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China-US relations

Why veteran US diplomat Paul Haenle moved to China to help broker Sino-US ties

Former White House official on China affairs relocated to Beijing to be founding director of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 June, 2016, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 June, 2016, 6:51pm

PAUL HAENLE, 50, a veteran US diplomat and former White House official on China affairs, relocated to Beijing six years ago to serve as an active broker of China-US ties as the founding director of Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre for Global Policy – the China branch of the renowned foreign policy think tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

He tells CATHERINE WONG of the importance for China and the US to maintain communication – from high-level summits to collaborative research by Chinese and American scholars in his centre all the way to keeping in touch with his family in America by using the Chinese messaging app WeChat.

Why did you move from being director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolian Affairs on the US National Security Council to become a scholar at a leading think tank in China?

As I was leaving the White House, Douglas H. Paal from Carnegie Endowment came and told me about Carnegie’s desire to build a research centre in China by forming a collaborative partnership with Tsinghua University.

What I liked about it was, first of all, I had lived in China twice before and I was excited about moving back there. I also liked the idea of building a centre together with Chinese partners from Tsinghua under a common goal. Thirdly, I get to work on many of the issues I worked on while I was in government, but at a think tank I can impact policy debates from the outside through research and dialogue that aims to help China and the US to find constructive policy options.

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What was the idea behind setting up the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre?

You can’t really be a global think tank if you don’t have a presence in China. In order to deal with today’s global issues, China has to be at the table.

Because of its economic progress in the last three decades, China finds itself to be in a fundamentally different geo-political and geo-economic position. China is a player and has influence. So it was very important for Carnegie to have an active presence in China. It was very important for our Tsinghua partner as well. As China’s foreign policy becomes more active, and as China becomes more engaged in the international community, Tsinghua can now leverage an international network of experts through the Carnegie Endowment’s network of global centres. This helps Chinese experts to better understand international issues, and gives Chinese experts a platform by which to explain Chinese position and perspectives.

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How is the centre involved in the foreign-policy making process of the Chinese and US governments?

The platform and research institute we have built at the centre can provide policymakers and senior foreign policy experts in the US and in China with constructive and collaborative policy recommendations and solutions to common challenges on respective foreign policy agendas. When we come together and come up with strong ideas to increase cooperation and reduce tension, our centre and experts have the channels to bring it to both US and Chinese policymakers. And that I think is one of the real strengths of the Carnegie-Tsinghua partnership.

The platform and research institute we have built at the centre can provide policymakers and senior foreign policy experts in the US and in China with constructive and collaborative policy recommendations and solutions to common challenges on respective foreign policy agendas
Paul Haenle

How have the suggestions made by the centre been received by the Chinese government?

I have found in my experience over the past six years, government officials, other think tanks, academics, the media and business community in China have all been very receptive to engaging with scholars and experts from the Carnegie-Tsinghua Centre. We request meetings with government officials to clarify and convey ideas and recommendations, but we also receive invitations by government officials to talk to them about issues that we work on, because they are interested in our ideas. I understand that there is a view that Chinese policymakers rely mostly on Chinese government think tanks, but in my experience they have been very open to hearing and exchanging the ideas of Carnegie-Tsinghua scholars.

Have you encountered any difficulties during the first few years?

At the beginning, I imagine there was a lot of suspicion about what Carnegie’s objectives and goals were in China. But over the years we have worked very hard with our Tsinghua partners to develop trust and good relations. We have worked together in both formal and informal settings and achieved a lot in a way which I think has benefited both sides.

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What is your view on US-China relations?

In my experience of working in government, both Chinese and US leaders have made developing China-US relations a priority because of how important the relationship is to both countries and to the world. I believe the overall trajectory for the relationship is upward. But when you look at the strategic rivalry in the Asia Pacific, on the issues related to the South China Sea and the East China Sea, these disagreements could run the risk of beginning to define the US-China relationship.

The US-China relationship is the most consequential relationship in the world. If we get the relationship right, we will have a positive impact on the world, if not, it will have negative impact on the world. We feel that what we at the centre are doing in China is important, and that gives us motivation.

The US-China relationship is the most consequential relationship in the world. If we get the relationship right, we will have a positive impact on the world, if not, it will have negative impact on the world. We feel that what we are doing in China is important, and that gives us motivation
Paul Haenle

How has China changed since the first time you came here?

China has changed so much since I first came here 22 years ago, in 1994. I was a US Army company commander in Korea and I came here for a vacation. I visited Shanghai, Beijing and Xian and became very interested in China.

Today, because of China’s development it has greater influence on the world stage, which also brings with it greater obligations to help solve global challenges that affect China, the US and many other parts of the world. China has become more active in the world. It has moved away from “Tao Guang Yang Hui” (“keep a low profile”). And that provides a lot of work for scholars of Chinese foreign policy and for policymakers looking to cooperate with China on addressing global issues. It gives us a lot issues to talk about and opportunities for collaborative research. When China and the US work together, we can achieve important things.

As a senior adviser at the global business-consulting firm, Teneo Strategy, what advice would you give to foreign businesses to survive in China?

In the long term, China should open up more to competition from foreign companies. Foreign companies will play a very important role in China’s reform process as open and fair competition will push Chinese companies to reform.

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For foreign companies, the thing I would say is that it’s very important for them to understand China’s national priorities and objectives, and make sure that they are aligned with those reform priorities and objectives. They need to make sure they understand clearly what the leadership is trying to accomplish, and to align themselves with the national and local conditions. The companies which are able to do that will be more successful than other firms.

What do you enjoy the most and the least about living and working in China?

What I enjoy the most is the people – friends, I have a great team at Carnegie-Tsinghua – Chinese and international scholars, interns, staff – it was a great environment to work in. What I like the least about living in China is that it means I am 6,000 miles [9,650km] away from my family members. But we actually use WeChat to keep in touch. When we go back to the US, we make them download the WeChat app, and they really like it. It allows us to stay in touch using videos, or voice feature, the text feature. We really like WeChat!