By Steve Kelman

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Policymakers in the making focus on U.S.-China relations

 I wrote two years ago about "Spring Exercise" for our first-year master's students at the Harvard Kennedy School. This is the capstone of the students' first year: The entire class -- more than 200 first-year students -- stop all their other academic activities (their required courses end early) to work on the same project for two weeks. During the first week they write an individual memo to a senior decision-maker, and in the second week students, working in groups of five, do a simulated briefing for the decision-maker (played usually by Kennedy School faculty members, although in past years the real decision-maker has often invited the "winning" team to do their briefing for them in person).

Last year's topic was climate change, and this year's -- announced Monday morning (the topic is kept secret until being announced -- is “The Evolving U.S.-China Relationship.” The topic was chosen late last fall by a team of eight Kennedy School faculty members representing the various disciplines (economics, empirical methods, management, politics and ethics) in our master’s core curriculum.

The topic of course reflects both the rise of China and the increase in non-U.S. students at the Kennedy School (along with most other leading American universities). With the increase in international students, and the increasing proportion of the U.S. students who want to work internationally, a purely domestic topic for Spring Exercise has become unacceptable. This year, as well, we have a breakthrough in terms of our speakers/lecturers the first week. With a number of the speakers coming from China, we have more international lecturers than ever before.

Nick Burns, a career foreign service officer who was undersecretary of State between 2005 and 2808 and is now teaching at the Kennedy School, spoke on the first day of overview lectures. He said that he regarded the question of whether the United States and China could have a constructive, peaceful relationship as the most important foreign policy question of the next 50 years -- he meant even more important than terrorism, it would seem. He endorsed the policy of recent administrations of seeking to "engage" China in the world community rather than "containing" it. He argued that the challenge is to get China to contribute to the global common good in areas ranging from nuclear nonproliferation (in Iran and Korea) to human rights violations in Darfur, rather than pursuing a merely "mercantilistic" policy that simply sought to advance China's short-term economic interests.

David Shear, the current deputy assistant secretary of State for East Asia (and also a career public servant), said that U.S. alliances with Japan, Korea, Australia, and Europe give the U.S. an important leverage in seeking China’s cooperation on issues such as Iran and also in preserving the freedom of maneuver of the smaller countries in Asia.

Xie Feng, deputy chief of mission of the Chinese Embassy, began his presentation with a narrative well-known to Chinese but not to most Americans, including our students: China as a five thousand year-old civilization that faced 200 years of humiliation at the hands of the West, that "stood up" under the Communists to regain its national pride under Mao Zedong, and then began in 1978 under Deng Xiaoping to develop its economy. The narrative -- especially the first two parts about the ancient civilization humiliated but now coming back -- underlies many Chinese attitudes towards the West. I should note that one Chinese student told me the diplomat's narrative was something every Chinese has been told so often by the government that it sounded like stale propaganda -- but nonetheless I think it was good for our students to hear it.)

The students will be hearing later from many others, including Yasheng Huang, a Chinese-born MIT economics professor who is very critical of Chinese economic policies, and my colleague Stephen Walt, who believes a U.S.-China clash is inevitable, so the students will hear many views before.... I can't say -- the students don't get the second part of the assignment until Thursday.

Posted on Apr 20, 2010 at 12:08 PM


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