Political Science senior Vincent Abbate attended the United States Air Force Academy’s 54th Academy Assembly in Colorado Springs.

By Vincent Abbate, Senior Politcal Science Major

The Political Science Department sent me as its student delegate to the United States Air Force Academy’s 54th Academy Assembly in Colorado Springs, CO from February 4th-7th. The topic of this year’s Assembly was US-China Relations: Conflict or Cooperation in the 21st Century. Participants included student delegates from universities across the country, Air Force cadets that a*end the academy and subject matter experts ranging from academics to former military and government officials. A speaker would give a lecture on a specific area relevant to the topic, and then participants were broken down into small discussion groups, which were moderated by a subject-matter expert.

With the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down, the United States has begun to refocus its attention on Asia and the Pacific region. This pivot was done not only with the United States’ interests in mind, but also at the request of other nations in the region that the United States has close ties with. It was very insightful to hear the various speakers’ opinions on the pivot to the region, especially the speakers that were from China. It is easy to make the mistake of viewing situations solely from our own American perspective, and hearing the viewpoint of someone from China was particularly eye-opening. For the most part, the Chinese view our pivot to the region as offensive and intrusive. Perhaps it is because the country is becoming such an economic and military powerhouse that they view a stronger American presence in the region as a threat. Or perhaps it is because China has a history of favoring non-intervention into situations or regions, while the United States is usually at the forefront of intervention in other countries. But it is here where the United States takes issue with China not acting “responsible” many argue that China is a free rider because they benefit from being a part of the international community and global economy while not giving much back in return.

The topic I found most interesting during the small group discussions was the nature of China’s relationship with North Korea. I also gained insight into why China feels the need to continue to prop up the regime in North Korea instead of basically shunning them like the rest of the world does. North Korea is, for the most part, a stable country – although its people suffer vast hardships under the heavy hand of a totalitarian regime. The country is not in danger of falling apart or becoming a failed state. China would like to keep it that way and is sensitive to the fact that a regime change in the country would leave a power vacuum that could have potentially catastrophic consequences in the region. This threat is amplified by the fact that North Korea has nuclear weapons. So, for the time being, China is content with being chided by the international community for being the only ally to North Korea, because in doing so, they are ensuring that they will not border a failed state with nuclear weapons.

There was a general consensus that, in our lifetime, China would be the single-most important country the United States will have interactions with. Some see China’s rise as a threat to the United States and view the country more of a competitor than an ally. This could be because China emerged from the international economic downturns of 2008-2009 relatively unscathed and is experiencing an astonishing growth in GDP, while the United States was hit hard with high unemployment and an anemic GDP. This notion was shared by former Governor and Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, who spoke at the Academy. He recalled one of the presidential primary debates he participated in: “I found myself surrounded on a stage by people who all talked about what they would do to China as opposed to what they would do with China.” Rather than boasting about how hard they would crack down on China and using similar rhetoric, elected officials might be keen to defer to Gov. Huntsman on this mater and view China as a potential ally to usher in the 21st century; establishing a relationship that could be mutually beneficial for the future of both countries.

This piece appeared in the Political Science Newsletter Spring 2013 edition.

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