When Richard R. Vuylsteke left his post as president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong to become the East-West Center’s 11th top executive at the start of the new year, he was eager to begin work at his Honolulu alma mater of sorts.
“The last day of my job was the 29th of December, and I came here on the 30th. I usually don’t take a break between jobs. You lose momentum that way,” said Vuylsteke, who was an East-West Center grantee in the 1970s while pursuing a master’s degree and a doctorate from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, specializing in Western and Chinese political philosophy. While still a grad student he joined the Center’s staff as a research assistant and later worked as a special assistant to the institution’s president with focus on Pacific Community topics.
Vuylsteke, who grew up amid cornfields in landlocked Illinois, credits a high school English teacher with prompting his interest in Asia. In addition to the standard lineup of essays, exams and spelling tests, students were tasked with writing a paper on an Asia-related topic — because of the teacher’s own interest in that part of the world.
“I went to the library and found the Asia section, which was a small single shelf, and looked for the thinnest book — being an intelligent high school senior — and it was this collection of speeches by Gandhi.”
The speeches held relevance for the teen as it was the early 1960s and he also was watching the civil rights movement emerging in the United States, and apartheid in South Africa.
“I wrote my paper on Gandhi’s theory of non-violence,” he said. “Five years later I was in India on a Fulbright.”
After that scholarship wrapped up, he enlisted in the Army and was assigned to work at Fort Shafter as an intelligence officer with the Pacific Command. At the end of his Vietnam War-era tour, he secured his East-West Center grant to continue his studies.
Vuylsteke left the Center in the early ’80s to pursue a variety of international opportunities, building a career based on expertise in multicultural organizations and Asia-Pacific business and trade. The East-West Center, he said, was “very supportive in preparing me for a 30-year career in Asia. I’m excited about coming back and paying it forward as much as I can.”
Question: The Center was established by Congress in 1960 to forge better relations among the United States, Asia and the Pacific islands through various programs of cooperative study, training and research. How has it changed since you last worked there?
Answer: When I was at the Center in the ’70s and early ’80s there was this sense that the U.S. “knows” and Asia-Pacific “doesn’t.” It was a little bit patronizing … but in many respects it was true. But now the game has changed. There’s a lot we can learn from Asia about infrastructure development, agriculture and urbanization, for example.
Also, the original name for the East-West Center was the Center for Technological and Cultural Interchange between East and West. That technological side is re-emerging. … Now we have to pay a lot more attention to the way we deliver our strengths to our constituents — students to heads of state — with a technological overlay on doing it faster, better.
Q: What are your immediate plans for the East-West Center?
A: In my experience, if the new guy on the block comes in with all kinds of pre-formed ideas about what has to be done, that’s a pretty good indication of near-term failure. For about three months, I’ll be doing a lot of listening, which falls into clear categories. One is to understand the people, their aspirations. … Of course you also have to look at the revenue flow to understand the organization’s financial risk and opportunities, which we have in spades. The third area is … to learn how the place functions. … Also, you have to get out in the community and see what the views are on how effective we are. … You have to get out and do social things. Besides perceptions, people will give you the tone of things (in regards to) the community … and the Center, and its interactions.
Q: The Center draws financial support from federal appropriations as well as private donations, contracts and grants, and assistance from other nations. Three years ago, it survived nail-biting uncertainly before Congress appropriated its pre-sequestration level funding of $16.7 million under the 2014 federal budget. What’s the financial picture like now?
A: Before I came here there was already consensus, with me included, that diversification of funding is absolutely essential. … I do think that U.S. government funding is absolutely essential because there is a certain caché to being a national institution that has for decades had interactions with other governments, with support from other governments (that can be financial or through providing other assistance, such as transportation). The Center is unique in that respect. For the U.S. government to pull out of that matrix … that would send the wrong message. I think the real issue is how quickly can we diversify funding sources so that the percentage that relies directly on appropriations is less.
Q: What’s that percentage?
A: Close to 50 percent comes from appropriations.
Q: So, diversification would involve tapping more funding elsewhere?
A: The biggest lacuna in the circle of support is from the corporate sector. Coming from that sector, I see some opportunities. But finding the right models that can be executed in the appropriate way will take time.
Q: You headed Hong Kong’s American Chamber of Commerce for eight years before moving here again. That corporate-sector neighborhood was in the news when President Donald Trump moved to pull the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. What are your thoughts on that?
A: Most of the chamber’s 1,700 members have regional and global responsibility in business. Across the board they were all very much in favor of TPP because they saw it as a way to bring higher standards to global trade … specifically with the 12 countries involved. … I think there’s a great deal of disappointment that it’s not going through. The main reason is that, whatever your views on trade agreements from the past, the TPP was in a different category altogether. It had additional items involved such as … labor, health and safety issues that were seen as topics that a lot of countries really wanted to address domestically. … A trade agreement gave them leverage to get things done.
President Trump said during the campaign that he would negotiate a better deal. That indicates that he may come back and look at ways to make adjustments in that agreement. … I’m optimistic that because there’s so much going for it — economic integration with some positive social implications — I think it will be revisited.
Q: Another news topic involves China’s controversial claim to most of the South China Sea. When then-Vice President Joe Biden visited Hawaii last year he said in coming decades the region is likely to represent 50 percent of the world’s gross domestic product.
A: We’re certainly interested in the economic implications … the sea lane availability, freedom of the seas and constructive continuation of the law-of-the-seas accords (United Nations convention). When I first came to Hawaii in 1968 with the Army, as chief of the China Desk at USARPAC, the South China Sea was on the agenda then. The Chinese have been consistent in their claims. The difference now is that they have more military and economic backup.
Q: In September, the Center hosted the Pacific Island Leadership Forum, where then-President Barack Obama was the keynote speaker. Any upcoming high-profile events on the calendar?
A: I’m too new in the game to answer that question. … But my own orientation is that while such events benefit Hawaii as a host and the Center’s visibility, I think the real impact of the East-West Center is much more day-to-day.
Where the rubber hits the road is policy implementation. To do that you need to have people who can translate policy into action. And a lot of policies are now cross-national, cross-cultural in impacts in Asia-Pacific and the United States. And so to build a cadre of people capable to translating policy into action and sharing best practices across borders and across cultures within countries, quite frankly, is, if anything, in greater demand than ever.