Wang Huiyao in dialogue with CSIS President John Hamre

CCG | December 07 , 2021

On December 7, 2021, a Special Opening Dialogue was hosted by CCG during the 6th Annual China Global Think Tank Innovation Forum 2021. A meaningful China-US think tank exchange was held between Dr. Wang Huiyao, CCG founder and president, and Dr. John Hamre, president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and former US Deputy Secretary of Defense.



The pandemic has prompted parochialism, but countries need to cooperate on health in both the public and private sectors


Wang Huiyao: Welcome to all of you, this is the sixth China Global Think Tank Innovation Forum. I’m Henry Huiyao Wang, founder and president of Center for China and Globalization. Thank you for tuning in to this special opening dialogue of our 6th annual China global think tank Innovation Forum 2021, live from CCG’s head office here in Beijing. Today we are very honored and pleased to have on an old friend, Dr. John Hamre, who is the president of one of the most prominent think tanks in the US – the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He is kindly taking out his time in the evening to be with us. We’re going to explore the topics centered around think tanks, American foreign policy, pandemic changes, think tank innovation, which is also the theme of our conference today, and also areas we can collaborate on. I would like to briefly introduce Dr. John Hamre first, he’s the president and CEO and the Langone Chair in American leadership at CSIS. Before joining CSIS, he served as the 26th US deputy secretary of defense and held senior positions in the US Senate Armed Service Committee and the Congressional Budget Office, he has had numerous involvement in his previous career. He received his PhD with distinction from SAIS of Johns Hopkins University in 1978. Welcome, John, it’s great to see you again.


John Hamre: Thank you so much, Dr. Wang, and congratulations to you and the Center for China and Globalization. My goodness, what a wonderful job you’ve done in building this institution. It’s very impressive.


Wang Huiyao: Thank you, today we are having this 6th Annual Global think tank innovation summit, it’s a privilege to invite you as the opening speaker. This is going to be followed by a panel with 5 think tank experts from US and China to talk further. We know we’ve actually entered into a very interesting time. We know that the world has changed fundamentally, with the pandemic and a lot of other challenges. The world is really at the crossroads. So given your experience in leading one of the leading think tanks in the world, we would like to start on the think tank topic. As we know CSIS was founded in 1962, which is almost 60 years ago. And you’ve been running that think tank for 20 years. It was in a deficit when you started, but now you’ve transformed that into one of the most influential think tanks in the world. Can you share with us how you’ve built up this think tank and what’s your experience and recommendations for the think tank community?


John Hamre: Dr. Wang, I made so many mistakes when I came to CSIS. And you were right, we were in very deep trouble when I first came to CSIS but we were able to get out of it. I think, in one sense, our poverty was helpful, because we were so poor back then and we had to raise 97% of our budget every year. So we had to listen carefully to what the market wanted. I didn’t have the luxury of just doing my own thing, we had to listen to what were the problems people were experiencing and how could we make a contribution. And then the key to success is the quality of your staff. I inherited the staff that wasn’t very strong to be honest and the entire journey of my 21 years has been to hire really good people. So hire good people, give them a lot of flexibility, and establish the culture so that people feel that they have to do honest and objective work.


Wang Huiyao:That’s really great, talent is always important. So I’d like to come to the recent CSIS’s newly released report. It’s called Advancing US-China Health Security Corporation in an Era of Strategic Competition, which revolved around the areas in which the US and China can work together on health, including vaccine, travel, public health, infrastructure, bio safety, supply chain and the countering disinformation. As you know, think tank in these days can play a very active role in terms of making recommendations. So what do you think now, as we are facing this once-in-a-century catastrophe caused by the pandemic, how can we get out of that and how can we really work together, internationally and at multilateral level? And of course, China and the US are the two largest leading countries in the economy in the world, how we can work together?


John Hamre: This is a very large important question. There’s a central paradox that we’ve experienced these last 2 years. It’s very clear with something like a pandemic that no one country can act on its own and protect itself. There has to be international cooperation to deal with something like a global pandemic. But people that lead countries naturally respond to the pressure within their own country. And so there’s a parochialism that becomes very strong in a period like this. Every country in the world basically tried to find solutions for themselves to deal with the pandemic, and it highlighted that international health organizations are not strong organizations. So I do think there are some very fundamental thinking that we need to do, because China isn’t going to give up its capacity to decide its own path for public health, we’re going to hold on to that ourselves. But we do have to find ways where we can cooperate.


I think the bright spot over the last 2 years was with the medical research community where there were international networks, that communicated with each other and joined together in a shared effort. In the private sector, international cooperation was very impressive. In the public sector, governments, the cooperation wasn’t so good, but in the private sector it was very good. So I think it’s a bit of an idea about what we could do in a broader sense so we could work together – how do we help our respective civil societies to work more closely on medical preparedness. I think that’s a real opportunity, specifically on China. I’m unhappy about the direction we’re in right now, there’s a lot of tension between our 2 countries. We have to find ways where we can work on shared problems and certainly global public health is a shared problem, so I think there’s an opportunity here.


Wang Huiyao: Thank you John. I know that both US and China favor a patent waiver for developing countries in terms of producing the vaccine. And hopefully during the WTO ministerial meeting that is coming up, US and China can reach something on this new efforts in terms of supporting developing countries and getting vaccine to ensure everyone is safe. We’ve got to make a lot of lead on that, China and US can work in many ways and on that. You also mentioned about US and China cooperation and also you’re not satisfied with the current situation and think there’s ways to collaborate. So we’re glad to see that China and US have actually made a statement on climate change at COP26. So that is another big area. So what do you think about things that we can also work together in terms of climate change?


There is great potential for collaboration on sustainable infrastructure


John Hamre: I do think it is an area that we can work together. I’m impressed by a lot of forward-looking policies that China has. For example auto electric vehicles, it’s impressive what China is proposing to do for itself. Obviously, you are a country in the energy transition. We are, too. So I think there are opportunities that we could explore where can we collaborate on climate change. We do have to find a number of things where we can at least have conversations with each other, look at potentially joint projects, just like in the healthcare area. I mean, there was actually a fairly robust collaboration between our medical scientists for many years, which is a good thing because it became the foundation point for the cooperation that did exist for the pandemic. So we should look for these opportunities.


Wang Huiyao: Thank you, John. So what really makes the two countries interesting now is that the world has a lot of common demand actually. For example, the infrastructure. Worldwide, there is a huge demand for infrastructure, developing countries, but also developed countries. I notice that European leaders just announced last week, they’re going to come up with 350 billion euros on the EU Gateway project for infrastructure. President Biden just had his 1.2 trillion infrastructure bill on the same day he talked to President Xi. And of course, China has this Belt and Road Initiative, which has been carrying on for the last 8 years. So infrastructure-wise, we also have the World Bank, the BRICS New Development Bank, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. Also, G7 proposed the Build Back Better. So do you think we can really work together on those infrastructure issues where I think we have the biggest denominator and the biggest draw of the future benefits for everyone? That’s probably what sustains us for the next half a century of prosperity, success, and growth potential. So what do you think about all those areas that we could work on in infrastructure?


John Hamre: There’s an astounding demand around the world for infrastructure building, in some places for brand new infrastructure, in some places like the United States for modernizing our infrastructure. I will be honest, it’s rather embarrassing to look at the state of a lot of America’s bridges and roads, our airports are disappointing. So there’s a lot we should do. But globally, infrastructure is a major issue. I think what we should probably do is start by looking at what are the areas where we know that there is a trend we’re all going to want to deal with, such as, how do we build sustainable infrastructure and infrastructure that has a revenue base underneath it, so it doesn’t become a white elephant? You know it doesn’t become a very giant project that can’t support itself financially. So I think there’s some financial things. I think we need to find ways to help third-world countries to do a better job of managing complex tender offerings. This is a complicated thing. Infrastructure projects are big, elaborate and complex. Helping other countries do a better job of deciding what’s in their interest and what is sustainable – those I think would be things we could work on together.


US and China should avoid letting tensions get out of hand and prevent constructive conversations


Wang Huiyao: That’s great. The theme of our topic today is also American foreign policy. We know that it’s very significant actually President Biden said during the Afghanistan withdrawal that from now on, the US will no longer seek nation-building, which I think is a very serious reflection of what has been happening in the last two decades in Afghanistan. Maybe in other countries. So what do you think about US foreign policy? Is there any deep thinking and reflection going on? Are there paradigm shifts or something like that?


John Hamre: I think President Biden was reflecting what the American public feels, which is we were in Afghanistan, we didn’t have a strategy, we were not successful, and we shouldn’t get involved in things where we don’t know what we’re doing. So I think that was basically the commentary that was behind that statement. Now, does it mean that America is going to pull back from working with other countries in the world towards building stronger institutions, et cetera? No, I don’t think it means we’ll abandon that. But I do think it means that Americans feel – certainly the Biden administration feels this but I think most Americans do, that we use the military too excessively and we didn’t really have a plan and we were not successful. So I think a foreign policy that is more focused on solid economics, social development, and traditional diplomacy is what he’s talking about. The term, nation-building, took on a quality of an American “we were going to shape the world so it looks like us” – I think that is over. I don’t think we’re doing that any longer.


Wang Huiyao: Thank you, John. I also notice President Biden said during the virtual summit between him and President Xi recently that the US does not seek to change China and does not want to have an alliance against China. He also recognized the One China Policy. So he showed some positive attitudes. The US is divided right now you have a very hawkish Congress. You have other stakeholders. If China on its own has become the second-largest economy, there must be something done right. So how can we really peacefully co-exist as President Xi put it in the statement when he virtually met with President Biden? What do you think that we can do about Sino-US relations?


John Hamre: The sentiments in Washington are very negative right now about China. I think that’s very unfortunate because it makes it hard for us to develop real ideas, real policies in a constructive way. We’re two great countries. We have global interests. We’re going to have areas where we’re going to disagree with each other. We’re going to rub up against each other. So we know because we’ve got these complex multi-dimensional interests and they’re not always aligned. Sometimes they are in tension. We have to find ways where we don’t let the tension overwhelm us and prevent us from having the kind of constructive conversations to work through problems. Now in the US, in Washington, there are basically two camps. One camp believes that China is racing ahead. It’s going to be dangerous. We better stop them any way we can. That’s one camp. The second camp and I’m in a second camp, think this is a huge unprecedented competition. We’re out of shape, it’s like a runner that hasn’t been exercising well, we’re out of shape. We’re going to have to get in shape before going to stay up in this competition. So instead of trying to trip China because it’s running ahead of us, we need to work harder to run faster. I’m in the second camp. I believe that America’s focus ought to be on improving ourselves fixing our own problems, overcoming the problems within our own society. This is where I think we should be focusing, rather than having the conversation with China being about opposition to everything you say or do. That’s gonna go nowhere in my view. So I’m in the camp that says if America is going to compete effectively. We’ve got to get stronger internally.


Wang Huiyao: That’s a great comment. I think that that is really a realistic and rational approach, so thank you for your comment. We know that the US is coming up with the mid-term election next year. How do you access the US political landscape? Democrats barely have a majority at the Senate and the House. And of course, we see the gap between the top elite and the massive population in the US is still widening. The middle class hasn’t really seen their income gone up in the last 20, 30 years. In China, they preempt that and have been starting to promote common prosperity and have already lifted 8 hundred million people out of poverty. This can also prevent the rise of populism. With Trump, even though he’s not in office, but Trumpism is still thriving and so how do you assess the political future of the next 2 years? The US direction is very important as it affects the world and US-China relations. You are at the top expert in US think tanks so probably this is your area.

John Hamre: I’m hardly an expert but I think about this all the time. You know Americans had two periods in its history, where there were profound changes in our political system, one was about 1842 basically, to 1860. And, of course, that that it ended in a civil war, which is a bad thing. The other big period of change, lots of tension, politics got turned upside down, was from about 1885 until 1915. In both cases, it lasted over 20 years, I’m afraid we’re in the front end of probably a 20-year period where our politics is going through profound restructuring. I have my own personal views about it, I don’t think either political party here is effectively focusing on the challenges we’re going to face over the next 10 years or 15 years. I think both of the parties are battling over their policies of the past rather than looking forward to the future. So I think we’re going to be internally divided. I think there will be there’s still going to be a lot of progressive work, but it’s going to happen more at the state level. And I think the economic disparity that you mentioned is very real and is going to be the greatest thing we’re going to have to work on. I would say that’s the big debate that we have right now between the Democrats and the Republicans, but I don’t know if what’s going to come out of it is going to be a breakthrough. I think we’re going to have internal tension in the United States probably for the next 15 years.


A bifurcation of the international economic order does not benefit anyone


Wang Huiyao: Thank you and I noticed that in your previous discussion that you mentioned that you think the CPTPP is a good idea, maybe the US should be back on that. Now we’re having WTO in a marginalized and paralyzed situation. And then we see RCEP will be effective January 1st of next year. CPTPP is one of the most advanced trade agreements initially designed by the US largely and now US has backed off from that. But China actually shows great interest. Premier Li and President Xi both expressed strong interest to join the CPTPP and actually UK is applying for that and South Korea may also apply for that. So do you think probably US will come back someday? We have a new platform to talk about the 21st century trade issues. If the WTO cannot solve things as it’s getting so clumsy with 164 members, CPTPP have 12,13 or 14 members – we can really work on something on that and solve those difficult issues. We may lead the world for a guaranteed trade prosperity investment prosperity. What do you think about the chance that CPTPP can bring to us?


John Hamre: I thought it was a major mistake on the part of President Trump to pull out of the TPP and I’m glad that Japan moved forward to work on the CPTPP. I wish that Biden administration would see the opportunity to join CPTPP. But I don’t know that they’re going to and that’s a mistake in my view. We should be leaning forward, every country has to find ways to get higher productivity in their economies in order to pay for the different things we have to do. You have an aging society. We have an aging society. We’ve got a wide gap in in economic opportunity in America. The best way, one of the few really good ways to deal with that, is to expand and open up wider on trade opportunities. I don’t know that the Biden administration is going to see it that way, unfortunately. I also think that there is a larger restructuring underway now. We’re starting to see – it started before the Covid pandemic that instead of globalization, we’re starting to see regionalization of trade patterns. That was a very large push of the Trump Administration to bring manufacturing back to the United States. I do think that there is a big sorting-out that’s going on now. My personal concern is that I am worried because of the tension between China and the United States, and the policies that were taking. We could be, unfortunately, dividing the global economy into 2 spheres, and I don’t know that that’s going to be good for anybody. It isn’t going to be a catastrophe. But I don’t think it’s the best interests of everyone. And the trend we’re on right now is very much towards bifurcating the international economic order and I think the trade issue fits into that. Henry, so I think there needs to be a larger conversation about where the global economy is going. What trends are underway? Can we manage the trends that are emerging? There’s some big issues here. And, of course, you know with the Center for China and Globalization – this is a pretty big deal for you, so it’s a conversation we should probably have together at some point.


Wang Huiyao: Thank you, John. I’m very pleased to see that USTR, Katherine Tsai, spoke at CSIS just not too long ago. She actually said re-coupling. She’s also talking to his Chinese counterpart, China’s Vice Premier, Liu He. Trade is probably the biggest connectivity between our 2 countries. The US companies are doing a lot of business in China, like Universal Studio just opened in Beijing. It’s the largest in the world. It’s only opened a third of but it is already the largest in the world, we have millions people flooded to there and can’t get a ticket to see the Universal Studio in Beijing, so the potential for US business is enormous. Tesla is doing fabulous here, as well as Boeing and many other US companies. We have a bipolar world and we are two spheres and systems, which is going to be really detrimental and destructive to the world. So I agree that we really need to work together.


 Track II and Track 1.5 diplomacy, including think tank dialogues, will become important frameworks for communication


Wang Huiyao: We have about 10,000 people watch this online and we have 100 people in the conference from the thinktank community. This is a whole-day event and John you are really kind to be the first speaker. Since today is the think tank innovation summit, we’d like to come back again on some think tank question. In the US, think tanks have been the revolving door. You have a non-partisan stand. I know you moved to a new building a few years back. When I first went to CSIS, it was actually a small office, now you have a huge building. So how does the US think tank work and what can be shared with Chinese colleagues during our conference today?


John Hamre: Henry, I can only speak about America, I don’t know other countries well enough to really talk about their systems. But I know in America, we’re in a period where our two political parties are so busy just fighting each other over small matters that they don’t have time to think about big ideas, so that’s what think tanks are now doing. That’s what we are now trying to do, we’re trying to do strategic thinking for America. And I think that’s a role that think tanks in general should be embracing. We have to develop ideas and test them out, explore them – how would they work, where would they not work. We have to do all of that because right now our governments are struggling to find ways to work with each other and I think it’s very important, I think in my 21 years at CSIS, I feel like we’re just starting to pick up our real program. Because I think in the future, we’re going to need, people like CSIS and other thing tanks, we’re going to have a much bigger role to play over the next 20 years. So I think that’s probably the case around the world. Governments struggle to deal with new ideas, new ideas come in, and usually big bureaucracies take old ideas and make it more complicated. They don’t invent new ideas, so think tanks have to do that. And that’s why we have to have good constructive relations with our own government, but then also open conversations with friends in other countries.


Wang Huiyao: That’s great. John, I personally visited CSIS many times and participated in quite a few activities, even including one debate. We also had an event this year joined by Singapore’s RSIS, CSIS and CCG together, during which you spoke as well. So what do you think about Track II diplomacy, or Track 1.5 – think tank dialogues US and China can particularly bring the relationship more understanding, better communication? As you said, the government public is too busy, we can provide a lot of ideas and in those dialogue. So what do you think about that and particularly during this difficult time? With the pandemic, we need more think tanks dialogues.


John Hamre: I absolutely agree. I think over the next 10 years, Track 1.5, Track II Dialogues are going to be more important than any time in our history. It’s hard for the governments to meet each other because the politicians are so busy throwing rocks at the other side. We can at least meet and talk to each other as professionals and as friends. That doesn’t mean we’re always going to agree, but it means we can have an honest conversation with each other, and I think it’s very hard for that to happen now in government circles. So we have a very important mission. I think over the next 10, 15, 20 years. It’s going to be more important than ever that we explore in conversations, like we’re having now, where do we disagree, why do we disagree, and what can we do about it? There have to be some parts where we have common interests, even though we don’t talk about it to each other. What are those? What are those things? And then we’re going to be in a better position when we have real hard issues that we have to share with each other. Because we’re going to have that, we are big countries, that’s just unavoidable, but we do have to have a framework where we can talk to each other. And I think that’s what Track 1.5 is going to be especially over the next 10 or 15 years.


Wang Huiyao: Great, you have really been sharing very valuable insights this morning, which is your evening. We discussed quite a few things about how US and China can collaborate, we also talked about climate change, fighting pandemic, infrastructure, US foreign policy and also US internal politics as well as China-US corporation and the importance of think tank in then contemporary world as well. It has really been a fascinating opening panel for our conference today. So, on behalf of the Center for China Globalization, I want to thank you, Dr John Hamre, president of CSIS, which is one of the most influential think tank in the US. We’d appreciate your comments, your last word – before we say goodbye to you.


John Hamre: Let me say again how much I admire what you’ve done Dr. Wang at the Center for China and Globalization. I’m very impressed by the scholars you have, the professionalism of your programs. I’m sorry that for these last two years we’ve not been able to meet, but we could do it this way. As I said, I do feel we’re in a period of time where we’re going to have to be honest with each other about where we disagree, but we have to have a framework where we’re talking to each other, where we can understand each other, and I think you will play a crucial role in that and I hope that we can continue to work together.


Note: The above text is the output of transcribing from an audio recording. It is posted as a reference for the discussion.