China's 19th Century Agenda
Image Credit: The White House

China's 19th Century Agenda


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.

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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?

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.

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