Features | Politics | East Asia

China’s 19th Century Agenda

China’s leadership seems divided, United States Institute of Peace President Richard Solomon tells The Diplomat. If it’s to rise peacefully it will have to rethink its recent assertiveness.

There seems to have been a distinct shift in China's regional engagement over the past 12 months to a more assertive posture. What do you think is behind it?

I think there’s been a very intense debate within the Chinese leadership over their approach to the world, and specifically their dealings with the United States. It’s probably highlighted most by the difference between an article by Dai Bingguo, who’s the senior counselor for international affairs, calling for sustaining Deng Xiaoping’s so-called ‘low posture’ approach to the world, and the assertiveness of the PLA as dramatized when US Defence Secretary Robert Gates met with Chinese President Hu Jintao this month. Indeed, the Chinese military seems to have surprised its own political leadership by testing this new stealth fighter a few hours before their meeting, with Hu appearing not to have known that the test had occurred.

In fact, there are a whole series of developments going back to the crash of the Chinese fighter aircraft and one of our surveillance flights back at the start of the George W. Bush administration that indicate the Chinese military seems to operate on its own, not under civilian discipline. And there are other examples where elements on the civilian side of the Chinese system resist the kind of co-operative actions that the senior leadership may want with its developing relationship with the United States.

So we’re dealing with what seems to be a divided leadership—there seem to be hawks, those who are distrustful or who want to take a more confrontational approach with the United States—making it a more complex situation. And frankly, in terms of China’s dealings not only with the US but with East Asia more generally, I think it’s a very dangerous and critical period. If China continues this much more assertive posture as they’ve demonstrated in the territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea, or in the support they seem to be giving the North Koreans, the Chinese are in danger of polarizing East Asia. I don’t know how significant these issues are in the Chinese leadership’s debates, but it can’t be good for China.

What have you made of the US response to this growing assertiveness, particularly considering the more conciliatory tone that Barack Obama adopted when taking office?

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I think there’s been real disappointment within the leadership in Washington. The Obama administration distinguished itself from earlier administrations in that it began its tenure with a positive orientation towards developing relations with China. Almost every predecessor administration had started out with uncertainty or distrust of China. Take the George W. Bush administration. It came in concerned about China as a so-called ‘peer competitor,’ and there was the incident of the crash of the two aircraft. So things were on a very bad track until after 9/11. But the Bush administration switched gears in the fall of 2001 and ended up having a positive relationship with China over the remainder of the President’s tenure. It’s a pattern we’ve seen with earlier administrations.

But we’ve seen just the opposite with the Obama administration. They came into office wanting improved relations, and Obama had stressed he was going to bring about change. But the Chinese seem to have used that posture to press him for change in a series of activities that had been fairly normal for US leaders. Former presidents have met with the Dalai Lama as a religious figure, not a political figure. The have maintained a pattern of arms sales to Taiwan on a defensive basis. And on those two issues and some others, the Chinese pressed to see if they could get them changed. From their point of view, they may have found they didn’t get as much change as they’d been looking for.

So Obama is now back on what is the normal track in this relationship, or at least what’s been normal for the past several decades—a mixture of distrust and cooperation. The question now is whether the Chinese will continue to press a more assertive position that reflects their substantial economic power and growing military strength. So there’s great uncertainty today in the US-China relationship, and Hu Jintao’s visit is critical. He’ll want a good, positive visit. It can’t help him, as he builds a legacy in the last two years of his administration, to have a real downturn in relations with the United States. But he’s under significant internal pressure to show some changes that reflect China’s growing power in the world. 

What specific issues do you expect to come up in talks?

There certainly will be a range of economic issues relating to changes in the valuation of their currency, protection of intellectual property, market opening for foreign investors—things that have been on the agenda for a while.

The big security issue will be how to deal with the North Korean nuclear programme. And Obama has also indicated he’ll raise human rights concerns, which will certainly not be an issue that elicits a very positive response from the Chinese. Out of that mix, it’s going to be very interesting to see if they can put a positive face on the visit. There will probably be assertions that there’ll be greater co-operation on shared interests, even where issues are approached differently—for example on the challenge of nuclear proliferation. But whether there’s follow-through on the Chinese side will be an open question, given these differences in views within the leadership.

Have you seen any positive signs in ties between the two countries in recent years?

I think both leaderships have strong reasons to want to have this as a positive relationship. It would be a real disaster for both countries, and indeed the whole region, if because of these differences we slip back into a confrontational mode. It would re-polarize the East Asia region, and I think there are signs that this is already happening. Secretary of Defence Gates indicated during his stop in Japan and in our dealings with South Korea that we’ll resist and respond to a more assertive Chinese military, and we’ll take joint actions to deal with North Korea and its provocative behavior. 

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China, which has for decades stressed the need for stability to pursue its own economic growth, has indicated that at least elements of the leadership want to see that stability maintained. But that’s been called into question by developments over the past several years. If I had to make a guess, I’d say the outer appearances of the Hu visit will be positive, but there’ll be significant differences in implementing the statements of a desire for co-operation.  We’ll find that the effort to work out our differences won’t go as well as we hope.

The region is undergoing a historically unusual shift in that we have an established power, namely Japan, a de facto Pacific power in the United States, and two rising major powers—China and India. How optimistic are you that this can all occur peacefully?

I tend to be optimistic by nature, but I’m not all that confident we’ll see these issues dealt with in a constructive way. We’re in a very different international environment in the 21st century from the experience in the previous century when assertive imperial states caused such disruption. We’re dealing with an era now where economic power is the primary asset, and territorial issues that are always usually the source of conflict aren’t high up on the agenda (I’ll talk about Taiwan in a minute).

There are many issues that affect the interests of both countries, whether it be climate change or energy security, that have to be dealt with co-operatively. But China has entered the 21st century with a 19th century agenda: that is, it’s still concerned with the control and security of its territory, it’s trying to deal with the impact of rapid economic growth and internal political stability. As well, its world view is conditioned by that 5000 years of history in which China was the ‘central kingdom.’ And so it’s going to take a very different perspective on the world within the Chinese leadership if we’re going to develop a positive relationship.

As you pointed out, unlike in centuries past, China’s not the only major power. Japan’s a major factor, South Korea’s a major economic power, and there’s Russia and India. So you have a constellation of influences affecting China’s interests. It suggests a world of fluid and perhaps shifting relationships, rather than one where one country—however dominant its economy might be—is the primary source of power and influence in East Asia.  This is a different environment for the Chinese to adapt to.

You mention Taiwan. Is this still a potential flashpoint?

Almost a decade ago, when the Democratic Progressive Party was in power in Taiwan and there was talk about independence and a referendum, there was tremendous tension across the Taiwan Strait.  There was the period of so-called ‘missile diplomacy’ in the mid-1990s. I think the situation now has moved substantially beyond that and Taiwan today is no longer a civil war issue in terms of a military confrontation. Taiwan is developing very robust economic and social ties with the mainland, and in that sense the approach Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping took towards US dealings with Taiwan—Mao told President Nixon and Henry Kissinger that China could wait for 100 years to resolve the Taiwan issue, even if they’d eventually have to fight for it—worked because there were much larger issues of national security that required cooperation.   

That perspective might be under challenge now within the Chinese leadership. As I see it, particularly under the leadership of Taiwan’s current President Ma, we’re seeing some very positive progress in the relationship. But the question for Beijing is whether the situation across the Taiwan Strait can be demilitarized. If so, then there’s the basis for some kind of political accommodation that the two sides might work out. And the US role, based on our laws and our interests, will be to further stabilize the situation and support some form of accommodation that Beijing and Taipei work out.

The American interest is in seeing political accommodation worked out between the two sides. We’ll have to see if the Chinese leadership will take that approach. We have suggested to the Chinese that if they pull back those missiles that they have deployed facing Taiwan, then Taiwan will not feel under military threat. And then our arms sales to the island will not be so necessary.

Richard H. Solomon is president of the United States Institute of Peace. He served as US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs from 1989 to 1992.