US President Barack Obama was in Beijing recently and received a lot of criticism from US commentators for being too deferential to China. What do you make of this criticism?
Nina Hachigian: There have been all kinds of different criticisms of his trip. There are some that said he was too deferential and that there weren’t deliverables. Others said that it doesn’t work to be nice to the Chinese — that it has never worked in the past. And some others say that their owning of our debt gives them so much leverage over us that that explains why the US didn’t come out with deliverables.
But actually, I don’t agree with any of those.
First, I think what matters are results, and I don’t think it’s wise to discount the results that actually came during the trip itself — there were actually some important steps, especially on climate, that came out of President Obama’s visit. For example, there’s now a joint electric car initiative, a joint US-China research centre, an effort to help China measure the extent of its carbon emissions — all those are significant in and of themselves. China also has reiterated its willingness to be part of this review process in the G20 where all the big economies will review each others’ macroeconomic plans. The reason why that’s significant is because it could put additional pressure on China to let its currency rise, which is something the United States and others really want.
Even more important than all that, though, is that within ten days of President Obama coming back to the United States, China took two major steps in the direction of becoming the global and responsible player that others want it to become. One change is that it moved from a very long-held position that it wouldn’t agree to specific limits on its carbon emissions. And a few days ago, China agreed to a specific goal of reducing the amount of carbon it produces for every percent of GDP. And although the goal itself isn’t enough, and nor is the US goal for that matter according to what scientists are telling us, the fact that it moved from this position it had held for so long is really significant.
A second shift was that it agreed to vote for a pretty tough rebuke of Iran in the International Atomic Energy Agency, and that was also something that the United States had been wanting China to do — to use its leverage with Iran to get Iran to stop its nuclear weapons programme. So I would consider the trip a success. This was Obama’s first state visit to China and so it was always going to be about laying the grounds for future progress.
What do you think was the most important factor behind China’s shift on the climate issue?
Hachigian: I think there were a lot of reasons. But the two most important would probably be pressure from the United States, particularly with Obama making it a top priority, and also growing pressure from the international community at large. China didn’t want to be seen in Copenhagen [at the climate summit] as a bad guy.
But it’s also very much in China’s long-term interests to deal with global warming — China will be tremendously affected by it. The Chinese government itself has commissioned a series of studies to consider the effects, and they’re pretty dramatic in some cases — dramatic decreases in the ability to produce rice and other essential crops, increased spread of disease and there are already shortages of clean water in China which would only get worse. So I think that’s always there in the background, and I think China’s leaders really get and believe in the science of global warming.
Of course, pitted against that has always been the short term imperative to grow the economy. But I think recognition of its long term interests, plus this intense international political pressure, has been enough to have China take this first important step to agreeing to a goal. And the reason that is important is that you can’t really have an international deal without that. China has actually done a lot domestically to invest in clean energy and set high standards for automobiles, trying to make its coal plants cleaner. But in order to get an international deal, you really need the big players to be agreeing on targets.
You mention China’s relationship with the international community — its place in the world. Is China as a future global superpower inevitable in your view?
Hachigian: No, I don’t think it’s inevitable. China has a lot of internal problems — corruption, pollution, social discord, huge wealth disparities, huge numbers of internal migrants. And ultimately I don’t think its political system is sustainable in the long term. It’s had a good go, but in the long run I think another shoe has to drop, so to speak. On the other hand, I wouldn’t predict any kind of fall off the current trajectory any time soon, either. And I wouldn’t want to venture to say what would actually push China off its trajectory — I think they’ll muddle through for quite a while.
But it’s certainly an American tendency, and probably beyond that, to see a trajectory and think that’s the way it’s always going to be. But you only have to look at Japan in the 1980s — whose rise also stirred up a lot of anxiety in the United States — to see that that trajectory didn’t continue indefinitely.
Aside from this, though, I think it’s important to note that China is becoming a more and more important international actor, and it is extremely engaged in international institutions, and initiatives and treaties. But it hasn’t yet translated that presence and leverage into problem solving and/or trying to strengthen the international system. It has done that in some cases — on North Korea would be one instance, and its post-SARS response to pandemics has been quite aggressive. But in many other areas it prefers to take a backseat. So I think it will face increasing pressure to use some of its resources and connections to help solve global problems.
What do you think is behind this reluctance to play a more active leadership role?
Hachigian: I think it’s partially historical inertia — for a long time China was able to focus just on itself. The global nature of its economy and politics is stepping up every day almost, so it’s only fairly recently that the country has had such a broad array of global interests. So I think part of it is that legacy from an earlier time. I also think it’s partly not necessarily yet feeling the confidence to play that role as a global leader. And I also think China’s wanting to continue aligning itself with the developing world, where it gets a lot of political capital from. So there are a variety of reasons, but I think there’s increasing pressure on the other side for it to step up.
Asia already has a strong established power in Japan, and is in the unusual situation now where it also has two rapidly growing major powers, China and India. Are recent border tensions between China and India a sign of problems ahead, or can they accommodate each other?
Hachigian: That’s an excellent question. I’m an optimist, so I think the chances are good. There’s obviously a lot of tension over this region and they’ve gone to war over this in the past. And there was also the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to the border area, which China is obviously angered by. And India is angered by China’s relations with Pakistan. So tensions are high. But the last thing these countries need is what would be an enormously disruptive conflict. And I think the priority of both governments is economic growth.
That said, nationalism can always take over, and so you never know. But they have this growing economic relationship and so both have a strong interest in keeping on their relatively smooth trajectories of strong economic growth. And they have political interests in common as well — you see that often in climate negotiations, where they have often sided together against the developed world, and I think they’re each glad to have had the weight of the other in many diplomatic contexts.
So it’s a hard question to answer. But my gut says that India and China would just have too much to lose by any military conflict. There are certainly going to be tensions, which will be ongoing. And I think Americans tend to underestimate the insecurities that come with having big powers just next door — we don’t have that situation, and there’s also this history of hostile relations amongst all of those countries in Asia. But the threats we face seem to be more common now than they were in the past.