Former British Foreign Secretary David W. Miliband SM ’90 kicked off a week-long visit to MIT with a roundtable discussion yesterday hosted by the Department of Political Science. Entitled “Contemporary East Asia,” the discussion featured Course XVII Professors Taylor M. Fravel, Richard J. Samuels PhD ’80, and Edward S. Steinfeld. Miliband will continue to meet with Institute faculty and students for the remainder of the week as part of his brief tenure as a Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow in Residence.
The last to speak at the discussion, Miliband contrasted his political role with that of his academic counterparts. “I deal with foreign states, but do not really study them,” he said. His message was at once a summary, a warning, and what he called a “plea.”
Adding to points made by Steinfeld and Samuels, Miliband commented on the duality of China’s engagement in multilateral relationships. “They are proud of their economic development and ready to embrace multilateral [business] relationships,” Miliband said. “On the foreign policy side, they take a much more skeptical, traditional approach … they are wary of interdependency, and wary of interference.”
Miliband also expressed his hope that close ties with the Western international community — even if initiated by economic concerns — would still seep into China’s foreign policy. “The Chinese follow the U.S. very, very closely,” he said. “The Sino-U.S. relationship is very important, and despite the president’s visit to China, there are still fundamental issues dividing China and the U.S. that have not been resolved.”
With his experience as a British Foreign Secretary from 2007 to 2010, Miliband urged the U.S. to re-evaluate its priorities. “How the U.S. plays its cards right now is absolutely key,” he said. “The U.S. needs to ask itself how it wants to see the next 10 years — if it wants to be an agenda-setter for the world, or if [it wants] to sort out [its] own issues … education, unions, whatever it is.”
But there was a sense of urgency in Miliband’s encouragement: “I say this because this might be the last decade for the West to see itself as an agenda-setter; America needs to recognize its power and its ability to set the global agenda.”
Miliband’s remarks were preceded by commentary by Steinfeld, Samuels, and Fravel about Japanese and Chinese policy.
Steinfeld recalled the recent April 3 arrest of Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist who was detained because of his political and social activism — though the official reason was “economic crimes.” Steinfeld discussed what he perceived as China’s “de-politicization,” saying the relationship between politics and daily life has changed. He said crackdowns used to be everybody’s business, as citizens who opted not to participate in politics risked losing their jobs, houses, marriage rights, and control of their lives.
“Now, a crackdown is nobody’s business in China; people don’t get worked up about crackdowns any more,” Steinfeld said.
While he acknowledges peoples’ indifference, Steinfeld does not believe the implications are necessarily negative. “China, as a political-economical entity, has a deep integration with the global community through the basic act of production,” he noted. “The state and society are struggling to keep up with global demand, on one hand, and the state also struggles to keep up with demands of a social or public image.”
Fravel examined China’s military, echoing Steinfeld’s sentiments about China’s increasing awareness of its global image. “Its trajectory as a military power is rising,” said Fravel. He noted that Chinese military advancements and attacks would be viewed as threatening by neighboring Asian states. “There is a spiral of tension growing, and the next few years will be very important.”
Samuels turned to Japan, putting last month’s earthquake in historical perspective, recalling how facets of Japanese society benefited during previous natural disasters. “The [Democratic Party of Japan], the economy of Japan itself, the military, the alliance [between Japan and the U.S.], the Sino-Japanese relationship, and more abstractly, the Japanese national identity are all beneficiaries,” Samuels said.
Samuels felt that, like China, Japan could benefit from greater integration with the West. “There has been a malaise in the last twenty years, as the Japanese watched China rush past and they found they were the third power in the world … not even,” said Samuels. “After this deep emotional scarring, there is potential for the configuration of a new generation, in which the youth will be energized to rebuild with unseen dedication and focus.”
Miliband’s visit coincides with the 60th anniversary of the Center for International Studies.
Miliband will be giving a public lecture entitled “Afghanistan: Mending It Not Just Ending It” at 4 p.m. on Wednesday in room 34-101.