Tag Archives: Wang Jisi

China News Update for July 1, 2012 – U.S.–China relations and South China Sea update

The first set of links are on things other than the South China Sea. The second set are devoted to that ongoing issue. See also my new post on the Global Times referring to the South China Sea as one of China’s “core interest.”

  • The People’s Daily reported that preparations are on track for the fall party congress and leadership transition.
  • In an apparently newly released speech to a track II meeting between the United States and China, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai spoke about common U.S.–China interests, adding:

    Upon his acceptance of Lifetime Achievement Award VDZ Publisher’s Night in November 2011, Dr. Kissinger said that the current international system thus faces a paradox: its prosperity is dependent on the success of globalization, but the process produces a political dialectic that often works counter to its aspirations. Indeed, we need to think carefully about how to go beyond political differences and achieve common prosperity. The United States is the most powerful nation in the world. Does the United States regard globalization as a zero-sum game or a win-win process? Does it view the development of China and other big countries as posing challenges to the position of the US or as offering greater development opportunities with more cooperative partners? These are crucial questions. Whether the United States can make a correct choice will to a large extent influence the development of the world situation in the 21st century.

  • In an interview published on China.org.cn, Peking University Professor Wang Jisi speaks about the persistent differences between the United States and China:

    Q: Will the mutual suspicion be lessened by the increasing number of non-governmental exchanges between the two sides?

    Wang Jisi: Not really. Most people, whether in the U.S. or China, who acquire information via domestic mainstream media, will not get a true picture of the other country. Even getting involved in people-to-people communication does not negate wider existing differences. For instance, say that a person travels in America and becomes genuinely fond of the country and people, this individual experience will not eliminate the political differences and mutual suspicion which exist between the two countries. Simply learning more about a country does not necessarily mean you will trust it more. …

    Q: Some scholars think that the U.S. is behind the South China Sea and Diaoyu Islands disputes. Is that true or is the U.S. simply being opportunistic as far as these disputes are concerned?

    Wang Jisi: From the U.S. point of view, increased tension between China and the Philippines over the disputed Huangyan Islands can only be an advantage because, to some degree, the dispute will contain its biggest opponent. On the other hand, it will make the Philippines more reliant on the U.S. China cannot openly blame the U.S. for provoking or exacerbating the disputes, despite the fact that it will certainly suspect the U.S. of being is behind these disputes. Despite this, the U.S. will definitely not become involved in the dispute.

Now on to the South China Sea

  • Four Chinese Marine Surveillance ships on Sunday reached “Huayang Reef,” a coral formation in the disputed Spratly Islands, Chinese state media reported. The Spratlys are at the core of a China–Vietnam maritime territorial dispute. [China.org.cn] [AFP]
  • Anti-Chinese protests erupted in Vietnam Sunday. Hundreds [Reuters] or about 200 [AP] protested an announcement by the China National Offshore Oil Company (CNOOC) that it is seeking foreign collaborators to develop fuel resources in the disputed Spratly Islands. Vietnam’s government claims the areas up for exploration are within its 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
  • A Human Rights Watch representative told the Voice of America that some prominent bloggers were prevented from attending the Vietnamese protests.
  • The nationalist-leaning government-controlled Chinese newspaper Global Times issued an editorial on the South China Sea that could be read as a threat against Vietnam and the Philippines:

    As to China, it is not interested in being involved in frequent wrangles with Vietnam and the Philippines over the South China Sea, which is merely one of its core interests.* As a great power, China has strategic concerns all over the Asia-Pacific region and even the world. But if Vietnam and the Philippines continue to provoke and go too far, they must be prepared to face strong countermeasures from China.

  • *The use of the term “core interest” is politically charged, and I’ve devoted an entire post to the issue.
  • Meanwhile, the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Samuel Locklear, spoke with the Global Times for an interview. Not especially ground-breaking, but it’s worth a skim.

'National interests' and dealing with U.S.–China distrust

From Kenneth Lieberthal, a political scientist now at the Brookings Institution, writing in a new report with Chinese scholar Wang Jisi, “Addressing U.S.–China Strategic Distrust“:

Too little understanding of how the Chinese political system actually functions also leads easily to Americans’ viewing Chinese decision making as strategic, coordinated, and disciplined. Disparate conflicting outcomes produced by the relatively uncoordinated initiatives of different ministries, enterprises, and localities are therefore often seen as part of a seamless web of Politbuto Standing Committee policy designed to confuse and deceive American policy makers.

Lieberthal is in a sense offering a think tank–style version of a much older insight that came to be known as the “fragmented authoritarianism” model. Nonetheless, presented here as part of an account of U.S.–China distrust, the message that U.S. leaders misunderstand Chinese political processes is important.

However, U.S. policy makers are not uniquely responsible, according to Lieberthal: “The Chinese system takes particular care to conceal its core political processes—such as selection of top leaders and civil-military interactions—from outside view.” Indeed, the lack of mutual understanding between the U.S. and Chinese governments is at times extraordinary.

I find the rest of the paper interesting, if not especially ground-breaking. Co-written with Wang (each author writing from the perspective of his government, and then co-writing the analysis), the Brookings paper has been touted by The New York Times as a “Rare Glimpse of U.S.-China Frictions.”

One thing that persists through the paper—though it includes some good ideas about potential for increased mutual trust—is that it stubbornly sticks to a rhetoric and vocabulary of “U.S. interests” and “Chinese interests.” This interests framework is terribly limiting: It fails to capture the entanglement and integration of the two countries’ economic, security, environmental, and political lives. Moreover, it buys the realist international relations conceit of self-same nation-states that possess characteristics like power and interests without internal differentiation or fundamental diversity.

As the paper argues, people in both countries would do better to think carefully about precisely who is doing what in the other country. The authors argue for more subtlety while using the language of simplicity. For a Brookings report (as opposed to for instance an academic conference paper), it’s perhaps hard to push a new way of thinking about “our nation,” but consider this:

Who do the so-called U.S. interests really represent, as practiced at the top of government? Has U.S. democracy been successful in aggregating, harmonizing, and empowering the collective interests of all citizens, or is it more likely that certain groups are being served more directly by U.S. foreign policy? How about in China: What precisely does a “Chinese interest” mean? As the report notes, various parts of the government don’t always act in coordination—so why should we expect interests to be more coherent than actions?

This is not a new argument, and indeed Lieberthal’s work helped introduce me to the notion of disaggregating the Chinese state for analysis, but it bears mentioning that even a paper about misperception and distrust falls into the old patterns of oversimplification. If there’s one message I’d like to pass across the trust divide here, it’s that we’re all baffled by the complexity. U.S. leaders are never sure what’s going to happen next at other levels of government. Chinese leaders may have little knowledge about what another department is up to. If top think tank and government thinkers start to acknowledge mutual confusion, perhaps caution will reign.