese official, and if you listen to the public statements, including this week, here in Beijing, they say: we want to resolve this peacefully—but we reserve the right to use force. We don’t agree with that second clause. There’s too much at stake here. Because the Taiwan Strait, of course, 60 percent of global container traffic passes through it, over 80 percent of super containers pass through the Taiwan Strait. It’s absolutely critical for the global economy, and, you know, in discussions with countries here in the Indo-Pacific but also countries in Africa, Latin America, who depend on the global trade system—think of the consequences if the Taiwan Strait were to be closed. So that’s our message. And you know, we can’t know about the timeline, if there is one, for the government here in Beijing—but we can influence them in insisting on a peaceful resolution of a dispute. And I think a lot of countries in this part of the world are concerned by the aggressive rhetoric and statements of some of the political leaders here.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
How have they interpreted President Biden’s comments on three or four occasions now, that seem to, you know, take a step away from the U.S. policy of strategic ambiguity and make a more categorical commitment to use American force in the event of a Chinese use of force?
 
NICK BURNS
What the President has said publicly, and what we have said both publicly and privately here, is that we are adhering our government to the one-China policy—the President has said that. The President has also said that we do not support Taiwan independence; the United States has not for the last 50 years, the last half century. We think we’ve been consistent in our policy—and we’re asking the government here to be consistent, because in the past, you know, they’ve made assurances, in the past, that they would seek a peaceful resolution. You still hear the rhetoric, but the actions, particularly the actions after Speaker Pelosi’s visit, would contradict that rhetoric. And so I think it’s important for the United States to be messaging, but it’s important for other countries to be doing it, too. And you’ve heard that. You’ve heard it from many of the democratic countries of this region. 
It’s very interesting, Dan, to see not only Japan, and Australia, and South Korea—the Republic of Korea—speak up about this. We are increasingly seeing the Europeans, the European Union, and individual European countries who in the past might have not thought of Taiwan as something that was a core interest of theirs—they’re worried about this, because we have an integrated global economy. And this part of the world is the heart of it, and the Taiwan Strait is one of the most prominent channels for traffic, and I think they’re concerned about that. But not just about the economic consequences. We do not want to live in a world where might makes right, where a strong country can assault other people who live nearby with impunity.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN 
Your distillation of our China policy, the ‘invest, align, compete,’ framework, was a really clear summation of it. You know, I want to focus on the ‘compete’ part for a bit. You get the occasional insistence from U.S. officials that we’re not trying to undermine China’s rise or weaken it in any way. There’s been speculation with some of the moves in Washington in the last several days, especially the export controls with advanced semiconductors, some of the speculation about outbound investment screening and other economic measures, that there has been a kind of inflection point—that we’ve seen an inflection point in the American China policy, where we really are taking steps that are meant to hold China back in certain ways. This is a kind of different framework. Do you think that’s a fair interpretation? Or how would you kind of explain that dimension of our policy?
 
NICK BURNS
You know, I wouldn’t actually put it that way. What we did more than two weeks ago, with the Commerce Department announcing export actions, export controls, on advanced chips for the Chinese economy was quite clear. And I thought that the message from the White House and the message from the Commerce Department, the message from me here, and my colleagues here in the embassy to the Chinese, is that the government here has been using that technology for military purposes. And we have an absolute right to restrict the sale and the availability of those very advanced chips for military purposes. 
We are in a competition with China for military and security power in this region. We do not—and should not, from a national security basis—provide China with American technology to upgrade the ability of the PLA to compete with us. It doesn’t make sense. And I think this is absolutely the right decision. And as we talk to our allies, I think many of them see it the same way. So we took that decision, the administration took that decision, with a great deal of confidence. This is in the long-term strategic interests of the United States.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
You, early in our conversation, mentioned many of the pretty profound challenges facing China, whether it’s winding zero-COVID, economic challenges, demographic challenges. There’s become a kind of relative consensus in the Washington debate, or the American foreign policy establishment debate that, you know, China is more likely to be kind of struggling and then, if not exactly in decline, at least the kind of rise that we’ve seen in recent decades has come to an end. And that that is going to bring new kinds of challenges and perhaps greater dangers, if you have a leadership that might look to nationalism or to assertiveness in its region as a way of distracting from some of the problems at home. Do you think that basic assessment of China’s trajectory as starting to kind of level off, if not to go into decline, is accurate? And do you find the kind of concerns that come with that warranted? That’s become, I think, a kind of core assumption of debate in Washington these days.
 
NICK BURNS
I would frame it in a different way. I think we have to recognize, you know, China’s a competitor of the United States. We have to recognize that it’s a country with quite significant power in the world. I said before that China’s the leading trade partner of, gosh, over 65 countries in the world. It has reached, through the Belt and Road Initiative, in places like Argentina, and Peru, and Ecuador, and Brazil; through much of the African continent; tremendous reach into Central Asia, if you think about their relations with Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan, Tajikistan; and reach here in the Indo-Pacific, in this very dynamic part of the world. So the last thing that I think we should do is underestimate the fact that this is a very powerful country led by its economic power, by its trade power—and by, I think, a shared sense of strategy, a clear sense of strategy and what they’re trying to do. They’ve certainly built themselves up to be a significant military power, with the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army over the last several decades. So, you know, as a diplomat here, as our ambassador here, we have to recognize reality for what it is. 
What is changing, however, is that these very high rates of economic growth over the last four decades—in some cases, double digit growth or high single digit growth—it’s been an enormous expansion of the Chinese economy, of the quality of life for the average Chinese citizen. We’ve seen GDP per capita rise significantly, the second largest economy in the world. I think that is the key question here. Is that now about to slow down? Will we see a decade ahead of much lower growth in the low single digits? And I think that that may be the future for China. So that’s one indicator that things are changing here. I wouldn’t call it decline, because they’re still a very powerful country. But they’ve got to deal with that change. And it’s going to have economic consequences here in China, for the Chinese people. It’s going to have consequences for their power. 
The other concomitant challenge, the related challenge is, what is the economic strategy going forward? Deng Xiaoping set a course of reform and opening in the early 19, mid-1980s. And I think one of the things that people have been looking for, as they look at these various speeches in the 20th Party Congress, and as we see how the new government forms in the early part of 2023—is it going to be a more statist philosophy where the government here takes on an even larger role in the economy? Or are they going to continue with a more recent version of reform and opening where the private sector here in China is given pride in place? A lot of the economic growth of the last four decades was produced by the Chinese private sector, not just the state enterprises. 
So I think for many of us who live here, who are watching China, that’s an open question. I wouldn’t call that decline. But we’re clearly in a different period of China’s development. Another indication:  the demographic trend line here, which is quite forbidding, quite challenging for China going forward. A third indicator: unemployment, some polls show up to 20 percent youth unemployment in China. So you know, we have our own economic challenges at home. This is a tough time around the world, given the energy crisis, given inflation, given lower global growth that we’re likely to foresee in the next year or two. But China has some significant challenges ahead. And I think that’s going to concentrate a lot of the government’s attention here. And we’ll just have to see where it goes. It is interesting, however, how many people—you know this, Dan—over the last decade have been waiting for the moment when nominal GDP rates, China overtakes the United States in nominal GDP. And a lot of economists are now saying, well, you know, that day may come, but it may never come. There’s a lot of uncertainty, I think, about the future of the economy here. I think that’s an outstanding question.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
What is their view of the state of U.S. power? Has anything surprised you about the way they talk about our own, you know, political dysfunction or the trajectory of American power in the world?
 
NICK BURNS
Well, this is an interesting question; obviously, it’s one that I’m really focused on as the American ambassador here. When I testified before the Foreign Relations Committee last October 2021, I said in my opening statement, you know, China believes that we’re a declining power—and it believes that it’s the ascendant power. It believes that our best days are in the past; and I certainly do not believe that. And that’s been interesting, in my time here to listen to, and sometimes, because I’m active on social media, as you would expect me to be participating in this debate, I’ve been struck by some of the statements of the party leaders here that thinks of us as a nation that is weakening. I don’t see it. And I think by our actions, we’re beginning to demonstrate that those people who subscribe to that in this government and society are wrong about that. I talked before about the major infrastructure bill of last year of 2021, and these two big bills that the President and Congress passed this year, the Inflation Reduction Act and the CHIPS Act, these are not the signs of a declining power. It’s the signs of a strengthening power.
Of course, we have problems—I mean, we have problems at home, and we’ve got to deal with those problems. But I think we’re acting with a degree of confidence that—you almost see the Chinese beginning to react to, because, you know, they’ve put a lot of investment into the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is China and Russia and Iran and some of the countries of Central Asia. They’re putting efforts into the BRICS summit. But that’s those two organizations—and I live, by the way, I know a lot about the Shanghai Cooperation Organization because I live about 150 yards from it, it’s right around the corner from my house to headquarters, so I walk by it frequently and think, well, it’s an impressive organization. But it’s not NATO. It’s not the U.S.-Japan alliance. It’s not the U.S.-South Korea alliance. 
And so, you know, we’re very definitely—and I’m doing this—sending a signal: look, we want peace, obviously, we want to have constructive relations, but we’re not going away. We are a big part of the Indo-Pacific. And I think you’ve seen the President—he hosted a summit with ASEAN leaders, Association of Southeast Asian States in the spring at the White House. He just hosted the first ever Pacific Island States Summit. And we are part of the Pacific islands, if you think about American history and geography and the place of Hawaii in this, as well as Guam and American Samoa. We’ve begun to assert in a very confident way, we are part of this region and will remain part of this region. I think it’s taken some people—I’m thinking of editorial writers for the Global Times, and others who opine here—by surprise, this degree of self-confidence and the accomplishments we’ve made.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
You mentioned Twitter, and what you do on social media—I think your use of Twitter is relatively unique among ambassadors, certainly ambassadors to China. You talked about the importance of speaking out about both democratic values, but also, you know, Chinese treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang or other actions that go against some of those values. What is your theory of the case for the kind of public outreach you’re doing, given the difficulties that you face doing more traditional public diplomacy in China right now?
 
NICK BURNS
Well, that’s the interesting question, Dan, because I started—I’m so old that I started as a diplomat, as an intern, in our embassy in Nouakchott, Mauritania in 1980. And in 1980, it was the middle of the Cold War, diplomacy was kind of a closed environment. You know, most, 98 percent of diplomacy, was behind closed doors, behind the veil, and it wasn’t public. But we live in a very different age, where people are connected all over the world. Social media is a reality, you can use it productively, and sometimes very significantly, to conduct a relationship, to signal what your priorities are. 
So we’ve done two things. We are on Twitter, which is blocked in China, but not in the Chinese world around China—and there’s some people in China that are able to get around, I think, the firewall to be on Twitter. But Weibo and WeChat are enormously important social media platforms, and we’re on them. We have over, I think on all three platforms, 6 million people. I’m looking at my friend Max Stoneman here who told me that, 6 million people who listen to us. And we’re trying to do two things. On behalf of our administration, and, obviously, we’re trying to speak out publicly in opposition to Chinese government policies here to which we fundamentally object: the repression, and we think the genocide, of the Uyghur people and other Turkic peoples in Xinjiang; the repression of the people of Tibet; the overturning of openness and democracy and freedom in Hong Kong. And we object publicly to the way our companies are being treated, the violation of, the ripping off of the intellectual property of American companies, the use of state pressure against them. And we certainly are speaking out against increased Chinese assertiveness in the Spratly and Paracel Islands of the South China Sea and the Senkaku Islands of the East China Sea, against Vietnam, against the Philippines, against India. So we don’t shy away from criticism. And I’ve done that consistently since I got here. 
But on the other hand, the second thing we’re doing is we’re trying to reach out to the Chinese people. They are fed a steady diet of anti-American propaganda. I read the China Daily every day—my Mandarin is not good enough to read it in Mandarin, I’m a beginner, but I read it in English. And you know, it’s just extraordinary to read, every single day, outright distortions of American policy. We’re subjected to censorship here. When Secretary Blinken gave his very important speech on U.S.-China relations back on May 26, we put it on our Weibo platform, and it was shut down and censored completely in two and a half hours. A couple days later, we tried to sneak it back onto Weibo—it was taken down in 20 minutes. But you know, in those two and a half hours or 20 minutes, a significant number of people saw his speech. 
So we’re trying to engage the Chinese people. I’ve been out riding—a train trip to Wuhan, train trip to Shanghai, you can see the Chinese landscape, you can engage with Chinese people—and we’re trying to show respect, civility, interest in the Chinese people, in their culture and their history. And at the same time, we’re being very straightforward and honest in criticisms of the government here. I think that’s the right strategy. And I don’t think, you know, in 2022, you can have an effective American embassy anywhere in the world if you’re not speaking to the people of the country where you’re living—and there are 1.4 billion Chinese. 
And my colleagues and I, we have an incredibly talented and hardworking staff here of Americans, many of whom have decades of experience in U.S.-China relations. We’re trying to get out to tell America’s story. I think that’s a big part of diplomacy, very different from the old Cold War with the Soviet Union—very different from, you know, the past four or five decades. And I must admit, I think I must say, I think the Biden administration has taken this responsibility. Look at Secretary Blinken; look at the President’s presence, and what he’s saying on social media. This is absolutely part of diplomacy now. And I don’t think there’s any going back on that.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
Let me close with a question about where the U.S.-China relationship goes from here. There are talks that Biden and Xi Jinping are going to be meeting for the first time in person—in their current jobs, at least—in Bali in November, on the sidelines of the G20. What would you hope would come out of that interaction? What would you hope that would achieve? And then, looking beyond that, what do you think the bilateral relationship could look like in 10 years? What’s an optimistic scenario for that, and what are the key sources of uncertainty as you look to the trajectory from here?
 
NICK BURNS
Well, I think, you know, I think most of us assume, and I certainly do, that, in a structural sense, we’re the two biggest and most powerful countries in the world in every domain of power—we’re going to be in a competitive relationship for some time to come. And we have to prosecute that competition to defend American interests; to defend our businesses and workers on the economy; to defend our values, our democratic values, against authoritarianism; to defend our future, if you will, by making sure that the most important technologies that we produce, that American innovators produce, are not available to the government of China to modernize their military. All that is going to be critical for us, and I do think, realistically, that competition is going to move forward—and will in large part, but not solely, define this relationship. 
But the challenge for us, and the President spoke to this in his address to the UN General Assembly, is—we will be a responsible power, he said; and we want to act in a way that we can manage that competition so that it proceeds, but it doesn’t evolve into conflict. And we take that responsibility very seriously. We want a peaceful relationship with China as we compete. 
And the other part of it, Dan—and it’s good to close on this because it’s very important—we do want to engage China where both of us need to act in the interest of the world. On climate change: we’re the two largest carbon emitters—China is 27 percent of global emissions, we’re 11 percent. And so when they shut down our climate change negotiation, they wouldn’t let our great negotiator John Kerry speak to Xie Zhenhua, the Chinese negotiator—that’s self-defeating, and we’re calling on China, with COP27 just a couple of weeks ahead in Sharm El-Sheikh on November 6: come back to the table. So that’s a big issue where the interests of the United States and China should align. 
Counternarcotics—you know, there are precursor chemicals for the production of fentanyl that are shipped illegally and illicitly from Chinese private sector black market companies to the drug traffickers in Mexico and Central America. They make the fentanyl which is killing over 100,000 Americans in the last 12 to 15 months. I mean, we all know the acute crisis of fentanyl and opioid overdose. We want China to work with us to shut down the supply of precursor chemicals. 
We certainly want to work in a third area, and that’s global health cooperation. China has still not come forward and shared the origin data of what happened in Wuhan in January, February, March 2020. And the World Health Organization wants that origin data and we’re appealing for that—I’ve raised that in high level meetings with Chinese officials. If they can’t do that, it’s going to be a shame because we need to understand what brought about the coronavirus. But we also have to prepare for future pandemics. We’ve got to battle the spread of infectious diseases in the world. And so I think there’s a possibility that, you know, we’ll be able to put together some longer-term cooperation with China on global health—we hope there will be. We’ll see. 
And then, finally, we’ve got to work on nonproliferation. You know, North Korea needs to be constrained and it needs to abide by UN Security Council resolutions. Iran shouldn’t have a nuclear weapon. Well, China’s involved, and as a central player, in both of those; we’ve got to work on that. And in agriculture, which is a success story—the American farmers and ranchers sold $38 billion worth of agricultural products to China last year, one fifth of all U.S. agricultural exports go to China. That’s an area where our economies intersect in a productive way. It’s good for the United States economy, and particularly our farm belt, to see this. There is an engagement side of this relationship that we’ve got to build. We’re challenging the Chinese to meet us halfway—to even meet us at the negotiating table on climate change. And so I think there’s two halves of this relationship. We’re going to see the priority emphasis, and maybe most of what I do on a daily basis, standing to compete and defending American interests. But we also have to engage China, and we’ve got to do this in a way that drives down the probability of conflict between us in the future. And that’s an abiding responsibility that both of us have and that we feel very acutely here.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
Nick, it’s hard to imagine a tougher or more important task for an American ambassador than that. So a huge thank you for doing this. I should say you’ve contributed a number of farsighted essays to Foreign Affairs in your time out of government, and we’ll look forward to more of those when you are done out there, and I hope to see you in Beijing before too long, when zero-COVID allows.
 
NICK BURNS
Well, I think that’ll be a great day, when the quarantine restrictions are lifted and we can have visitors. You can come to visit, members of Congress, members of our administration will be able to finally visit after three years. So thanks for this discussion. I’ve enjoyed it, Dan, very, very much.
 
DAN KURTZ-PHELAN
Thank you for listening. You can find the articles that we discussed on today’s show at ForeignAffairs.com.
 
“The Foreign Affairs Interview” is produced by Kate Brannen, Julia Fleming-Dresser, Rafaela Siewert, and Markus Zakaria. Special thanks also to Grace Finlayson, Caitlin Joseph, Nora Revenaugh, Asher Ross, Nick Sanders, and Gabrielle Sierra. Our theme music was written and performed by Robin Hilton.
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