Conflict between China and the United States is inevitable, says Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University in China.
In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, the foreign policy hard-liner said Beijing’s recently announced national goal of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” does not sit well with the unipolar leadership of the United States.
He criticized Washington’s new policy of a pivot or rebalancing toward Asia as exacerbating strategic rivalry. He argues that both countries should drop the illusion of nurturing mutual trust and instead pursue cooperative relations without trust.
Yan believes China has a set of political moral values originated in its ancient thought, which can surpass those that the United States tries to impose on China, such as democracy and freedom.
Excerpts of the interview follow:
Question: In an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times headlined “How China Can Defeat America,” you wrote: “Rising powers seek to gain more authority in the global system and declining powers rarely go down without a fight.” Are you saying that conflict between China and the United States is inevitable?
Answer: I think that conflict and rivalry between China and the United States is inevitable. I also think that the differences and disagreements will become deeper and wider in the next 10 years, mainly because the gap of national comprehensive power will become narrower. But it does not mean war will result. It means political, military, cultural, and economic rivalry.
Q: Why is it getting worse?
A: It’s very simple. The United States cannot give up its No. 1 status in the world. Meanwhile, the political goal of China is to regain the status it held as a world power in past. China was a superpower several times in the past. This policy has officially been phrased as the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by Xi Jinping, the new president. Its goal is at odds with the U.S. intention of maintaining its solo superpower status. Even when China was very weak in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, China did not accept the leadership of any major powers. Today, China admits that America is the strongest power in the world, but it doesn’t agree to blindly follow it. But China does not want military confrontation with the United States because America has the capability to make the international environment very difficult for China to deal with.
Q: How will this strategic rivalry develop?
A: Most people think it will center on economic issues, but in my view it will spread to other sectors in the next 10 years. I think the most intense rivalry will be in the political sector because China needs more friends in the region. China also craves a better international environment. But unfortunately, America’s rebalancing strategy to Asia aims at expanding its own alliance network in East Asia and isolating China. That will be at the core of Sino-U.S. rivalry. And I believe this rivalry is a zero-sum game.
Q: But the United States government has been saying that the rebalancing is not targeted at China.
A: No Chinese believes it. First I should say that the American rebalancing policy is making the rivalry between China and the United States more intense. Second I would say that it’s understandable for the Americans to adopt that kind of policy, if they want to maintain solo superpower status in the world.
Q: If China’s GDP surpasses that of the United States, what is going to happen in China?
A: First, I think it will happen faster than most people anticipate. It could be within next 10 years, rather than 20 years. Second, when it actually happens, I think China will definitely demand a bigger say in developing international norms. That means China will consider establishing an international system that is fair to all, a system from which both the strong and the weak can benefit. And China will definitely increase its economic aid to the rest of the world.
Q: Do you regard the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade arrangement (TPP) a part of the U.S. rebalancing strategy?
A: I think the TPP is just an economic banner to cover the U.S. political goal. Their political goal is to unite as many countries as possible in the Asia-Pacific region and to make them America’s friends, and to get more political support from those countries as U.S. rivalry with China gets more heated. But I don’t think the TPP can be established in next 10 years, because most of these countries in the region cannot meet the economic standards required of them to join. It is very difficult even for Japan.
Q: How successful do you think the United States has been in gaining friends through this rebalancing?
A: I think the policy of the Obama administration has been quite successful. The rebalancing strategy already has gotten more Asian countries tilted toward the United States than before. We have found that some countries are starting to keep their distance from China.
Q: Like Myanmar?
A: I think the Philippines is more typical than Myanmar. The Philippines used to be a friendly country to us. After they changed the president and adopted a different policy toward China, combined with America’s rebalancing, the Philippines has suddenly become very hostile to China. I would argue that this will be a really serious issue in the next 10 years and the Chinese government should concern itself with how to win more friends in this region.
Q: Obama recently visited Myanmar. What do you read into the visit?
A: That’s a kind of warning for China. If we do not consider how to improve our relations with these countries in the region, America will dramatically improve its relationship with them. That’s really harmful to China.
Q: If conflict between China and the United States is inevitable, perhaps the only thing you can do is to manage the conflict?
A: Yes. That’s what I want to argue. I think China and the United States should drop the concept of mutual trust. Due to conflicting strategic interests, China and the United States cannot avoid rivalry in this region. This structural conflict makes it impossible for them to trust each other.
If both countries emphasize mutual trust as the premise for cooperation, then they can never manage conflicts that crop up. They will just blame the other for not being sufficiently trustworthy.
Both sides, instead, should consider how to develop cooperation without mutual trust. And if we look at history, we can find precedence. Britain cooperated with the Soviet Union during World War II without any trust. Mao Tse-tung developed cooperation with Richard Nixon in the 1970s without any trust. So did Jiang Zemin and George W. Bush after 9/11.
China and the United States must keep in mind that mutual trust is a result of long-term cooperation rather than a precondition for cooperation.
Q: You published an article under the title, “It Is a Football Game Rather than a Boxing Match” to describe Sino-U.S relations.
A: Exactly. I think that the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States was like a boxing match. They tried to knock each other down to the point of death. But China and the United States try to win a game by scoring more points. They try to win with smartness, strength and good strategy. There will be no major violence.
Q: In your Op-Ed piece in The New York Times, you wrote: “Morality can play a role in shaping international competition between political powers and separating the winners from the losers.” How is Chinese morality different from the values that Americans often refer to, like democracy and human rights?
A: We have a higher political morality than Americans. For example, fairness is a higher morality than equality. And civility is higher than freedom. And justice is a higher level morality than democracy. You can find the origin of these ideas in Chinese ancient thought.
Q: Why is justice higher than democracy?
A: You can have democracy and then what? It was through democracy that Hitler came to power. Democracy resulted in a world war. You have democracy that results in something bad. Right?
Q: Equality vs. fairness?
A: Equality means that each of us has the same rights, but in some situations, you have to let the weak have some privileges. For instance, when you get on a bus, the “first-come, first-served” is equality. But if one yields a seat to a pregnant woman or an elderly person, that’s fairness.
Q: You quoted Xunzi, the ancient Chinese philosopher, in your paper, that there are three types of leadership for states: humane authority, hegemony and tyranny. You concluded that humane authority would win over the other two. You suggested that China should pursue humane authority. What does it actually mean?
A: Humane authority means having very strong material power. Meanwhile, countries behave according to international norms that are accepted by the majority of countries. It doesn’t rule out the use of military force. Countries use military force to punish those who violate international norms and destroy the international order, as in the case of the Gulf War. The international community took military action to punish Iraq, which invaded Kuwait. It was a practice of humane authority. But the Iraq war in 2003 was an act of hegemony. Tyranny means that countries will use military force to protect their own interests at the expense of others.
Q: How do you categorize the current leadership of the United States and China?
A: I think America is a very typical hegemony. Their foreign policy is practiced according to international norms, but only for their own allies. Nazi Germany was a very typical tyranny. I think China now is between hegemony and humane authority. I don’t think China qualifies as humane authority at this moment, because it focuses too much on money, too much on its economic interests.
Q: You also wrote, “China needs to replace money worship with traditional morality.” Why has China lost its traditional morality?
A: Mainly because of the poverty caused by the Cultural Revolution. During the Cultural Revolution, the people became so poor. The people were so desperate to collect wealth. And in the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping said, “Let’s focus our efforts on economic construction.” The following 30 years of economic construction and education made people believe that money is the only value in life. The typical representation of this idea is the slogan, “Being rich is glorious.” This is ridiculous. People came to believe that no matter how you get the money–by bribery, smuggling or prostitution–as long as you have a huge amount of it, then it is glorious. This is a very, very bad slogan, and it has dominated our society for too long.
Another example. In our tradition, a hero is defined as someone who protects values, whether political or social, at the price of their own life. But now the definition of hero is a person who makes a fortune quickly.
Q: But doesn’t China need a certain level of wealth to maintain social and political stability?
A: That is the idea I am attacking. And I think it’s wrong to try to stabilize the society or maintain the social order by making the people rich. No matter poor or rich, we need to make the people respect morality.
Q: You advocate that humane authority has to be practiced first at home before you try to practice it in the diplomatic front.
A: If we want to tell the world that our ancient thought or ideology is good, we have to practice it ourselves. But I have to admit that we don’t do that. We do not use this idea of Confucianism to guide our domestic policy as we are advocating it internationally. So, this is very contradictory.
Q: The ancient thinkers, like Confucius, Mencius and Xunzi, they lived a very long time ago, and the structure of society at that time was totally different from what it is now. How can those ideas be applied to current foreign policy?
A: We cannot just copy these ancient Chinese thoughts and use them for modern foreign policy. We borrow the core ideas and modernize them in line with contemporary life. And then we need to develop a new ideology by ourselves.
Q: Could you explain how foreign policy under Xi Jinping will differ from the line taken by the administration headed by Hu Jintao?
A: I think the first priority will be to put strategic interests ahead of economic interests. Second, the administration will emphasize active involvement in international affairs and issues, rather than try to keep a distance from conflicts that are not directly related to China. And third, I think China will argue that we need to keep a balance between a new international order and global management. International order means redistribution of power and global management means redistribution of international responsibility. China will emphasize the consistency between power and responsibility.
Q: Do you think conflict between Japan and China is inevitable just as you say it is between China and the United States?
A: Yes, exactly. But there is a difference. Between China and the United States, China is rising and the United States is relatively declining. But the United States is still much stronger than China. Between China and Japan, Japan is getting weaker. China is getting stronger. China is already stronger than Japan. It may take some time for Japan to get used to this reality and regard China no longer as its competitor. If Japan gives up the idea of competing with China, I think we can improve our relationship.
Q: But if China is not a competitor, what is it for Japan?
A: That really depends on how Japan defines its international position. If Japan defines itself as an Asian country, then China and Japan will have a good base for developing cooperation. We can improve our relationship relatively easily. But if Japan defines itself as a Western country, it will mean our countries have less shared interest, and the political ideology and economic competition, strategic rivalry, all these issues, will stand out as differences in our identities.
Q: On the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue, what do you think is going to happen?
A: Well, I think this issue will continue for some time, but not very long. Generally speaking, I think it will start to cool down by the end of next year. The reason is that after Japan has a new government, it will have to consider how to improve the relationship with China. China will complete its power transition by March of next year. Then it will have the energy to deal with this issue. After six or eight months of negotiation, I think both sides can find a solution.
Q: What do you think is the solution?
A: At least, I think, both sides need to find a new principle, to replace the one adopted by Deng Xiaoping; shelving the dispute with joint exploitation (of resources). The new principle could be keeping the dispute under control while not engaging in any joint exploitation. Neither side should initiate provocative action.
Q: Finally, where do you think Japan-China relations are headed?
A: If our relationship improves, the importance of Japan to China will increase. But if the relationship deteriorates, then Japan will become less significant to China. I want Japan to understand that keeping a balance between China and the United States is in Japan’s national interest. I don’t think purely relying on the United States without striking a balance between China and the United States is a very smart strategy during the era of bipolarization.
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Yan Xuetong is dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University and chief editor of The Chinese Journal of International Politics. He recently published “Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power” (Princeton University Press, 2011). Yan has a PhD in political science from the University of California, Berkeley.