Henry M. Paulson, Jr.: The United States and China at a Crossroads

Henry M. Paulson, Jr.: The United States and China at a Crossroads

Beijing is viewed—by a growing consensus—not just as a strategic challenge to Washington but as a country whose rise has come at our expense.


Editor's note: For those who are still just awakening to the sea change that has occurred in the American establishment’s thinking about China, former Secretary of the Treasury Henry M. Paulson Jr.’s speech at the November Bloomberg Conference in Singapore warrants attention. Having invested over the course of his career in the hope that by building economic relations with China, the United States would create a more constructive, peaceful relationship with China, this unquestionable friend of good China-U.S. relations spoke candidly about where the relationship stands today.

The audience included Chinese President Xi Jinping’s closest associate, vice president of China, Wang Qishan.


Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you.

Thank you Mike Bloomberg and the organizers of this new forum.

And a very special thank you to the government and people of Singapore—for hosting this forward-looking conversation.  

We are meeting here in Singapore at a moment of change, challenge, and potentially even crisis.

Today, this region must look warily at the prospect that what, until now, has been a healthy strategic competition will tip into a full-blown cold war.


It is fitting, that we discuss these developments in Singapore—which reflects so much of what has made Asia the world’s greatest success story of the last half century.

Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, understood the challenges of keeping the peace and assuring prosperity in this complex region.

In interviews before his death, Mr. Lee said:

“Power politics in Asia is as old as the first tribes that emerged…[And] whether we like it or not, if we are to survive and maintain our separate identities, it is necessary that we should learn what is in the joint interest at any single time of a group of nations.”

I fear that we are quickly unlearning Mr. Lee’s lesson.

There’s a lot of finger pointing between Beijing and Washington these days.

And yet for all the struggles, tension and disagreement, America has been well served by the effort to work through problems.

My friend, Vice President Wang Qishan, has been here in Singapore over the last two days. And in this tenth anniversary year of the 2008 financial crisis, I look back at our work together—when global markets were on the brink of collapse—as an example of tough, but cooperative, interaction.

Today, I’ll talk about three things:

First, how the United States and China arrived at this moment of heightened tension;

Second, the biggest risks for each side;

And third, a few modest suggestions to begin the long process of setting U.S.-China relations onto more sustainable footing.


So, how did we get here?

The drivers of the current downward spiral aren’t complicated.

First, we have diverging interests:

On many issues where the United States and China should agree, such as North Korea, we often pursue divergent approaches.

Second, the United States and China disagree about important rules governing the international system.

One example is maritime rights—which recently brought our navies into a near-collision on the high seas.

Third, American and Chinese views are opposed in critical areas.

For example, China and Russia argue for cyber sovereignty and the right of the state to control cross-border data flows. The United States and the EU both reject those views.

Taken together, these and other drivers have fueled a new consensus in Washington that China is not just a strategic competitor but very possibly our major long-term adversary.

America’s longstanding “engagement” policy is now widely viewed as being of little use for its own sake.

Nobody is arguing against dialogue.

But nearly everybody is arguing that the results of U.S.-China dialogue and engagement have been poor.

The tariff war between the United States and China will eventually be concluded—hopefully soon.

Nobody wins a trade war.

And China can agree to enough of what President Trump seeks to enable a deal that he can be proud of—if it also marks the beginning of the negotiation of a high-ambition trade or investment agreement.

Nevertheless, underlying tensions will persist because the problems we face, and our divergence of views, even in the economic area, are much broader.

Unless these broader and deeper issues are addressed, we are in for a long winter in U.S.-China relations.

Let’s take economics.

The United States played the decisive role in facilitating China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO). Yet seventeen years later, China still hasn’t opened its economy to foreign competition.

It retains joint venture requirements and ownership limits.

And it uses technical standards, subsidies, licensing procedures and regulation as non-tariff barriers to trade and investment.

This is simply unacceptable.

It is why the Trump administration has argued for change and modernization of the WTO system. And I agree.

But it also helps explain why so many influential voices in America now argue for a “decoupling” of the two economies.

This negative view of China unites politicians from both left and right who agree on nothing else.

Trade with China has hurt some American workers. And they have expressed their grievances at the ballot box.

So while many attribute this shift to the Trump administration, I do not.

What we are now seeing will likely endure for some time within the American policy establishment.

China is viewed—by a growing consensus—not just as a strategic challenge to America but as a country whose rise has come at our expense.

In this environment, it would be helpful if the U.S.-China relationship had more advocates.

That it does not reflects another failure:

In large part because China has been slow to open its economy since it joined the WTO, the American business community has turned from advocate to skeptic and even opponent of past U.S. policies toward China. American business doesn’t want a tariff war but it does want a more aggressive approach from our government.

Even though many American businesses continue to prosper in China, a growing number of firms have given up hope that the playing field will ever be level.

Some have accepted the Faustian bargain of maximizing today’s earnings per share while operating under restrictions that jeopardize their future competitiveness.

But that doesn’t mean they’re happy about it.  

Nor does it mean they aren’t acutely aware of the risks—or thinking harder than ever before about how to diversify their risks away from, and beyond, China.


That brings us to the risks.

Sadly, I think the risks of a new age of disruption are considerable.

For forty years, the U.S.-China relationship has been characterized by the integration of goods, capital, technology and people.

And over these forty years, economic integration between the two countries was supposed to mitigate security competition.

But an intellectually honest appraisal must now admit that the reverse is taking place.

And economic tensions are reaching a breaking point.

After forty years of integration, a surprising number of political and thought leaders on both sides advocate policies that could forcibly de-integrate the two countries across all four of these baskets.

The integration of trade in goods could come undone—as supply chains are broken, especially for sensitive technology.

Integration through cross-border capital flows will come under greater pressure as restrictions on Chinese investment take hold across big sectors in the US.

Indeed, if this trend continues, integration of global innovation ecosystems may well collapse as a result of mutual efforts by the United States and China to exclude one another.

Meanwhile, the integration of people, especially the brightest young students, could stall—as Washington potentially bans Chinese students from studying whole categories of science and engineering subjects.

If all this persists, I fear that big parts of the global economy will be closed off to the free flow of investment and trade.

And that is why I now see the prospect of an Economic Iron Curtain—one that throws up new walls on each side and unmakes the global economy, as we have known it.

But here’s the problem for those in my country who advocate a U.S.-China “divorce”:

"Decoupling" is easier when you're actually a couple.

So, the United States can try to divorce. But what if others, especially in Asia don't want to follow suit?

As a function of geography, economic gravity, and strategic reality, I do not believe that any country in Asia can afford to divorce China—even wishes to.

So, in its effort to isolate China, America risks isolating itself.


But let’s also be clear that if China wants to keep its relationship with the United States from spinning out of control, it’s going to have to look hard at some of its policies.

Above all, China will need to rediscover the spirit of market driven reform.

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of “reform and opening” in China—the remarkable transformation launched by Deng Xiaoping and other leaders in 1978.

It’s been a good run for China over these forty years.

And it’s been an especially good run for China since it entered the WTO in 2001.

Its $1 trillion economy in 2001 has become a $13 trillion behemoth.