Outside-the-box thinking about U.S.-China relations

Master's degree students in public policy at the Kennedy School present their ideas for resolving perpetual problems with China.

Today was the capstone for our 200-plus first-year master's degree students in public policy who have been working for the last two weeks on U.S.-China relations as their "spring exercise" project.

Forty or so groups of five students each (the group assignments were random) briefed a “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton” (played by my colleague Sarah Sewall, herself a one-time State Department official) to prepare her for the upcoming annual meeting of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the U.S. and China. As the centerpiece of the briefings, students prepared recommendations on how the U.S. should proceed in dealing with China in four areas of concern -- Iran's attempted acquisition of nuclear weapons, climate change, labor standards and Darfur -- and recommended which should be the priority for U.S. efforts. As one of the two faculty advisers for four student teams, I listened to briefings all morning.
 
Three of the four student teams were fantastic (well above the average for student teams I've heard in previous years), while one team had major problems. In particular, two of the teams came up with an idea for their preferred priority -- Iran in one case, climate change in the other -- that was original and intriguing, and in my view worthy of policy-makers' consideration -- even if at the end of the day the ideas might not work.
 
One of the two student teams that prioritized Iran made a fascinating proposal. They argued that we have tried and failed to get China to agree to serious sanctions on Iran and proposed another tack. Basically, they suggested, we should work with China on back-channel three-party negotiations, in which China would try to get Iran to agree to send the kind of uranium they are now producing, which can be used both for peaceful atomic energy uses and for weapons, to China for processing into material that can only be used for peaceful uses. (Under a previous agreement from which the Iranians withdrew last year, such material was supposed to have been sent to France.) China also would seek to get Iran to make a public commitment not to seek nuclear weapons.

In effect, we would be offering China an opening to become recognized as a power in the Middle East in exchange for them acting responsibly on this crucial issue for the region and the world. This approach would likely flounder on domestic opposition to encouraging Chinese involvement in the region, but both Sewall and another national security expert I asked agreed that the student proposal was original and worthy of genuine consideration. Way to go, MPP's!
 
The student team that prioritized climate change made an interesting suggestion that grew from their readings on negotiation analysis on the topic of conditional deals, in which the parties can’t know what will happen in the future -- e.g., a deal that has certain features if the price of oil is $100 a barrel and different ones if it is $50 a barrel. (Otherwise, no deal might be possible because of uncertainty or disagreement about what the future holds.)

In the climate area, they noted that one barrier to Chinese willingness to make commitments of their own about greenhouse gases is that we can't guarantee that Congress will pass legislation or that the Senate will ratify a treaty. What about a conditional agreement, the students suggested, in which the Chinese would agree to undertake certain commitments if and when Congress passes legislation that has certain features? (This would also deal with the argument inside the U.S. that we can't make commitments until China is willing to do so.) Again, might not work, but -- again -- very interesting.
 
I would like to hear reader reaction about either of these student ideas.
 
All in all, an exciting two weeks.

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