Asahi Shimbun

By Yoichi Kato

A more confident and assertive China, belying its "peaceful rise" rhetoric of the past, seems increasingly less interested in pursuing constructive relations with its neighbors, said one of the premier American experts on China.

In a recent interview with The Asahi Shimbun in Tokyo, Bates Gill, the CEO of the United States Studies Center at the University of Sydney, pointed out that such a change runs contrary to China’s interests, and that “a lot of people (in the region) have been taken a little bit aback by it and are very, very worried.”

Gill said his “cautious optimism” about China’s future has been clouded by “the possibility for inadvertent clashes,” and that tensions over the disputed Senkaku Islands between Japan and China are “at the center of much of the current concern.”

He advised Japan not to have any expectations for a diplomatic solution but “do everything that’s possible to put a cap on where the current tensions are.”

Gill also somberly laid out the possibility of a reconciliation over history issues between Japan and China.

“I don’t see how in today’s China there is any mood to forgive and forget,” he said.

Excerpts from his interview follow:

Question: It has been four years since the revised version of your book on China’s security diplomacy, “Rising Star,” was published. Its Japanese-language edition has just been put out. I understand your views on China have changed in the meantime. Can you explain how?

Gill: I think the biggest difference is that we now see a China that seems to be abandoning, or at least not giving as much emphasis to, the approach of constructive relations with its neighbors. It seems to be a China that’s more confident, a little more willing to press its case, more willing to seek gains on its own terms, rather than through steadily building up appreciation, trust and respect with the outside world.

Q: Why has such a change occurred?

A: I think it arises primarily from two things. One, the rapid increase in military and economic power, which we’ve seen in the past five years or so, and the change in leaders in China.

Q: Do you mean from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping in 2012?

A: Yes. All of that happened, of course, subsequent to me writing this book. I think a lot of people have been taken a little bit aback by it and are very, very worried.

Q: You added one new chapter to the Japanese edition, which was published in July, in order to explain the changes you found significant. What are they?

A: The core thesis of the book, as originally presented, is that the imperatives of domestic growth and stability for China would dictate that its leaders will, by and large, seek a peaceable and constructive set of relationships with the outside world. It is because at the end of the day the very legitimacy and even, potentially, survival of the Chinese Communist Party requires that they continue to enjoy economic growth and domestic stability.

But in this new Japanese-language edition I note four very important changes which have arisen since I wrote the book four years ago.

Of course, the first important change is the rise in relative Chinese power not only in terms of military budgets, but also in terms of its overall economic strength. We all know that, in purchasing power parity terms, it’s expected that China will overtake the United States as the number one economy perhaps in the next several years.

Secondly, in the past three to five years, of course, we had the global financial crisis, which struck a blow to American economic strength and overall confidence. Not only are we now looking at more austere budgetary times for the United States, including with regard to military spending, but I think, in a larger sense, Americans themselves and their political leaders feel more constrained abroad and less inclined to assert military power unless American interests are clearly at stake.

A third important change over the past several years—seemingly related to the new leadership in Beijing and China’s growing power—is a greater degree of assertiveness on China’s part toward many of its neighbors. This change, in particular, raises questions about the core thesis of the book. We may need to scrutinize some of our past assumptions more carefully because it seems, contrary to their own interests, the Chinese are disturbing their external environment and creating unstable, less trusting relationships with their neighbors.

Q: Are you saying that China has abandoned “Tao Guang Yang Hui” (“Keep a low profile and bide one’s time” in English), a guiding principle for foreign policy that Deng Xiaoping laid out in the 1990s?

A: I don’t know if they’ve “abandoned” it. But it does seem this principle is far less central to the way the Chinese are acting abroad. Recently in Shanghai, among the conversations I had there, there was a view that the country needs to be, in their words, “more proactive” in shaping China’s external environment. Other comments in China included that “a rising power should act like a rising power” and that the new leaders in China, and Xi particularly, are more active and less passive than previous leaders have been.

Q: What is the fourth change?

A: It is the American rebalance to the region, a serious effort to refocus U.S. attention and resources toward the Asia-Pacific region. The rebalance is, in part, a response to the previous three changes noted above, a way of trying to balance against those developments which seem to be increasingly favorable to China in this part of the world. More broadly, the rebalance is a commitment on the part of the United States to be as responsive and supportive as it can be of its key alliances and partnerships in this region.

Q: In your book, you also discuss what have not changed.

A: First, what’s not changed is China’s geographic and, therefore, geo-strategic position. In a nutshell, it’s a dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by 14 countries on land, at least five countries by sea, lots of territorial disputes, four nuclear weapons states on their borders—India, Pakistan, Russia and North Korea—plus the American forward nuclear presence. It’s not a very nice neighborhood. And with 55 percent of China’s gross domestic product (GDP) being generated by the 10 coastal provinces, China is in a highly vulnerable situation. My point here is that let’s not forget about the geo-strategic constraints on Chinese power.

Secondly, we should not lose sight of domestic, internal challenges which China faces. These have not changed in spite of—and in many respects, because of—China’s overall growing power. They’re not changing, and they’re going to get worse. Pollution is going to get worse. Social inequity is going to get worse. Corruption is not going to get solved, even in spite of Xi’s efforts. And the long-term demographic picture for China is not good.

Q: Speaking of domestic challenges, China’s Communist Party recently announced that it is investigating former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang for “serious violations of party discipline.” It is seen as the culmination of Xi’s efforts to crack down on corruption. What kind of impact should we anticipate on China’s foreign policy?

A: It is a remarkable news that Zhou, once one of the most powerful leaders in China, is now formally and publicly under investigation for corruption. It is a sign of just how urgent and troubling this problem must be for Xi and the Chinese Communist Party more broadly. By and large, I think this and other challenges will serve as a constraint on Chinese external action, but we should carefully watch whether, in order to clean up tough problems at home, the Chinese leadership senses it needs to act more forcefully abroad.


Q: What else has not changed?

A: The third and final important thing that has not changed (is that) China has not succeeded in translating its hard power into soft power. In spite of its best efforts, from “peaceful rise,” “harmonious world” to “a new model of great power relations,” it has not been able to cast China in a more favorable light. They just haven’t managed to convince their neighbors, and especially in the last three years. It has become much worse, with their actions (in the South China Sea and the East China Sea).

To put it another way then, China may be more powerful, but it’s still not secure. It may be more powerful but it hasn’t translated that strength into a kind of ability to influence, an ability to change people’s thinking about its rise.

Maybe we need to be reminding our Chinese friends in the right way that, while they are a rising power, they’ve got some very serious deficiencies and constraints that they should always remember.

Q: You have been advocating “cautious optimism” for the future of China in your book. This has not changed, either?

A: Yes, for the most part. The fundamental need for China to have a stable and constructive external environment is just not going away. In fact, China’s dependence on the outside world is only going to increase. China’s basic socio-economic makeup, and the changes we can expect going forward, especially the growth of the middle class, and its increasing demand for water, food, energy, not to mention the accouterments of the middle class--whether it’s refrigerators or better cars, better iPhones, all the rest—all of this will require positive connections to the outside world. China can’t do it alone. That hasn’t changed.

I think that’s going to remain the fundamental basis for the Chinese Communist Party to stay in power. What worries me, though—I mean, the reason I would be “cautiously” optimistic—is because of the possibility for inadvertent clashes arising. There does seem to be a growing self-confidence or even nationalism, which is just not helpful.

And, of course, at the center of much of the current concern are the difficulties in the China–Japan relationship, which could, potentially, turn very, very ugly.

Q: “The possibility for inadvertent clashes” is exactly what the Senkaku Islands issue could invite. What should and can Japan do? What would be your advice to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe?

A: It is a little surprising to me that Japan does not wish to acknowledge that it is a dispute. I know why the Chinese want you to do that, and maybe it’s politically very difficult for any Japanese prime minister to accept that. But at the same time, some efforts to explore a middle ground might be a way forward. I’m a little worried, though, that we’re probably past the moment when a diplomatic solution could be achieved in the near to medium term.

Q: Why so?

A: The positions (of both countries) have hardened so much that now neither side is prepared to offer concessions or compromise. That doesn’t mean that, at some point in the future, under different political circumstances, tensions cannot ease. But I’m not optimistic in any near-term scenario that there’s going to be a solution to this. I think we’re stuck where we are, and it’s going to be tense, with both parties standing their ground for some time. Under those circumstances, restraint on both sides, a high degree of self-awareness, a high degree of extremely careful operational activity, and a process of de-escalation over time are needed.

For now, my advice to Prime Minister Abe is to have no expectations of a diplomatic solution, but at the same time do everything that’s possible to put a cap on where the current tensions are. In this regard, I was encouraged to read reports of former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s recent visit to China, apparently to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping and attempt to calm the Japan–China relationship. Also encouraging were remarks made shortly after that visit by Prime Minister Abe during his trip to Brazil where he called on the two sides to seek mutual benefit and continue quiet efforts aimed at a solution. These are small steps, but important ones.

Q: Are you also pessimistic about reconciliation between China and Japan over the history issues?

A: I have often felt that, though maybe not quite as starkly (as I do now). Looking at it from Beijing’s perspective, it’s almost always going to be better to have a Japan that feels constrained and is reminded of its imperial past. Unfortunately, I don’t see how in today’s China there is any mood to forgive and forget, which is extremely unfortunate.


Q: Do you think that Japan cannot apologize its way out?

A: Probably not. It’s not just apologies which would always be welcomed and appreciated. It would have to be more than that. It’s more like atonement and pledges, commitments to a security role which would be far, far more constrained than it even is today.

It’s Japan’s unfortunate circumstance, in its relationship with China, that China will always seek to leverage the memory of the past, and do it in a way that gives China greater influence and buy-in from many of the key neighbors in the region.

Q: What can Japan do? It has to just keep on apologizing regardless?

A: I think Japan is repentant. The history of postwar Japan is one of a responsible contributor, huge amounts of money going into support for the developing world, for the United Nations, for multilateralism. It’s a form of regaining Japan’s rightful place among the great powers.

For me, as an American, that’s the fantastic contribution that has been made by Japan. But China doesn’t see it that way, and it probably won’t ever want to see it, because it’s not in its strategic interest to treat Japan as an equal.

Q: When it comes to the U.S. rebalance to Asia, the U.S. government has been saying that, “It’s not about China.” But China does not think so. What is wrong?

A: Well, I think it’s probably fair to say that, as the original policy was rolled out, it probably relied too much upon certain military-related aspects.

That said, the Chinese have always claimed that they are being surrounded, they are being contained. This isn’t the first time, and probably not the last, that China seeks to gain the sympathies that they think may be out there in the broader international community, or perhaps they’re trying to play to their own domestic audience by trumping up the notion that there’s an outside power seeking to “contain” or “restrain” them. It’s been this fear of encirclement, which leads me to believe that the containment narrative in China has more to do with domestic consumption than being a very accurate assessment of the international situation.

I think the Obama administration, and its predecessors, have repeatedly stated, and I very strongly agree, that there is no single outside power in the world that has done more to facilitate China’s rise, to welcome it, to be a part of it, and to invite it.

Q: Is the U.S. rebalance strategically compatible with China’s idea of a “new type of major power relations”?

A: If the rebalance is about American dominance in the region and assuring that China remains a second-class power and subservient to the leadership of the United States, then it’s incompatible.

I think what’s going to happen, though, in reality, is the rebalance is going to be about assuring certain American interests in the region, assuring that our alliances are relatively strong including Japan. But it will also need to allow for China to grow, become more constructively active and even take on some leadership roles.

I don’t see, necessarily, the contradiction between an America that’s more engaged in the region and an America that can have a positive China policy. But it’s going to be more difficult now.

Q: Why?

A: Obviously, when China was less strong, less confident, more seeking the approval and engagement of America on America’s terms, more or less, then the kinds of concerns we see in Beijing today about the rebalance wouldn’t have made much difference for China. Today it’s different. Obviously, China’s more confident, it’s more sensitive to the American presence, it’s more worried perhaps that the United States is trying to contain it.

Q: How can you help China overcome this concern?

A: Well, think about where we were 10 or 15 years ago. I think it was a different era. China was in a different position in terms of its national power. But I think, during that period, the Chinese were craving a sort of integration, recognition, appreciation, craving the acceptance of the international community. Now what I think we may be seeing is the early stages of a China that may not see things in the same way, does not see it as necessary to actively cultivate or cater to international expectations. They feel, “Look, we have ‘arrived.’ We’re the number two economic power. We’re a great power. We don’t need, necessarily, to be so craven.”

Maybe we’re beginning to get into that stage. At the same time, we should recognize that there is some awareness in China that this is a potentially dangerous detour around the “peaceful rise” approach. A potentially dangerous diversion off of that path that had been so successful for them.

Q: Why is it dangerous?

A: Because it means beginning to worry the neighborhood, there’s going to be an action/reaction cycle, the issues of strategic mistrust become more intensified.

Q: Chinese venture capitalist Eric X. Li contributed an op-ed piece, “Why China’s Political Model Is Superior,” to The New York Times in 2012 and got a lot of attention. Perhaps what we are going to see is more of such a “China Model” argument. What do you think?

A: It’s really, really naive because it either completely ignores or simply chooses not to understand that the fundamental basis of China’s success over the past 30 years is not a system that China has developed. It’s their integration to the system that the West developed. China’s success is based upon a system that has been 300 years in the making, largely in the West, often termed the "liberal international order."

If it wasn’t for that, there’s no way China would be where it is today. It was its acceptance of the liberal international order and its embrace of it and, yes, the outside world’s embrace of China to be a part of it, which has been the basis for much of China’s current success.

To suggest China has developed some kind of new international system or model, I don’t know what that means. If what they are talking about is the domestic political and economic system of China, that, too, is naive to suggest that somehow that, in and of itself, is a successful system.

I don’t quite understand what is meant by the “China model.” There’s no such thing. There’s not even such a thing as “the United States model.” There is a predominantly “global model,” which has evolved over several centuries that almost every country in the world wants to be a part of, including China.

This article was originally published in the Asahi Shimbun