The following interview with Beat Soltermann [1] was carried out on July 09, 2012 by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann in Washington D.C., U.S. The four main topics of the interview were the perception of China in the U.S., the role China plays as a topic in the upcoming U.S. elections, the U.S. pivot to Asia as well as an outlook on U.S.-China relations. All footnotes are remarks by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann, aimed at giving some additional background knowledge so that the reader can follow up on these issues easily.

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Perception of China in the U.S.

From your experience living in the U.S. and carrying out many interviews, what is the perception of Americans on China? How is China seen in the U.S.?

China is basically perceived in two ways. First of all it is seen as an economic power. In this context, people are both really appreciative and see that the Chinese are working hard. Also a trait that is common for Americans who want to work hard in order to be able to live the American dream. But on the other hand people are afraid as they realize that it will be difficult to keep up the standard of living in the US once the Chinese catch up. While they might not be at the same level of the Americans yet, one realizes that there is a general feeling of China getting closer. This feeling is really ambivalent. On the one hand appreciation and on the other hand fear. This is however only in the economic sphere. If you talk about the military component there is neither fear nor worries. It is obvious that the U.S. is the world’s superpower and is far ahead with its military power compared to the Chinese. They are therefore not feared. If you talk to professionals, it is different. In think tanks there are discussions going on about the South China Sea and comparable topics. But talking about the public opinion there, the economic issues represent a much bigger concern.

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China as Topic in the Elections

Do you see China being a topic in the US presidential campaign of either Romney or Obama?

China is not the central topic of the elections. That is the economy in general, unemployment. Then there are certain social issues that always gain importance, ranging from same sex marriage to abortion and other issues. But China is always present as a topic. Even in the Republican debates China was a topic as one of the candidates, Huntsman, was the former ambassador to China – under the Obama administration – and he even spoke Chinese in one of the debates. Even though it probably harmed him more than it might have helped him, it was really impressive. Mitt Romney talks a lot about China. He stresses that China needs to be punished if it doesn’t abide by the rules. Not long ago he delivered a speech saying that one has to play fair and that the Chinese would play tricks. Obama is following the same path. He just filed a complaint with the WTO. One tries to get the Chinese to play by the rules. But this is again only concerning the economy. The military component is not an issue in the campaigns. On the one hand, they try to get the Chinese to abide the rules, on the other hand everyone is aware of the fact that the Chinese hold a large part of the U.S. debt and that the U.S. is therefore dependent on China. It is a really special relationship between those two states and that becomes obvious in those moments.

Do you see any difference in the perception of China by Republicans and Democrats? Would Romney as president change U.S.-China relations?

I believe the differences are not that big. Every president needs to take care that the relations to China are good. That became evident when Xi Jinping, the coming Chinese leader, visited the United States. One could feel it here in Washington D.C. The safety measures were extremely high and everybody was trying to behave in the best possible way. He even went to Iowa to visit people he knew from years earlier. Everybody was taking care of the visit going well and one could feel how much was at stake. Even if Romney says that he’ll be harder on China, I believe that this is mostly campaigning. Once he is in office, he cannot do what he feels like. What would happen? A trade war? I don’t believe that this would be good for the U.S.

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The U.S. Pivot to Asia

Especially with regard to the continuing debt crisis of the U.S., what do you think of the U.S. pivot to Asia, especially of the military component of it?

If I understand it correctly, it is mostly a movement of troops. There is an austerity program, the Pentagon has to reduce expenses and if nothing happens, the reduction will even have to be bigger. [2] This movement of troops you are mentioning did not really cause a stir in the U.S. public opinion. But to be fair, there are several issues that go unnoticed by the majority of the U.S. public. People are in general less informed than people in Switzerland. But in Washington D.C. and especially in think tanks this issue is of course highly debated. To conclude, in foreign policy circles it is a big issue.

Is there some kind of a public consensus that military expenditures should remain untouched?

To simplify it: Republicans are for a strong army as are Democrats. But if the expenditures for the army would be at the expense of social expenditures such as retirement provisions, healthcare, welfare, then Democrats are for cuts in the defense budget. There is no need to spend as much money as during the last ten years with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and Obama has mostly kept his promise of getting out of those wars. However, there are still costs, they weren’t reduced to zero. As far as I see it he is using the money saved with the withdrawals at other places but in a different scale, as there are no wars going on. But a continuation of the huge expenditures for the two wars would be impossible for the U.S. with the huge deficit and the even bigger debt.

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An Outlook on U.S.-China relations

How do you see the U.S. in ten years: economically, militarily and politically?

That is really difficult to say. I don’t believe that the U.S. in ten years will be only as important as Switzerland is right now. It will continue to be a superpower. But the U.S. will probably no longer be that far ahead of all other states. Maybe not in the next ten, but twenty or thirty years, there will be several powers at the same level. We had a very special situation with the U.S. being the only remaining great power. That has not happened often in history. I believe it will be more like 19th century Europe with Russia, Germany, France and Great Britain. There will be many powers, probably the U.S., China, Russia, Brazil and India. Eventually even Turkey. These states will play a more important role and one will have to see how the system will continue to work. Especially concerning cooperation in economic matters, which economic system will be used will be interesting to see. The Chinese are almost a capitalist nation; the Russians don’t really have a capitalistic system, but they are comparable to the Chinese in that they don’t yet really have a rule of law. There will be the question of whether the importance of democracy in the form it is right now continues. It will rely largely on how those states are functioning in terms of the economic system, the rule of law and their political system. But I think this is hard to predict. There are many books out there about the decline of the U.S. I don’t believe that this will happen that quickly, even if the situation in the U.S. gets worse than it is now. And that is even when you consider that nothing is done to secure the economic foundation of the U.S. – which is in the end the basis of everything, as you can’t buy weapons to be militarily active without having money. But let me give you some more thoughts on China. What I find very interesting is how the U.S. has stressed that they want to strengthen their relations to their partners in the Pacific, meaning the Philippines, Japan but also other states like Australia. Stressing this is really a new approach. One really sees that the U.S. is not only moving troops over there but also focusing its attention on it. This is an interesting development. The administration under Obama is not trying to do everything unilaterally as Bush’s administration did. He is trying to cooperate and I believe this is a good way to save money, if he doesn’t do everything unilaterally and intervenes everywhere, like in Syria or in Libya. One could argue that the U.S. should have done that a long time ago. But the U.S. didn’t. In Libya they did it together with many others. In Syria, no one knows what is going to happen. But this is certainly a consequence of the U.S. lacking the financial resources. On the other side you have China. They are building up their army but no one really knows who is the commander in chief. They are closely linked to the Party and less to the government and there are many open questions. This is a security concern to the partners of the U.S. and the U.S., as they want to keep their sphere of influence just as they did in the Atlantic. If one looks back in history to the times of Roosevelt, since that time it has always been clear that the U.S. has a huge influence in the Pacific. There was Pear Harbor but the U.S. responded to it and they will try to uphold this influence, especially with the newly stressed partnerships. If the Chinese act rationally there will be cohabitation. But it is evident that there are diverse forces in China who want it to play a tougher role. It will be interesting to see how the U.S. will respond to that. If you consider for example the arms sales to Taiwan: there is a law in the U.S. stating that the U.S. will support Taiwan. The Chinese really don’t like that. So the question is how one will continue to live with that. Ever since Nixon recognized China it has grown more self-confident – it has become another China. Then again, there was this crisis with the human rights activist where both evidently found ways to solve the problem diplomatically. Now he is living in the U.S. and everybody has saved his face. This is an improvement. You see, it is a difficult situation. There are different signals and they are hard to interpret. There are even plans by the German Marshall Fund [3] to try and reduce the costs of defense by strengthening the transatlantic cooperation and maybe even getting South American countries into NATO. They don’t really want that at the moment., but it may happen one day and then they could share the costs of covering the entire transatlantic sphere. Following this, there might be a possibility for new constellations in the Pacific, but that’s to be seen in the future.

Thank you very much for the interview.

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[1] If you are interested in the work of Beat Soltermann, visit: http://www.drs.ch/www/de/drs/ueber-uns/team/12544.beat-soltermann.html.
[2] For more details on the possibility of Sequestration and ist impact to U.S. Defense Department: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-blady-md/sequestration-department-of-defense_b_1819341.html.
[3] More on the work oft he German Marshall Fund at: http://www.gmfus.org/.

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