INTERVIEW/ Wang Jisi: China deserves more respect as a first-class power

October 05, 2012

By YOICHI KATO/ National Security Correspondent

BEIJING--The distrust over the mutual long-term strategic intentions between the United States and China is worsening, said Wang Jisi, a top expert of American studies in China.

In a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun, the dean of the School of International Studies of Peking University pointed out that the recent U.S. policy decision of “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific region has further complicated the situation by deepening the concern and the suspicion of U.S. intentions among the Chinese general population.

He co-authored a report, “Addressing U.S.-China Strategic Distrust” with Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the John L. Thornton China Center of the Brookings Institution. Wang said that since China had already ascended to first-class power status in the world, “it deserves more respect.”

Regarding the on-going dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands in the East China Sea, Wang suggested, “The Asian wisdom is that if we cannot solve a problem, we can shelve it and do other important things.”

Excerpts of the interview follow:

* * *

Question: Is the “strategic distrust” between the United States and China really getting worse?

Answer: Since Lieberthal and I published that joint study (in March this year) I don't see any improvement of the atmosphere in the relationship. When we wrote it, we both felt uncomfortable with the prospects of a long-term rivalry between the two countries. We also saw some harmful attitudes toward each other. As scholars and analysts we thought it was our responsibility to point out the mutual strategic distrust and then try to find a way to reduce it. I think this distrust has, unfortunately, been consolidated on both sides and is getting worse.

For instance, I think many Chinese commentators in the last few months have argued that Washington is taking advantage of our territorial disputes with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, and so the real problem is not something between China and its neighbors but between China and America. They believe that Washington is trying to drive a wedge between China and these countries in its strategic “rebalance” at China's expense. They say “the truth is that the United States is behind the scenes.”

Q: Do you feel the same way?

A: Personally I have strong reservations about this view. I think the Americans are surely taking advantage of China's problems with its neighbors for obvious geopolitical considerations. However, I cannot accept the argument that the United States is ultimately responsible for all these problems. To blame the Americans would not help to solve our disputes with other countries.

Q: What is the root cause of this distrust from China's point of view? Lieberthal said that it came from China's historical perspective. Do you agree?

A: Yes. It comes partly from China's understanding of history. When I was a student, we were told that the United States was an evil imperialist power. According to our textbooks, the first big event between the United States and China in modern history was American's announcements of its “Open Door Policy” in 1899 and 1900. Well, it may sound as a positive policy to many historians in the West and Japan, since it demanded China open itself to the outside world. But our reading is that the United States was as sinister and greedy as other Western powers and Japan. It wanted to get a share from their aggressions of China without having to pay a price.

And then we were told of the long history of America's hostility toward China. The United States was supporting the Guomindang (the Chinese Nationalist Party) against the Communist Party and the revolution it led. It was responsible for launching the Cold War. And then it was also responsible for the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. The younger generations in China are educated to learn about the same stories. Then the United States bombed China's Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999, sells weapons to Taiwan, and tries to separate Tibet and Xinjiang from the rest of China, and so on.

Q: Does the change of power balance between China and the United States in recent years have any impact on this distrust?

A: Sure. When we say China is “rising up,” most observers in China hold the belief that the United States is a declining power. “They are No. 1 today, we are No. 2, but sooner or later we will catch up and become No. 1.” This is what some Chinese are dreaming of. So hypothetically the United States should take China's interests and aspirations more seriously than before, and should change its international behavior.

For instance, the Americans should be more accommodating to China's demand of not selling weapons to Taiwan. The reality, however, seems just the opposite. As a result, many Chinese believe more strongly that the United States is making every effort to prevent China from rising up in order to keep its own primacy in the world.

Q: Some scholars argue, even the Chinese, that China's shift from a development autocracy to liberal democracy is inevitable, even if it may take a long time. Is this the right way to look at China's future?

A: I think a few liberal-minded intellectuals make such a kind of projection or argument. But the mainstream thinkers do not accept that. They insist that China is undergoing a process of democratization that differs from the Western standard. You can have a Communist Party rule, one-party rule, but also democracy and the rule of law. We call it “democracy with Chinese characteristics,” or “socialist democracy,” but no one believes it is perfect.

Q: As the Chinese society or its governance system evolves as you described, will the distrust with the United States decrease?

A: It's not necessarily true that we will be more distrustful of the United States if the political system remains basically unchanged. But the Americans will not like this, because if China is more successful in sustaining its economic development and consolidating its political system, then it may pose more challenges to the United States.

Q: So, it's not about the political system or ideology but it's about competition between China and the United States?

A: Yes, it's about political competition between the two systems. The interesting thing is whether this will turn into a geopolitical competition between the two powers. I think that is more worrisome to the United States than to us.

China is more concerned about its internal stability, fearing that the United States wants to subvert the Communist leadership. The distrust is that the United States doesn't want to see a China under the Communist Party rising up. China feels it is defensive, as it is not doing many things in the world that are directly challenging the U.S. hegemony. China does not. We don't support the nuclearization of North Korea or Iran, and we oppose terrorism. China plays a constructive role in the global economy and governance.

The prevalent American view is that they are not very much concerned about China's internal development. They hope China's political system will be transformed into democratization but are not able or willing to do many things to facilitate this transformation.

They are more concerned about China's international behavior that might challenge the United States’ hegemony or leadership role in world affairs. In this sense, the Americans are also defensive. Beijing protects its leadership in China, while Washington defends its leadership in the world. This is the essence of China-U.S. relations.

Q: But as China's national power increases, isn't it only natural that it eventually challenges U.S. dominance?

A: Well, I think the leadership in China is very prudent and very sober-minded. The leaders always say that we are still a developing country. You know, it will take decades or even a hundred years for China to catch up with the United States in terms of comprehensive power. And Beijing has never accepted the notion of a “G2” or China as number two in the world.

So it will not be China's strategy to enter into a geopolitical competition with the United States, and/or to harm the United States’ interests everywhere. Beijing is trying very hard to avoid another Cold War.

But this is somewhat in contrast with the popular views in China. One popular view is that China has already surpassed Japan as number two, and should not be afraid to challenge America. According to this view, China should behave more like the United States in the world--ready to use military force or economic weapons to coerce other countries to accept China's righteous demands. They argue that Beijing is now “too soft” in its relations with the United States, Japan, or the Philippines. They have nostalgic feelings about the Mao era when China was, allegedly, more defiant to the outside world.

Q: One of the reasons why Americans are worried that China may challenge the U.S. dominance is what happened between 2009 and 2010, what we call “an assertive China.” What should we read into that series of actions and behavior that China demonstrated?

A: My reading of this very recent history is that most Chinese, especially government officials and diplomats, would argue that China was not assertive; China was more defensive or even passive, in such incidents as the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean Navy corvette. We didn't know at the time and don't know today whether the crisis was in fact provoked by North Korea. It could be a setup by the United States and South Korea. China then took a neutral position, saying, “We are sorry about the sinking of the warship, but we cannot simply blame North Korea for what it says it did not do.”

Over the South China Sea, China didn't send warships to occupy islands we say are ours, but we were provoked by some of the neighboring countries. And over the Diaoyu Islands, China didn't provoke the crisis, either. So we say we are defensive. And then, all of a sudden you say, “China is more assertive, China is more aggressive.” People here are perplexed and suspicious about a U.S. manipulation over all these issues.

Q: What is your own view?

A: What I see today is that the government is more sensitive to public opinion, public feelings within the country. The Chinese government is sandwiched by external opinions and internal opinions. Internationally China is seen as increasingly assertive and arrogant. But internally people criticize the government for being too passive and timid. In response, China's official statements are tougher than before but its actions are still quite prudent.

Q: You wrote in the report, there is a sense that China has already ascended to a first-class power status in the world and “China should be treated as such.” What do you want exactly?

A: Well, in the IMF and World Bank, China should have a larger say. And then you cannot simply state that the world is divided into democratic countries and undemocratic countries and that China does not have a legitimate place in the world because it is an “undemocratic” country. Because China is so successful, it deserves more respect. You should not neglect China, though it still has a lot of shortcomings and weaknesses.

Q: What makes you think that you are not respected enough?

A: I am not speaking for myself on this point. Many people in China will say to the United States, “Why do you continue to invite the Dalai Lama? We don't like him.” And “why do you support human rights activists in China?” “We won't accept Taiwan as an independent state. Don't sell U.S. arms to Taiwan.” “In your (media) reports regarding China's internal affairs you still portray a negative image of China, as if we are not a legitimate power in the world.” “You should pay attention to our sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea.” And so on and so forth.

And now we say the Diaoyu Islands belong to China. Well, you don't necessarily accept that. But you have to say, “We recognize China has such a position.”

Q: So, what happened to “Tao Guang Yang Hui” (meaning “not to show off one's capability but to keep a low profile”)? Has it disappeared?

A: I think the spirit of this principle should be respected and followed, but not its exact wording, because “TGYH” may not sound very positive. If you look at the dictionary, it means that you hide your ambitions for future use, and when you are stronger, you may want to resort to force and retaliate.

The original meaning was that China should be patient and unperturbed in not challenging the West and concentrating on domestic reform and opening, as Deng Xiaoping pointed out in internal meetings in a specific time frame when China was weak and diplomatically isolated after the Tiananmen crisis in 1989.

Now the circumstances are very much different from that time, and the phrase causes confusion and doesn't really serve China's interest. And this cannot explain China's overall behavior. When you say “TGYH,” it's simply a posture toward the United States. What would be the point of talking about “TGYH” with the Japanese or the Indians, or over issues like the financial crisis and climate change?

Q: It seems that the U.S. “pivot” or “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific region exacerbated this “strategic distrust” on the part of China. Actually I heard a professor from Renmin University say that this rebalancing is a strategic threat to China.

A: I think there is some truth to that. The truth is that part of the rebalancing notion is based on the fear that China might challenge the United States in the Asia-Pacific region.

The United States is doing a number of things that worry China. For instance, establishing a U.S. Marines training center in Australia, strengthening its security relationship with Japan, and even trying to multilateralize its strategic arrangements in East Asia.

But, I don't think the whole thing is directed against China. There are very important reasons why the United States wants to strengthen its economic relations with Asia. We should welcome a constructive U.S. role in making the Asia-Pacific region more prosperous. And we should try to establish a good working relationship with the United States in the region, in both economic and security affairs.

Q: But is it possible with this strategic distrust?

A: That comes to the core issue: whether China can successfully transform itself into a sustainable economy and a solid and stable political system. If we don't embark upon enough political and economic reforms in China, then things will not turn out very bright.

Q: Isn’t the current system “solid and stable”?

A: Look at the recent incidents in China. The Bo Xilai case is one example. And then we see a lot of social unrest and mistrust of the government among the population. These problems must be coped with seriously before we can really boast of being a first-class world power.

Q: And finally, about the Senkaku issue. It is the actual, serious problem that Japan and China are now facing. What do you think we should do about it?

A: Calm down. The Diaoyu Islands are not an issue that can be solved easily, and I don’t hold out any strong hope that the dispute over its sovereignty can be settled in my lifetime. The Asian wisdom is that if we cannot solve a problem, we can shelve it and negotiate – I mean, put it aside and do other important things while keeping the respective nationalist position. It may not be “politically correct” to say this in China at this moment and probably not in Japan, either. But we have to overcome these immediate obstacles and focus on other priorities that are in our best long-term interests.

By YOICHI KATO/ National Security Correspondent
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Wang Jisi (Photo by Mark Leong)

Wang Jisi (Photo by Mark Leong)

  • Wang Jisi (Photo by Mark Leong)
  • Wang Jisi (Photo by Mark Leong)

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