‘Hawkish’ affairs between U.S. and China

Johns Hopkins global affairs expert, former Defense Secretary staffer Hal Brands points to gradual escalations in Asia

Hal Brands

Hal Brands, a distinguished foreign policy professor, commentator and former defense secretary advisor, offers a sweeping analysis of the U.S. foreign engagement in this semester’s Eye of the Hawk presentation, held Tuesday at the Gorecki Alumni Center, on the UND campus. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today

A couple of occurrences dominated the day on Tuesday.

The midterm elections finally reached a zenith on Nov. 6, and the first sustained snowfall powdered North Dakota.

Both matters crept into the hour-long conversation that unfolded at the Gorecki Alumni Center, where the latest Eye of the Hawk presentation took place.

Pioneered by UND President Mark and First Lady Debbie Kennedy, Eye of the Hawk Lectures introduce the UND community to preeminent experts to discuss consequential topics.

This semester’s first rendition, organized by the UND College of Business & Public Administration and sponsored by BankNorth, featured Hal Brands, Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.

At UND to discuss the U.S. foreign policy, Brands quipped about the “balmy North Dakota evening.” President Mark Kennedy, who moderated the lecture, had another adjective for it – “mild.”

As the snow quietly swirled in the dusk outside, the audience of at least 100 UND students and guests delved into a “bigger, broader” dialog about international affairs with Brands, whose many accomplishments include service as special advisor to former Defense Secretary Ashton Carter.

The election offered a fitting backdrop for the talk, which traipsed into sundry aspects of the U.S. engagement on the world stage but zoomed in on diplomacy with China.

“On election day we are reminded that within a country there are a lot of things that cause friction,” said Kennedy. “What we are talking about – foreign policy – is just a part of that friction.”

While foreign policy may not regularly be among the most salient issues that impel voters to the polls, major upheavals with domestic implications – like the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 – could quickly push it to the forefront of the national psyche, Brands said.

Bullish on trade

The U.S. trade standoff with China could easily be seen as the most prominent international predicament to nuance this election cycle, especially in agriculture-heavy North Dakota. Yet, it is only a single piece in the complex puzzle that depicts the relationships between the two nations.

The U.S. guided China into the global arena by opening international organizations and markets to it, but the Asian powerhouse has often caused concerns, Brands said.

“The challenge is that the Chinese have had essentially adopted a policy of pocketing the gains of participation in the open international economy without always playing by the rules,” he said.

Brands continued, “I think there was a widespread agreement among people in both the Republican and Democratic side of the aisle around 2016 that the U.S. was going to need to take a sharp approach to China on matters of trade and financing.”

Eye of the Hawk Kennedy

UND President Mark Kennedy (right) leads a discussion with guest Hal Brands about the U.S. foreign policy in an age of upheaval. Photo by Jackie Lorentz/UND Today

Larger than trade

But it is not only trade that wrinkles the relations between the U.S. and China. As the latter has grown more economically stable and politically assertive, it has sought ways to extend its influence. This has often chafed at U.S. interests abroad, Brands said.

Take the South China Sea, Kennedy prompted, which is a rich well of natural resources and a major trade route. In recent years, China has claimed most of it as its sovereign territory.

This decisive move could place passing U.S. ships at the whim of Chinese officials as well as threaten U.S. allies in the region such as Japan, Brands said.

At the same time, China has spread its wings through investments in fellow autocratic regimes across Southeast Asia, Latin America and Africa – insertions that directly undermine the U.S. export of democracy.

Kennedy likened the Chinese growth and resultant taunt with the U.S. to the fable of boiling a frog. If it is sunk in boiling water, it jumps, he said. But if it is dipped in cool water, which gradually heats up, it cooks.

Translating the example to international affairs, Kennedy said that China is slowly ramping up tensions without ever fully escalating them. Such an approach – rooted in the Chinese subtle art of war – directly clashes with the American preference for a decisive battle.

Future engagement

Once the discussion opened to the audience, a stream of inquiries rushed in. One question prodded China’s fast pursuit of advanced technology and artificial intelligence in and outside the military realm.

Eye of the Hawk

A UND student from China poses a question about his country’s relations with the United States during the Eye of the Hawk presentation with Hal Brands on Tuesday.  Photo by Jackie Lorentz photo/UND Today

“You should be very worried about that issue,” Kennedy said.

The Asian nation aggregates big data and compels Chinese firms to collaborate with the government in a manner that is not only unfeasible in the U.S., due to privacy paradigms, but can also undermine its lead in technology.

Brands said, “The broader issue is that the U.S. faces real challenges in terms of getting the sort of collaboration and development in the private sector that we need to maximize our competitive potential not just against China but against a range of competitors.”

Despite the magnitude and gravity of the problem – or perhaps because of them – Kennedy offered a possible solution to the gathered UND students.

“The way you can solve it is by taking more artificial intelligence and big data classes here at UND and going into the world smart and prepared,” he said.