Chris Coons and Thomas Donilon on engaging with China and East Asia

Shreya Gaddipati/THE REVIEW
Senator Chris Coons and Former National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon discussed American foreign policy.

Managing News Editor

As the United States and China re-escalate a trade war, U.S. Senator Chris Coons (D, De) and former U.S. National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon came to campus Tuesday, May 6 to discuss America’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China and East Asia in general.

Coons, himself a member of the Senate’s Foreign Policy Committee, and Donilon believe that America has a role to play in pressing for China to decrease their human rights abuses while collaborating with them in their expanding international infrastructure development projects. According to Donilon, America has the obligation to maintain their traditional human rights values while retaining strong ties to China.

“We put a lot of pressure on democracy,” Donilon said.

Additionally, the speakers addressed the differences between China’s long political history in comparison to America. They spoke at length about the conflict between America’s democratic and China’s authoritarian political style, and how it is also crucial to understanding U.S.-China relations.

In its long history, China has been more politically isolationist, preferring to engage within the country rather than participate in foreign relations. After Chairman Mao Zedong’s regime ended in 1959, the Chinese government preferred to remain more inconspicuous, biding their time and hiding their strength. In contrast, the U.S., has become the dominant power in world affairs since the end of the Second World War. Coons believes that China has recently taken a more overt role in global politics.

“They are tribal and we are inward-looking,” Coons said. “China has a deep and rich history and has been internally focused for much of its recent history but it’s now really looking out.”

Donilon noted how he believes foreign politics is left to the sidelines of the conversation during political campaigns and that most citizens might not it into account when voting. The Executive Branch of the federal government, according to Donilon, has broad authority on foreign policy, meaning that Congress has little say in those decisions.

“It’s all about the leadership at the end of the day,” Donilon said. “The American people really rely principally on their president to articulate a vision and to guide the ship of state of international affairs.”

During a panel moderated by professor David P. Redlawsk, Coons, professor Alice Ba of the Department of Political Science and International Relations and professor Yuanchong Wang of the Department of History discussed China’s developmental insecurities.

Coons made a point of saying that a partnership between the U.S. and China could potentially result in improving Chinese infrastructure, which includes roads, railways, telecommunications and electricity — while raising millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty.

Last year, he was involved in the drafting of the bipartisan Better Utilization of Investment Leading to Development (BUILD) Act — a law that aims to bring private capital to the developing world.

“I do think it is possible for us to partner with our allies in the region and in Southeast Asia using the new development finance corporation that is the result of the BUILD Act, which a number of us worked on in the last Congress and is now law and is strengthening America’s tools in this area,” Coons said.

The Belt and Road Initiative is an ambitious effort by China to improve regional infrastructure with investments of 65 other countries that account for over 30 percent of the world’s GDP. It is an umbrella initiative promoting a significant increase in trade between China and other nations, which in turn would improve their diplomatic ties to those nations. The initiative is meant to improve and encourage transportation and energy infrastructure development.

Coons addressed America’s role in China’s rapid development and described the practical benefits of American collaboration with China in their endeavors, specifically so that the Belt and Road Initiative meets the regulatory standards of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a multilateral bank that supports the building of infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific region.

“I think it’s possible to partner with development finance entities in South Korea, Japan and Australia and elsewhere to demonstrate what a truly global development standard project looks like and then to talk with the Chinese about modifying Belt and Road so that it actually meets the very aspirational standards that the AIIB was laying down,” Coons said.

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