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U.S. and Chinese Perspectives on the South China Sea: Policies, Assumptions and Perceptions

"A Brief Analysis  of the U.S. and Chinese Perspectives on the South China Sea: Policies, Assumptions and Perceptions" by Dr. David Firestein, Senior Vice President, EastWest Institute

Time: Oct. 17, 4:00pm - 5:30pm

Location: Oxford Road Presentation Room (across from Barns and Nobles Bookstore)

Free and open to the public

The South China Sea (SCS) has become a central issue in the U.S.-China relationship.  Despite widespread framing (in the United States, China, Southeast Asia and around the world) of the issue as one of contention and even a potential cause of significant conflict between the two countries, the United States and China disagree on less – at least as a matter of official, declared policy – than is commonly presumed.  Much of the friction between the United States and China over the South China Sea instead stems from the misalignment, misunderstanding or divergence of strategic assumptions and, also, from sharply differing strategic perceptions about the same sets of facts.  The key to generating lasting progress on this complex, presently “stuck” issue is to map more precisely where the diverging interests and policies actually are – and where they are not; to lay bare the little-discussed strategic assumptions made by both sides and to assess which of those assumptions are accurate and which are not; and likewise, to catalogue and surface the perceptual differences – perhaps as a prelude to evaluating the merits of the two sides’ respective perceptions and trying to generate movement on some of those perceptions.  Though the official positions of the two nations, as well as the five other SCS claimants (apart from China), are unlikely to change in the foreseeable future, modest but meaningful progress, and even some degree of trust-building, on this seemingly intractable issue can be achieved by getting “under the hood” of the issue in these new ways. 

About the speaker

David J. Firestein is Senior Vice President and Perot Fellow at the EastWest Institute (EWI), a New York City-based foreign policy and conflict resolution think tank that specializes in track 2 diplomacy and international trust-building.  In this capacity, Firestein, a former career U.S. diplomat, oversees EWI’s “China, East Asia and United States” and “Russia and the United States” programs, as well as EWI’s efforts in U.S.-Iran trust-building and EWI’s overall outreach in Washington, D.C.  During his State Department career, Firestein served at the U.S. embassies in Beijing and Moscow for five and four years total, respectively; he speaks near-native Chinese and fluent Russian and has interpreted for senior U.S. and foreign officials in both languages. He also served in increasingly senior positions domestically, including as deputy executive director and senior advisor at the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy.  Firestein is the author or co-author of three books, including two China-published Chinese-language best-sellers, several noted policy papers, and about 150 articles in major international publications, and is a sought-after public speaker and media commentator, including in the Chinese language.  Firestein’s distinctions and honors include being the first U.S. citizen to have a column in a People’s Republic of China newspaper, a selectee for Peking University’s centennial “Fifty Most Distinguishes Foreign Alumni,” the first sitting foreign diplomat to have a faculty appointment at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), and the winner of the 2006 Secretary of State’s Award for Public Outreach, among numerous other professional
awards.  Firestein currently holds a number of academic titles and NGO leadership positions, including as visiting scholar at the University of Texas
LBJ School of Public Affairs and member of the Board of Advisors of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs.  Firestein is based in Washington, D.C.