The 24th annual Camden Conference was titled “The Challenges of Asia.” More than 800 people attended the conference at the Camden Opera House and satellite locations. Here are three stories from the conference. For more information, visit camdenconference.org.

Fall of the ‘rise of China’

Lanxin Xiang began day two of the Camden Conference with a talk titled “The Era of Mistrust? — The Future of Sino-U.S. Relations.”

He said the recent visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao “seemed to have achieved very little,” although it may have suspended conflict between the countries. “But I do not see any new breakthroughs,” Xiang said. “I do not see any new ground that was broken. Or, even worse, I do not even see a new diplomatic framework that has been worked out.”

He said the visit was a missed opportunity for a new beginning for China and the United States. Xiang said this is a historic moment, and he feels the countries’ relationship could be heading toward a “downward spiral.” He cited “Era of Mistrust” in his title because of cultural misunderstandings, not the Cold War legacy or the debate between communism versus democracy.

“In other words, the problem is there is no meeting of minds between the two countries,” Xiang said.

Xiang is professor of international history and politics at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland.

He said the United States wrongly views China from the “enlightenment” perspective. He said it was newsworthy that a Confucius statue was established recently at Tiananmen Square. “I think this is something very profound that indicates China is rapidly returning to its own roots, tradition, beyond what enlightenment ideology can explain,” Xiang said.

Xiang criticized the “rise of China” terminology, “as if this is something new that is taking place in world history.” He said China is not at the receiving end of globalization. Two more opinions based on “rise of China” are that it will subsequently integrate into the network of democratic states or follow previous great powers, such as Imperial Germany.

“I think these concepts have not worked, do not reflect the reality of China,” Xiang said.

He said it has not been proven that China’s political system has been a “hindrance” to economic development. And China does not have a colonial expansionist agenda.

He said an anti-enlightenment thesis has merit. “The Chinese remember renaissance-humanism much better than they remember enlightenment,” Xiang said.

He said the Chinese laugh at the concept of “rise of China,” and that phrase is not used by the Chinese leadership. “Chinese are using the concept restoration or maybe even re-rise,” Xiang said. “… Chinese leaders, and the Chinese elite, and the people are beginning now intuitively the process of looking back at [China’s] own roots.”

For all of these reasons, there has not been an effective meeting of the minds between the two countries, Xiang said.

“So based on these fundamental differences in their perspective in China’s position today, it is very difficult for the two countries to accommodate each other’s needs,” Xiang said.

Going back to the Hu Jintao visit, Xiang said it did not solve problems such as arms sales, Taiwan, and military and political issues. He said the leaders had to go for stabilization because of mandates that expire in two years.

Xiang’s recommendations: start real engagement and dialogue. The homework for U.S. leaders would be to look at the relationship between Europe and China 400 years ago. He called for a new dialogue that goes beyond enlightenment, one that understands renaissance-humanism and includes China’s traditional values.

“I would argue that United States policy, if you really want the policy to work, is to encourage China to go back to its traditional roots, as far as possible, rather than pushing them toward a modern state concept of political democracy,” Xiang said.

Economic ‘red line’ could signal upheaval

Several speakers at the Camden Conference discussed a “red line” of gross domestic product growth. Civil unrest could ensue when some countries fall under this red line, they said.

China’s red line for gross domestic product growth is 6 percent, said Lanxin Xiang. Protests in the streets could follow if GDP growth falls below that red line.

“We’re talking about major social unrest below 6 percent,” Xiang said.

Xiang said income disparity and corruption in China threaten political legitimacy. In China, he said, 5 percent of the population owns 90 percent of the wealth.

“Now this is against communist principles as well as Confucian principles,” Xiang said. “The regime is really under siege. It is too busy dealing with these issues – social unrest. ‘A single spark can start a prairie fire,’ to use Mao’s original expression. This is the common language when you talk to the Chinese elite, if they trust you enough.”

Pranab Bardhan next gave a talk on the “comparative economic assessment of India and China.” China’s authoritarian capitalism versus democracy in India has huge implications for social unrest based on meeting red line growth goals, he said. Some may say those political differences make China a strong state and India a weak or messy state. Bardhan, as he did throughout his speech, “qualified the conventional wisdom.”

“India’s strength is in the messiness,” Bardhan said. “Messiness is often derived from a kind of democratic pluralism.”

Bardhan said a Chinese official told him after the economic crisis that the regime would be in trouble if China’s red line of growth fell below 8 percent.

“I joked with my friend in Beijing, I said, ‘If the Indian growth rate falls to zero, nothing will happen,’” Bardhan said. “The Indian regime does not derive its legitimacy from economic growth rate. Its significance is derived from democratic pluralism.”

Still both countries face accountability failures, China with its heavy handed crackdown and India with its weak local and municipal level democratic systems. “That is why my book is called ‘Awakening Giants, Feet of Clay,’ and the feet of clay have to do largely with accountability failures in both countries,” Bardhan said.

Following the presentations, moderator T.M. “Mac” Deford said said it was interesting to compare “the red line in China at 8 percent or 6 percent and the red line in India non-existent, basically. So there is something to be said for democracy I guess, if you’re running the country.”

An informative fact sheet accompanying the conference materials listed the annual real GDP growth percentage for India, Japan, China and the United States. The rates were 10 percent for India, 14 percent for China and 2 percent for Japan. For the United States, it was –3 percent.

Speakers address Arab-Israeli conflict

The first question at the Camden Conference asked for Chas Freeman to give his view on the United States’ Feb. 18 veto of a United Nations resolution that condemned Israeli settlements.

“I think it’s politically disastrous for the United States,” Freeman said. “Timing is terrible given what is happening in the broad Arab and Islamic parts of the world.”

He said the veto denied the United Nations a role in the situation where it has a historical stake (the original partitioning of Israel).

“The United Nations was supposed to function as the global enforcer of its charter and international law,” Freeman said. “With our veto, 47 – I guess it’s now 48 — times to protect Israel and the people in the region around it from the application of international law, we have turned the United Nations into the biggest obstacle of the rule of law that there is.”

He said the veto was probably politically expedient. “It’s not going to solve any problems,” Freeman said. “It’s not going to advance anything toward a solution. It simply devalues our moral standing internationally.”

A half hour later, Freeman was asked if the United States has a responsibility to help “Israel survive.”

“Yes, I think we’ve invested so much in that issue that we can’t escape responsibility,” Freeman said. “But the good news is that the only threat to the survival of Israel is from Israelis. That is to say, Israel faces no conventional military threat at all. And it’s straining to find a nuclear threat from Iran. And it has the Palestinian territories under total lock and key. And it has Gaza surrounded and under siege, and is not treating its inhabitants very well.”

He said Israel does not presently face a classic military threat. “But it does face a series of serious identity issues and problems domestically. It has a population a fair part of which does not accept the validity of the state or its existence, is not willing to join its armed forces or fight for it, and does not want to work, prefers to pray all day, which is nice if you can do it.”

Freeman said Israel has a settler movement that is “viciously racist.” He said this has “totally discredited Israel’s moral image, which was strong in the ‘50s and ‘60s internationally.” He said that for these reasons, 20 percent of Israeli Jews live outside Israel.

He said the United States should help by not being an “enabler” for Israel.

Freeman was an ambassador (to Saudi Arabia), and gave a diplomatic ending to his answer to finish the first day of the Camden Conference. “Should we do everything possible to help Israel survive both from foreign enemies and domestic, yes,” Freeman said.

[News reports in February 2009 said Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair wanted to choose Freeman to be the chairman of the National Intelligence Council in the Obama administration. A story in The New York Times a few weeks later said Freeman withdrew from consideration after opposition put on the administration from pro-Israel groups.]

Thomas Pickering addressed the Arab-Israeli question in a speech that covered dozens of countries and even more issues. His first point was that “we’re stuck.”

“There is no real motion,” Pickering said. “I join Chas [Freeman] in believing it was foolish in the extreme to veto a resolution incorporating almost direct quotes from American policy papers — our own policy — on settlements.”

He said with recent turmoil in the Middle East, the United States has to consider whether it can even be part of this process. He said the answer was yes. “There is an important imperative to move ahead with this stuck process but it will require real leadership of the United States to do it because I don’t think there is any other person, place or possibility that can move this.”

Pickering said the United States can want peace more than any party. “It’s been my feeling for a long time that the next step for the United States is to put on the table the outline of the critical answers that have to be given to finding the question of a solution to the Middle East peace process,” Pickering said.

He said there was fascinating story in the New York Time Magazine about how close Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas came to a deal. “It was startling because many of us that watched from the outside had some idea but no details,” Pickering said. “It is, I think, extremely important for the United States to pick up on the peace.”

He also said the United States should drop overt opposition to reconciliation between Hamas and Al-Fatah. “If we are not able to do so directly we need to quietly encourage friends to see if that particular rift can be brought closer together,” Pickering said. “There is no peace, indeed, in the region without some kind of a unified Palestinian approach.”

In Israel, Pickering said Benjamin Netanyahu should be persuaded by the United States to see “opportunities to be a truly historic figure in his own country and the region.”

In a later question period, the speakers were asked about the likelihood of the United States advancing a plan for peace.

Freeman said the obstacle to American diplomacy in the Middle East was domestic, not international.

“It’s our own paralysis, schizophrenia and inability to muster the will to act, to help establish Israel as an integral, accepted part of the Middle East that blocks us, not the international community,” Freeman said. “Were we to … outline a final status for the Palestinians and resolution of the Israeli disputes with the Palestinians and other Arab neighbors, I can assure you, there would be a huge standing ovation internationally. People would like the United States to lead rather than veto and obstruct.”