Was reading a very interesting article in Scientific American (Can Videoconferencing Replace Travel?: Scientific American) the other day (which focuses on the environmental benefits of video conferencing), and it got me thinking.

When you look over all the issues in US-China relations, one of the biggest factors creating friction is the lack of mutual understanding and trust between our governments at all levels. Not to say that holding hands and singing Kumbaya would solve all of our differences. But frequent, intensive consultations that deepen mutual trust and understanding would help ameliorate some frictions and avoid others (while, admittedly, leaving others unchanged).

But how to achieve these intensive consultations? I will inflict on the world my broader views on this in a subsequent blog entry that offers ramblings on the proposed new (SED?) (Senior Dialogue?) (Strategic Dialogue?) now under discussion between the US and China. However, there is one important technological angle here that the policymakers don’t think much about, but should:

Video conferencing has now reached the quality that policymakers should consider its routine use for US-China senior interactions. Certainly, video conferencing is used increasingly in the US and Chinese governments. When I served as Consul General in Shanghai my staff and I made extensive use of video conferences to conduct seminars between US and Chinese experts on topics such as emergency response to terror attacks and natural disasters, treatment of AIDS/HIV, protection of intellectual property rights, ethics in journalism, etc. And we have all read about the secure video conference calls that our President has held with our commanders in Iraq and others.

But I am talking here about something at another level. The latest high-definition systems, coupled with a very large screen tv, make you feel as though you are literally sitting across from your counterpart. Sound quality too is just like being there.

So, imagine if systems of this type were installed in the White House and Chinese leadership compound (Zhongnanhai), State Department and Chinese Foreign Ministry, Treasury Department and China’s Finance Ministry, etc. Further imagine that counterparts at senior levels in each establishment could stroll down the hall for a virtually (no pun intended) face-to-face meeting as often as needed (and yes, the system can be encrypted to keep third country spy agencies at bay).

I mentioned this notion to a former senior USG official who is exceptionally internationalist in his outlook. His reaction was, “well, maybe, but there is no substitute for travel and being there in person”. Certainly, hi-def video conferencing would not obviate the need for all trans-Pacific travel. Further, routine use of this new fangled mechanism at senior levels would take some getting used to on both sides. However, today the time, money, and physical/mental wear and tear of a trip from DC to Beijing (or vice versa) are barriers to more intensive senior level consultations. Yes, phone calls work (and are used a lot), but “virtual face-to-face” would contribute even more to that increased mutual trust and understanding that is the main point of the exercise.

And, surely the President who insists on keeping his Blackberry could get into high tech video conferencing. As for the Chinese leaders, it would be a mistake to underestimate their pragmatic attitude and flexibility when a good idea comes along.



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