Introduction to the Open Forum

In this issue of the Open Forum we present the case for China from three points of view. Ren Xiao elaborates on what China’s leaders mean by the “new type of great power relations,” presenting them in the most favorable light. William Overholt’s presentation centers on a dichotomy between economic development priorities and geopolitical ones, noting some loss of the former in China but putting most of the onus for this negative tendency on the United States and Japan. Finally Eric Li faults US policies since the end of the Cold War for an ideological obsession with historical determinism, leading to direct military containment or invasion, as toward North Korea, color revolutions, as in Central Asia, and peaceful evolution, targeted at China. He argues that China is a natural for our post-ideological era, setting an unchangeable course that is steering the world and the East Asian region toward a system it does not intend to lead. In these three articles, we read that China has an inspired idea for managing relations with the United States and others, has an enviable record of prioritizing economic goals, and is championing a non-ideological approach in opposition to the US messianic illusions.

Probably no issue is more on the minds of observers of international relations in the Asia-Pacific region than how to interpret China’s rise. This trio of articles offers explanations that many will find controversial. This introduction is intended to put them in the context of skepticism that is widely heard in Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul. Ren Xiao has set as his main objective helping readers to understand how Chinese leaders have explained Xi Jinping’s important concept of a “new type of great power relations.” Overholt presents a stark dichotomy of economics and geopolitics to explain the postwar evolution of East Asia, drawing lessons on how China should proceed and how other countries should deal with China’s rise. Eric Li is the most scathing in criticism of US thinking and policy, and, unlike Overholt, sees no signs of change in China’s approach. The lines of argumentation in all of the articles are familiar. One argues that if other states, notably the United States, embrace Chinese thinking, there is no reason to expect a confrontation between the established power and the rising power. Another argues that if China sticks to its longstanding priority for economic development and the United States and Japan go along, there is no reason to expect conflict in the region. Skeptics doubt these arguments. The third finds China’s exemplary thinking rooted in its culture, ignoring other views of its past and its most recent actions and rhetoric. This introduction to add some context is meant to stimulate discussion about each of the three articles from a strategic viewpoint.

This introduction raises some questions about the arguments in the articles. It will be a practice of this journal to scrutinize idealistic presentations closely; so that readers will think about them as strategic analysts often do. The objective is not to claim that one set of views is correct rather than the other, but to bring the thinking of security experts to bear in reflecting on arguments well removed from their purview. Each Special Forum has an introductory article that allows for this scrutiny, and on some occasions, as now, we will add an introduction to articles in the Open Forum to make this scrutiny possible.

Ren Xiao juxtaposes the US appeal for China to be a “responsible power” to China’s new appeal for US leaders to accept a “new type of great power relations.” Many Chinese who criticized the notion of a “responsible power” argued that it was a strategy to enlist their country as a junior partner in support of an international system that serves US interests. In turn, many outsiders who view the concept of a “new type of great power relations” with suspicion view it as a strategy for other states to accede to China’s expansive claims to “core interests” and a regional system that is increasingly sinocentric. In both cases, respondents perceived a one-sided, self-serving appeal in favor of an international or regional order that does not recognize the other side’s interests or national identity. For Chinese, there was concern about being locked into an undesirable world order, while for Americans and others there is concern about being tricked into a step-by-step blueprint to displace the United States, leaving it on the periphery of Asia and abandoning its allies.

Strategic analysts are wary of vague concepts. They look for specific signals that China is willing to accept such bulwarks of the existing order as: the US-centered alliance system; universal values; concerted opposition by applying pressure or the threat of military force against the most flagrant violations of international norms, such as the proliferation of WMD; and peaceful resolution of territorial disputes. In the wording offered to explain this new type of relationship, as in consultations on the pressing problems of our era, these foreign observers have not found convincing evidence that China is taking these objectives into mind. How is one to explain the prevailing pessimism in the United States in comparison to the upbeat, rosy scenarios, raised by this model? Ren Xiao and other Chinese authors conveying the view of leaders refrain from answering such questions. It is a useful service to specify further what is meant by the new favored concept, and we must keep looking for that, even as we take care to probe deeply into its true meaning.

How does the notion of a “new type of great power relations” apply to four issues on the minds of analysts with a more pessimistic orientation? Does it suggest an ongoing shift in Chinese policies or is it solely a call for changes in US policy on each of these matters? First, there is the issue of North Korean nuclear weapons and the future of the Korean Peninsula. Some see a linkage between this concept and China’s further insistence that the Six-Party Talks should be turned into a mechanism for putting the weakening of the US-ROK alliance before denuclearization. Even as China tightens border controls on the export of materials used in the nuclear weapons program, its strategy for the peninsula is not showing serious signs of changing. Second, in the current tense atmosphere in Sino-Japanese relations, some regard China’s concept as an effort to marginalize Japan, to drive a rift between the two allies, and to secure US acquiescence to China’s maritime expansion and territorial demands in a fashion that would do great harm to US-Japan relations. If some consider treatment of Japan unique due to the historical legacy, others see it as a harbinger. Third, for the disputes over the South China Sea, observers warn that these also have become a “core interest” of China, which it is asking the United States to accept at the expense of US relations in the region. Once the pride of China’s multilateralism, ASEAN is now being split by it. Finally, recent talk of a Sino-Russian military alliance puts in doubt how serious China is about prioritizing efforts to forge this new type of US relationship. Many doubt that good Sino-US relations or stability are the high priorities they used to be for Beijing, just as Sino-Japanese relations are secondary.

If the notion of a “new type of great power relations” applies to India and Great Britain, then what is its broader meaning for issues beyond bilateralism? What are its principles for multilateralism? Chinese writings on multilateralism as well as multipolarity have evolved considerably over the past two decades, and it is not clear how this new concept applies. With this notion, we see de-emphasis on regionalism, including what many had expected the Six-Party Talks to become, as a kind of G2 logic arises, however much that term is eschewed. This could imply that sovereignty for China takes precedence over the sovereignty of neighboring states, that Beijing seeks to clarify spheres of influence and civilizational divides, and that (despite Chinese blame on others for disrupting the status quo) a forthright stance in favor of a revisionist order in East Asia, harking back to historical precedents. The “new type of great power relations” has room for other states, as well as the United States, to accede to China’s centrality in forging hegemonic control justified by historical memory and claims of victimization. If these responses of skeptics are incorrect, more clarity from informed Chinese writers could help to dispel them.

Little interest is shown in explanations of China’s new concept in international law and norms, universal values, and the US role in providing public goods and stability. Despite the stress on the Asia-Pacific region, contributions to the regional order by Japan and South Korea as well as others are dismissed in a largely bilateral scheme, consistent with Chinese writings that put the onus on Washington for arousing distrust around the region toward China and suggest that a direct arrangement with Washington is the answer, even if others are left feeling betrayed. At its core, the new concept sharply departs from past assurances that China is a status quo power, leaving open how far historical entitlement combined with the rising power displacing the established power bodes change ahead. In future exchanges of views, skeptics should welcome reassurances on these concerns.

William Overholt is critical of recent Chinese deviation from the priority on economic growth, but his principal criticisms are directed at Japan and the United States. Not only have these states, unlike South Korea, lost their balance by allowing militarist thinking or extreme nationalism to drive their agenda, they have also approached China from a self-defeating geopolitical outlook rather than a mutually beneficial economic orientation, he insists. In contrast to many strategic thinkers in Tokyo and Washington, he sees China as sticking closer to the status quo of postwar Asia’s economics first strategy, and the others losing sight of what had worked so well. Skeptics would pose a number of questions.

Reading Overholt’s arguments, some would ask if economic development has been the long-term objective or primarily a means to an end. Differentiating periods of economics as the goal and others that lose sight of this goal does not do justice to the actual mix of goals at any time. If it is a means to an end, then more economic growth means the long-term goal is better enabled. Thus, economic growth, as in Japan in the 1980s and China in the 2010 emboldens leaders to become more nationalistic and to prioritize geopolitics.

Overholt paints US policies with one brush since 2001, as if the first Bush administration was the same as the second and the Obama administrations, and US policy toward Iraq is parallel to policies toward East Asia, including “rebalancing.” Claims that the United States has embraced Japanese right-wing nationalists are controversial. It is as if Japan is driving the US security agenda toward China, something few security experts accept. The sharp critique of Hillary Clinton’s speech as anti-China is also controversial. There is scant reference to US efforts to engage China on military cooperation or to widespread concern about China’s behavior throughout the region, as states plead for more support from Washington. Indeed, many would argue that Japanese idealism about China has far exceeded Japanese belligerence and opposition to good Sino-US relations. Arguments about China largely reacting to provocations miss the diplomatic give-and-take that has been occurring and the rise of an assertive national identity justifying Chinese actions. To say that Obama has strengthened US ideological proselytization on issues such as North Korea is misleading if one reviews the Sino-US negotiations over the past four years. These are the types of doubts that security analysts are certain to raise.

The list of problems caused by Japan, as if they are at least as serious as those due to China, requires some response. Without defending insensitive, even offensive, statements by Japanese officials, one can observe that its military budget has essentially been frozen, its strategic posture remains exceptionally defensive despite alarming build-ups in states that demonize it, and many of the tensions date from the time of DPJ rule, which began with a burst of idealism about regionalism. Security experts on Japan are not persuaded.

Overholt’s conclusion is that states should focus on economic improvement and not on military aggrandizement. Few would disagree with this as an ideal, but it is not a call for more intense security dialogue through give-and-take, but essentially for unilateral steps that could increase vulnerabilities, as to North Korea. This makes no sense for the United States and Japan, which are showing no interest in military aggrandizement. The ideal of reforms to open economies and establish an FTA of the Asia-Pacific deserves to be restated, but without explanations of barriers due to strategic challenges the analysis will not persuade those who follow the rapidly changing geopolitical challenges attentively.

Eric Li’s views have been attracting considerable attention recently. They lump Obama with Bush and previous US leaders as having a mindset steeped not only in a Cold War mentality but even in a narrow ideological mindset comparable to the communist way of thinking about historical inevitability. Moreover, Li sees US policy in recent times as fully consistent with that mindset. Examples in East Asia include policies toward both North Korea and China. The argument is that if Washington stopped leading, cut back its military budget sharply, agreed to accept North Korea as is, and recognized China’s rise, including its maritime policies, as unproblematic, the world would be a much better place. This is consistent with the argument that the United States is largely at fault for North Korea’s behavior, it is arousing distrust in China in countries along China’s border, and its ideology rather than national interests is causing tensions in Sino-US relations.

At the core of Li’s argument is the view that in the 2010s, Washington is the driver of the troubles afflicting East Asia due to the way Americans think about international relations. In contrast, China’s thinking is benign, and it is the victim of ideological obsessions by others. Does China have ideological obsessions? Are its ideas about the regional order as benign as Li assumes? Have actual decisions about how to handle tensions, from North Korea to the South China Sea, been consistent with the stark dichotomy Li draws? These are questions many readers are bound to ask.

The positive case for China and negative case for the United States and Japan are being made more vigorously in 2013 than in 2010-2012, when China was on the defensive in the academic debate. These three articles air that case. We look forward to airing different views and stimulating greater discussion of the pros and cons of alternative approaches.