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James Fallows on China take-off (1)


Sam Roggeveen


13 June 2012 13:30

Below is the first in a series of email exchanges between myself and James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic and a long-time China watcher. He's also a pilot and all-round aviation enthusiast. James' new book, China Airborne, documents China's extraordinary aviation ambitions, and why the project to make it a world aerospace power is a crucial test case for China's modernisation.

Q. James, I want to start this discussion with a question about the US-China relationship, which our Defence Minister Stephen Smith recently described as 'the most consequential bilateral relationship that we'll see in the course of this century'.

Some Australian commentators are occasionally tempted to think that Australia can act as some kind of bridge between the US and China, but I tend to think this not only overstates our own standing in Beijing, but fails to appreciate just how dense and multi-faceted the US-China relationships is. It's one of the ways our present geopolitical predicament is so unlike the Cold War.

I was fascinated to see a number of examples of this in your book, from the perspective of aviation. The ties go well beyond high-level government talks and into the corporate and regulatory spheres. You make the case, I think, that the US is really shaping China's safety and regulatory culture in aviation. Can you say a little more about these ties and paint a broader picture of how deep and wide the US-China relationship really is?

A. First, thanks very much for inviting me into your online home. Second, thanks for starting off with a theme that was, for me, one of the real discoveries as I did the reporting for this book over the past few years.

We are all used to discussing to US-China relations in great-power terms. Henry Kissinger does this, and Zhou Enlai does that. Bill Clinton and Jiang Zemin have one kind of relationship, and Barack Obama and Hu Jintao have another. Move and counter-move in economic, military, environmental, financial-crisis, and other dimensions. My observation is that this kind of analysis has been especially attractive in Australia in recent years, usually couched in terms of coping with China's rise and America's perceived decline.

Of course that level of interaction is significant, and of course in these dealings other countries and their leaders play important roles. While we were living in Beijing, Kevin Rudd came to China and gave his zhengyou ('true friend' or 'tough love') speech to the Chinese leaders. At different stages in recent history John Howard and Julia Gillard have played important balance-setting or intermediary roles in American relations with Asia in general and China in particular. Given his very extensive connections with and knowledge of American history, culture, and political lore, Bob Carr is probably better positioned than any senior Australian minister in years to play this role.

But the revelation to me was all the other strands of US-Chinese interaction, which day by day and even through the years have made an enormous difference in China's relations with the outside world and the US in particular. The most important of these is simply the Boeing corporation. As I describe, the first engineer ever hired by Bill Boeing for his new company, nearly 100 years ago, was a Chinese student who had found his way to MIT and eventually went back to China. In many cases, Boeing has been the de facto third sovereign power in dealings between the US and China. In one of those cases, as I describe, Boeing played the crucial intermediary role in persuading the Chinese to move beyond their Soviet-model air 'safety' system, which was leading to a horrendous crash record, to something more like international standards for certification and inspection of people and machines.

Below the level of Boeing itself there is the surprising diaspora of international figures (mainly but not solely American, with a noticeable share of Chinese-Americans among them) who have devoted their working lives to trying to improve the safety, reliability, environmental impact, and overall modern viability of the Chinese air system. I'll save for a later time cameos of some of the people I am talking about: 'Joe T', the Boeing and FAA veteran who was dispatched unwillingly to China to attend to customers there and ended up becoming a de facto member of the Chinese aviation bureaucracy; Steve Fulton, the ex-Alaska airlines pilot who figured out a way to solve the navigation problems posed by the high and forbidding Western Chinese territory; Francis Chao, Paul Fiduccia, and others from the small-airplane community who set their sights on persuading the People's Liberation Army to release its stranglehold on Chinese airspace; Boeing executive Al Bryant, who has decided to pioneer biofuel projects in China; the FAA officials who showed their amazed Chinese counterparts through the airspace rules around Washington DC; and on through a long list.

Actually, I'll say a word more about Steve Fulton now. This video portrays a flight I describe in my book, when American engineers dealt with Chinese airlines to permit the first-ever instrument landing in a very high airport in Tibet. (Which of course brings up political issues of its own.)

This is already too long, so let me end on this note: The surprise to me, and I think to many readers, is how multi-layered the Chinese-US interaction is in aerospace and many other areas; and, I would argue, how overall beneficial rather than hostile or confrontational those dealings have been.

Is this good news for Australia, or bad? I would argue 'good', for two reasons. First, almost anything that leads China and the US away from, rather than closer to, the always-possible zero-sum confrontation is beneficial to all concerned. Second, the Americans involved in these efforts are hyper-aware that they are always in danger of being too US-centric a presence within the Chinese system. So they are always at pains to describe their efforts as reflecting 'international' standards rather than purely American ones. And for that very reason, there is always additional room for 'international' voices, forces and participants who are from some place other than the United States.

That's a long initial reply; I will take the time to be more concise in future rounds!