Scholar Lyle Goldstein calls for more understanding of China
Lyle Goldstein was a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in 1996 when the Taiwan Strait crisis broke out. China conducted missile tests in the waters there to send a signal to the then-Taiwan leader Lee Teng-hui who tried to move away from the One China Policy. The US, under then-President Bill Clinton, sent two aircraft carrier battle groups to the region to show its support for Taiwan.
Goldstein, then 25, told himself, “Gosh, this is such an important issue, the rise of China, and how it (United States) will get along with China.”
The young man, who had studied Russian and lived in Russia, was attracted by China but felt unsure if he could start China studies at such a “late” age.
Literally the first day he started his PhD at Princeton University in the fall of 1997, he talked to students and faculty about beginning Chinese.
“Looking around the world; I thought the biggest question facing international politics was going to be between the US and China. It was obvious in 1996 and 1997,” said Goldstein, now an established China scholar and an associate professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute in the US Naval War College based in Newport, Rhode Island.
He spent the summers of 1997 and 1998 in Beijing, studying the language and China, and returned in the summer of 1999 for his PhD research at Tsinghua University.
At Princeton, Goldstein studied with several China scholars such as Lynn White III and Gilbert Rozman. His Chinese progressed by studying with Perry Link, who specializes in modern Chinese literature and language.
Goldstein remembers clearly that White always looked closely at how Chinese were thinking about issues and brought Chinese into the classroom for discussion. “That was great, and I feel I learned a lot,” he said.
He described Rozman as being very interested in cooperation and how to get different countries to work together.
Another of Goldstein’s professors was Aaron Friedberg, whose books, especially the one A Contest for Supremacy: China, America, and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia often spread a pessimistic view of China’s rise. They contrast sharply with Goldstein’s 2015 book Meeting China Halfway: How to Defuse the Emerging USChina Rivalry, in which he proposes that China and the US should both compromise to reduce their tensions.
Goldstein thought Friedberg, who served from 2003 to 2005 as deputy assistant for national security affairs in the office of Vice-President Dick Cheney, was useful to him because he was good at asking the big and fundamental questions.
“I don’t agree with him. I think China’s approach to the world is quite reasonable,” he said, citing the fact that China has not used force for more than 30 years and doesn’t have major foreign bases, and even in the maritime domain, China is not such a challenge.
At Princeton, he worked on a dissertation examining nuclear strategy and found that while people like Chinese leader Mao Zedong talked big and bombastic and threatening, they became more moderate after they developed the bomb. That, according to Goldstein, could offer some insights into today’s North Korea.
The Princeton PhD graduate got his job at the US Naval War College shortly after the EP-3 incident on April 1, 2001, in which a US spy plane collided in mid-air with a Chinese fighter jet off Hainan Island, resulting in the death of a Chinese pilot. The incidence sparked widespread protests in China and caused a setback for China-US relations.
Goldstein, who started work on Sept 10, 2001, a day before the Sept 11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center in New York, said the EP-3 crisis helped him land the job because the school needed more China experts. Though the school wanted him to work on the Middle East and Russia after the Sept 11 attack, Goldstein found his way back to China studies after a while.
He became the founding director of the China Maritime Studies Institute in 2006, gathering all the Chinese writings on international relations, defense and maritime diplomacy and studying Chinese thinking. He said he is quite proud of the institute.
While the school has close ties with the US Navy, Goldstein said the Navy seems to be inclined to allow these China scholars to study China in the manner they themselves deem most appropriate. Goldstein’s book Meeting China
Halfway calls for mutual compromise between China and the US through cooperation rather than confrontation. It has won praise by many leading scholars as novel, bold and insightful, but he was also criticized for buying into the Chinese narrative.
“It’s true that my view is unconventional. That’s probably why I wrote the book,” Goldstein said. “I see the world differently than most people. I don’t fear sort of being lonely.”
Goldstein, who was once a student of military strategy at SAIS, believes it’s important for someone with a military or military strategy background to step forward and say, “Actually I don’t think China is a threat. I don’t think this is a threat to US national security, and I think most of what China is doing is reasonable.
“So I can try to play a special role in the relationship by calming down tensions,” he said.
While many Americans have described Chinese behavior in the South China Sea as aggressive, Goldstein said China has been fairly reasonable if people look at Russia and its behavior in Ukraine.
China the next US?
He believes scholars like Friedberg are actually worried that China will become the US, whose history Goldstein described as going through a period of aggressive imperialism and throwing its weight around.
“I always tell American audiences: Should we really lecture China how it should behave in its backyard? Over a small border dispute, we took over half of Mexico. We just took it,” said Goldstein, referring clearly to the American-Mexican War in the late 1840s.
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 gave the US undisputed control of Texas and ceded to the US the present-day states of California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, most of Arizona and Colorado, and parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming.
Compared to the American experience, China is not really aggressive, according to Goldstein. But he said Friedberg knows the American experience well and is worried that China is going to be just like the US, meaning any country given the power and strength will expand.
The young China hand has seen China being smarter than that. “It’s a different era, but China learned the lesson. They don’t want to get involved in the Mideast, they don’t want to throw their weight around too much,” he said.
While saying that China will have problems with its neighbors, Goldstein expressed confidence that China and countries such as the Philippines and Vietnam need to solve problems by themselves. “I think bilateral negotiations are very promising,” he said.
He said it’s a bad idea for the US to get involved in Vietnam, making Vietnam-China relations more complicated. He cited history in the 1830s, when Texas was its own republic, asked outside power Great Britain for mediation. Americans responded aggressively.
To Goldstein, China has been quite restrained, for example, during the dramatic political transformation in Myanmar in the last few years when some people believed it would throw its weight around. “But I don’t see that,” he said.
He also cited MIT professor Taylor Fravel who demonstrated that China peacefully negotiated 17 of the 23 border disputes. “That shows China has a record, and we should trust they can work this out,” he said, adding “it can be messy”.
Goldstein said many Americans believe that China is so weak and can be pushed around. “What I told them is that those days when China was weak and we could push them around are now over,” he said.
Like some scholars, Goldstein believes China is going to have more influence in Southeast Asia than the US. “To think otherwise is just unrealistic,” he said.
He believes China should be accorded its sphere of influence. “I think spheres of influence are natural in world politics. It’s not something to be feared,” he said.
While tensions between China and the US are building up in recent years, Goldstein was encouraged by the new type of major country relationship concept put forward by President Xi Jinping. “He does point a way forward. I hope more Americans would embrace that,” he said.
Goldstein views China’s One Belt One Road strategy to build connectivity in the region as positive for China-US relations. China could adopt a more confrontational approach; it could adopt a counter-rebalance strategy, but it pivoted away from the American rebalance.
While expressing concern over a possible arms race between major powers that leads to a new Cold War, Goldstein said China has shown admirable restraint in developing its military forces since the old days, starting with the minimum deterrence, referring to China’s nuclear strategy.
“I think Chinese are proud that they didn’t waste so much money on nuclear weapons the way Russia and the US did,” he said. “I always thought that if my country does not waste so much money on nuclear weapons, we will have much better schools and nice trains,” said Goldstein, who has ridden China’s high-speed train many times.
China has spent trillions of dollars on high-speed rails and infrastructure projects in the past decade. Goldstein told people it could use that money on submarines and aircraft and nuclear weapons. “But they didn’t, so you know it’s good that China has exercised restraint,” he said.
He believes China could play a powerful role in exercising restraint in its military buildup and increasing transparency.
On the South China Sea, Goldstein believes it’s important for China to have some concrete examples of joint development, which is part of its policy.
Goldstein also believes that the US administration needs to focus more on US-China relations. “We say it’s the most important relationship in the world; so let’s treat it like that,” he said.
To him, that includes more robust engagement and efforts across the board. For example, on the military side, it means deeper engagement other than high-level dialogue.
He is disappointed that while he has students from around the world studying at US Naval War College, none of them came from China.
“In my view, we don’t just need one Chinese student, we need five or maybe even 10. That’s what I call robust engagement,” he said.
A post-Cold War China scholar, Goldstein does not see China through a Cold War lens. He said the young China scholars in US are quite comfortable with Chinese, the language. “We go to China a lot. We see the best of China and the worst of China,” he said.
He again cited the example of highspeed trains, saying there are a lot of things that China has done better than the US. “We’ve seen the blemishes too, a lot. The air is polluted; the environmental situation is really bad,” he said.
His children, a son and daughter, both in their early teens, are studying Chinese. “We are working on the next generation of China hands,” Goldstein said in Chinese.
I see the world differently than most people. I don’t fear sort of being lonely.” Lyle Goldstein, China scholar
Lyle Goldstein, China scholar at the US Naval War College, says he tries to play a role in US-China relations by calming tensions.