CAMDEN, Maine — One thing was clear from the keynote address at the 2011 Camden Conference: Asian economies are complex, growing systems that America must adapt to.
Charles W. Freeman Jr., a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told the group in his keynote address Friday night that China’s economy is predicted to bubble to twice the size of the U.S. economy.
“By 2050 the world’s center of gravity will be centered in Asia — somewhere between Beijing and Delhi,” Freeman said on the stage of the Camden Opera House. “The challenge to the U.S. is to harness Asia’s success as our own. Not to conquer it.”
Freeman tied China’s success, in part, to improved college education. America too needs to improve its higher education, he said.
“We need to live by the old adage, ‘If you can’t live by your wallet you have to live by your wits.’ So we need to get a lot smarter,” he said in response to an audience question about American education. The best thing America can do for its college students is to give them passports, he said.
The keynote speech jumped from topic to topic and country to country, giving a wide overview ahead of the eight other conference seminars that ran through Sunday afternoon.
As for America’s next “existential threat,” Freeman said China is not it. The Asian country has enough to worry about without taking on America’s military.
“China is hemmed in by militarily powerful neighbors,” he said. “China must manage many challenges to its national security.”
On Saturday morning Freeman was joined onstage by professor Lanxin Xiang of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, and by Pranab Bardhan, a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley for a panel discussion.
The three men discussed China’s strengthening economy, but they stopped short of saying the country was “rising.”
“From the Chinese perspective, when we hear ‘the rise of China’ we laugh,” Xiang said. Despite a lot of American-generated hyperbole, “the Chinese economy is about 6 percent of the global share,” he said.
Bardhan in his presentation outlined the fluctuation of China’s and India’s economies throughout the past 200 years, showing that the two countries combined used to make up more than half of the world’s economy in the 1800s. In 2025, it’s predicted the two will make up about 36 percent of the world’s economy, Bardhan said.
“China is not so much rising as it is resuming its place in the region,” Freeman said.
About 500 people filled the Camden Opera House for the 24th annual Camden Conference. The conference this year was broadcast to the Strand Theatre in Rockland, the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center in Belfast and, for the first time, The Grand theater in Ellsworth.
The Camden Conference was founded in 1987 as a nonprofit by retired CIA and State Department employees in Camden who brought in their contacts from Washington, D.C., to discuss current political issues. Each year the conference brings experts to Camden to discuss the world issues surrounding a selected theme.
This year’s conference was scheduled to run through Sunday, with speakers including Hannah Beech, Time magazine’s Southeast Asia bureau chief, and former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Tom Pickering.
Video recordings of conference speeches were scheduled to be posted after the conference’s conclusion at camdenconference.org.