Growing Pains: Curtis lecturer tackles America’s strained relationship with China

The former U.S. Rep. Doug Bereuter (Honorary Doctor of Letters, ’10) began his remarks for the 2012 Carl and Mildred Curtis Lecture on Public Leadership by paying his respects to the Curtises. Bereuter’s 25-year career in the U.S. House began the day after Carl Curtis capped his 40-year career in the House and Senate. Placed back-to-back, Curtis and Bereuter’s combined 65 years of service in Congress span more than a quarter of America’s 236-year history.

[We] must focus energetically on bringing our own house into fiscal order… to keep our country strong.

Bereuter led with that story to exemplify a point that he said Chinese diplomats never hesitate to raise with him: namely, that the U.S. is a very, very young country.

It’s true. When China was our age, Jesus was in middle school.

So while we don’t tend to think of Uncle Sam as anyone’s little brother, China, with 1.2 billion people and 2,233 years of history, is much larger and much older. Where the U.S. has held an edge over China in modern history has been in economic and military power. That, too, is changing.

“By most estimates, China’s GNP will surpass ours between 2020 and 2025,” Bereuter said. He added that it would be unusual if the world’s second largest economic power didn’t translate that into larger military power.

Bereuter, who is the former president of The Asia Foundation, said that some in Asia view American power as declining, not just relative to China’s rapid growth, but also in absolute terms.

What does this rapidly changing dynamic mean for the future of Sino-American relations? Is conflict inevitable? While Bereuter has significant concerns, he does not believe so. He quoted Henry Kissinger’s stance on China in saying, “Conflict is a choice, not a necessity.”

While China’s economic growth is nothing short of jaw dropping, Bereuter said China also faces significant problems that many are quick to overlook. Those challenges include severe air pollution, limited access to potable water and the issues of an aging population and abortion-related gender imbalance—consequences of China’s one-child policy.

Meanwhile, the U.S. faces its own steep challenges. He pointed to “two severe, self-inflicted blows in this country: the financial and reputational damage to the U.S. caused by the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.” He said, “These wars have drained our resources, further exacerbated our huge fiscal problem, they’ve diverted federal funds from investments that America should have been making in education and in our badly deteriorating transportation infrastructure.”

To maintain a position of strength in Sino-American relations, Bereuter emphasized that the U.S. “must focus energetically on bringing our own house into fiscal order, while at the same time reorienting our federal budget priorities to keep our country strong by greater investment of our revenues in improved infrastructure, research and development programs, and in the education and well-being of our citizens.”

Watch Doug Bereuter’s lecture at “Watch Live Events,” then select “Curtis Lecture on Public Leadership: Doug Bereuter”.