Jonathan Holslag On world order and disorder

Interview with Phoenix Newspaper

Translation of a long interview that was published in one of China’s leading newspapers. Also see the PDF pages 1 and 2.

Looking back at your book launch event, what’s your impression about the debate with China’s ambassador and scholar? How have you made this debate happen, as you know most of Chinese diplomats traditionally prefer to keep a low profile? The time that Chinese diplomats kept a low profile is over. In the ten years that I worked on China, I could witness a remarkable transformation of China’s diplomacy. I remember indeed my first meetings with Chinese officials that hardly spoke and if they spoke, they usually read a short statement prepared in Beijing. Meetings were exchanges of official opinions.

Since, a new generation of diplomats has stepped in the footlight, very well trained, often educated abroad and with a strong command of foreign languages. They are often very interesting and well informed sparring partners in discussions and they are now also allowed more to speak freely. These diplomats do your country a great service. Ambassador Qu is one of them. I knew him from his period as the president of CIIS. He knows what he is talking about, but also knows who is talking with, what the sensitivities are, so conversations with him are pleasant and productive.

But that does not mean that they have an easy time. Committed as they are, they face a hard time to mediate between the growing expectations abroad and China’s own interests. I find it amazing how they often manage to find a way out of tensions, trade conflicts or territorial disputes, without having to make important sacrifices on the national interest. That does not mean that the tensions are solved, but at least that they do not escalate in the short term. I often call it a more elegant form of hard-nosed brinkmanship, power politics with a smile.

You argue that China’s most important interests are incompatible with the idea of a peaceful development in a complex Asia environment, and that the tragedy of great power politics would be unavoidable. Although the problem is not caused by China alone, in the end, China will not be able to avoid war with neighboring countries. Could you tell us how you came to these conclusion? Right. In the book I make the argument that the rising powers, in this case China, are as much responsible for strategic tensions then the power on the defence, being the United States, Japan and others. Both parties concerns are understandable.

A second argument is that it is hard to judge which party is right or wrong in the different conflicts. I understand, for example, that the United States seek to protect their security by staying close to Asia with their military capabilities, but I also understand China’s aspiration to break through that American defence perimeter. I understand it, also, if countries have problems with the very aggressive industrial policy that China pursues, but so can I understand China’s reasons as a developing country for doing it. Most of the Western countries did more or less the same.

There is, in other words, no moral high ground in this story. It is mostly about power and privileges. What China now argues is that we should not be so concerned about how much power it gains, but what it does with it and in that regard, China promises that it will be peaceful and benign. China is not the first rising power with such promises. Most rising powers – from Napoleon to the United States – tried to gain acceptance by emphasizing peace and harmony.

But… it seldom worked. This was because other countries had difficulties believing it and usually saw that the rising powers converted more of their economic power into military prowess or political influence. This was also because the rising power did not adhere to its strategic-self restraint and became too aggressive. A last reason why peaceful rise mostly failed, was the fact that if rising powers started to get into economic problems, they often resorted to nationalism to distract domestic attention.

I do not see why China will avoid these pitfalls and, indeed, this is especially so because what China wants is incompatible with what the other countries want. Putting it differently, China’s interests are hard to reconcile with the promises of peace and harmony. Consider its attempt to become a rich, high-income country. There is nothing wrong with that. We all want to become rich, but the repercussion of China being rich is that it will, by far, be the largest power in Asia, especially as India lags so far behind, and command the largest resources that can be used for the purpose of coercion.

Consider its objective to reunify the motherland and to recover lost territory. From China’s viewpoint this is a just and normal thing to do, and I know all the historical arguments that it puts forward to make its case, but from the viewpoint of Taipei or other claimants in territorial disputes, this looks very ominous. And even, then, if China says, let’s shelve the dispute: would that make much impression if you see it building a huge navy, coast guard ships as large as a destroyer and developing disputed islands into fortresses?

So, my expectation is that these issues will sooner or later be decided by power and force. I find it hard to imagine that other countries will sit idly until China reunifies the motherland.

Ambassador Qu Xing said that China has a clear definition in its “White Paper on China’s peaceful development” of its core interests, namely, “state sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity and national reunification, China’s political system established by the Constitution and overall social stability, and the basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.” I think it is quite clear what China’s main interests or great aspirations are. You don’t even need to put them on paper? In my book, I reconstruct these aspirations through the last 65 years. There might be changes in formulation or a dash more or less on a map, but those aspirations are still largely the same. It is also my conclusion that China’s territorial claims have been remarkably consistent. Yes, there have been offers for joint exploitation of oil blocks, joint patrols, confidence building, and so forth, but China’s claims are still the same. I call this flexibility around a static core of interests.

And, let’s be honest, do you see any Chinese leader willing and able to compromise to Japan about the East China Sea, to Vietnam or the Philippines about the South China Sea, or to Taipei about secession. Of course not! That would be political suicide. The Chinese people expect the leadership to stand strong. So, for all the talk about peace and dialogue, for all the regional integration and interdependence, I don’t believe that these core interests will disappear. They might be less urgent from time to time, but the more power China gains, the more these interests will raise tensions. Keeping a low profile or keeping interests vague is no longer possible, I believe.

In the last two years China had a lot of trouble and conflicts with its neighbours. But from the second half of last year it seemed that almost everything began to change and China seems to be more willing to share its economic opportunities.  Right, and that is the most intriguing part of the story. That China uses economic diplomacy to mollify rivals is not a new thing. That has been going on since the seventies, more or less. The questions that I ask in my book are the following. First: is China’s economic charm offensive effective enough to keep other Asian countries satisfied in the short term, so that they do not resist China now that it is still weak and fragile? Thus far, it did. Despite the many complaints about China’s assertiveness, balancing in the region remains very modest.

Second: is China’s economic policy going to divert so much trade and industrial activity from its neighbours that they might soon not be able anymore to do serious balancing and thus to resist China. Take India and Japan. The two countries have been no match for China’s robust industrial policy and lost ground. India is struggling now with political fragmentation and quarrels between its states about who gets the investment. China benefits from that. I would say that even if countries would like to spend more on defence to keep China at bay, some of them would increasingly have difficulties to do so because their economy is so far behind China.

That leads to a scenario in which China might win the war without having to fight. It will then build a new Sinocentric order without having to use violence. That would be a bad deal for most neighbours, as they will inevitably lose in territorial disputes, be forced into unequal economic relations and even be impelled into unequal political relations. In the end, I conclude, this strategy is not going to work. On the one hand, China, as a result of its own slowdown, will be less able to continue its charm offensive. On the other hand, the climate of economic uncertainty in Asia will cause more nationalism and reduce the scope for leaders de deescalate whenever a conflict flares up.

Is China’s foreign policy today reactive or proactive or both? Both, indeed. It is quite clear that it works towards certain ambitions, but it also encounters unexpected challenges. Now, in my book I explain that even in being reactive, China tended to be quite successful. Bit by bit, it became bolder in showing its growing influence, but it always backtracked quick enough to prevent a stalemate. This again explains why all its neighbours are talking about China’s assertiveness but still refrain from hard balancing, more investment in hard power and forming stronger security alliances around China. We are still at the hedging stage, but, as I said, it will be difficult for China to carry on with that brinkmanship.

Some people believe that China’s trying to achieve global primacy to supplant the United States. There are others who think that China is seeking to push the United States out of the Pacific to implement its own Monroe Doctrine. Is this China’s grand strategy or a kind of overestimation? There is truth in that. China’s military strategy towards the Western Pacific is a strategy of active defence, meaning that it has to be able to keep rivals at a distance. In peacetime, those countries might be allowed to use the seas inside the first island chain for commerce and even military passage, much like at the time of the Monroe Doctrine, but in case of war, China wants to be able to keep them out. For the rest, China is clearly seeking to weave its neighbours into a web of railways, roads and industrial supply chains around its own economy. That’s no secret, by the way. If one reads carefully into the documents of different ministries that goal is quite clear. I am making no judgment whether this is right or wrong. It’s a normal thing for a rising power to do, but one should then also expect the usual outcomes: distrust and fear.

China has long pushed for a more what it calls fair and just international order. But in recent years it always called for “maintaining the post war world order.” For example, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang said in Davos this year that the world order established after World War II as well as generally recognized norms governing international relations must be maintained, not overturned. China Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China is a participant, a guardian and a reformer but not a challenger of the world order when he chaired an open debate at the UN about the UN Charter and the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II last month. A just international order means a multipolar international order and for the vested powers that means a loss of power and influence. What I propose in my book, is that it does not matter so much whether China revises the world order and thus seeks to redistribute power, inside the existing body of rules and organizations, or outside. I can perfectly imagine a future in which China sticks to most of the free trade rules, signs up to most of the climate treaties and sends peacekeepers to all parts of the world, but still loom as a threat to the security and the privileges of some of its neighbours and the Western world.

Again, they will lose status, security and prosperity. As regards to the latter, prosperity, that can even happen in absolute terms. In many Western countries, citizens are effectively losing purchasing power. In such situation it does not matter so much whether your competitors are respecting some rules. Perhaps the vested powers will come to like these rules less and less, because they are no longer in their favour.

In recent years there is a wave in U.S. to discuss if U.S. is declining. Is US ready and willing to share the role of world leader with China? Does China have the capacity to “lead the world”? Well, for the next decade, I consider it imaginable that the US and China work closer together. The US is still far ahead and there is renewed economic confidence. So, less need for hard balancing. But there will be problems with such a compact. No country likes to be stuck between two superpowers in an awkward embrace and that goes certainly for Japan. Smaller powers can still dag the two great powers into conflict. The United States is also sensitive to symbolical red lines, like no power against Taiwan and other matters. I can see that in the run-up to the presidential elections in the US, most potential candidates have remained polite towards China, but a lot can change very quickly if the US Congress thinks that some of its own resolutions are violated. Finally, I would add, that trust is to limited to make this compact effective.

China is trying to build a “new model of major country relations” (New Type of Major Power Relations) with United States. Chinese vision of the relations is no conflict or confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.  A new model of major country relations for China means gaining status and power. A new model of major country relations for China means losing status and power.

China’s first period of strategic opportunity began from 2011 when the United States were trapped in Afghanistan and Iraq. Some people say that United States have to spend more and more energy on Ukraine and contain Russia and IS. China may embrace its second period of strategic opportunity because United States couldn’t invest enough resources in Asia Pacific. Is it a logical inference or just a kind of assumption? Why?

OK. Let’s assume that I was the White House’s mastermind. If I were the US, I would do six things. Reduce my economic dependence, at least for what concerns the flows of tangible goods, on the rest of the world and restore the geopolitical benefit of being an island power. In some way, that is already happening. Next, I would leave the Europeans more on their own. De-insurance instead of reinsurance. That’s the only way to make them take their security seriously and to start on invest in hard power. If it works, it will create a more assertive Europe, but also a more reliable transatlantic partner. In addition, it would help avoid that Russia moves more to the Chinese camp. The third thing I would do is to balance against China where it is the most vulnerable. That means along its long supply lines in the Indian Ocean and the gateways to the Middle East, in the Pacific Ocean and, to a lesser extent, near its vulnerable frontier in the South and the West. Fourth, I would make sure that I would be able to deter China in the nuclear realm, in space and in cyber. Last, I would sit and wait until China gets dragged into a local conflict, and to make sure that it does not win. Meanwhile, I would continue to shout to my citizens that we are great and god-blessed. Let’s be clear, I don’t want this to happen and I am not saying that Europe should support that, but this was, putting it in very straightforward terms, what I would do if I were an American.

David Shambaugh argued recently: China is a very conflicted and ambivalent country about its global identity and roles in the world. It doesn’t know who it is and what it wants. Anybody who is sort of looking for consistency in Chinese foreign policy, you’re not going to find it. We find a number of different contradictory and inconsistent behaviors. From the outside it does look indeed confusing from time to time. But if one considers what China wants, it is all quite predictable.

Europe has a long history of conflicts, war and reconciliation in the near 100 years. And today in Ukraine it’s not peaceful. What kind of lessons can we draw from Europe? That federations come and go. That peace comes and goes. That the belief in the feasibility of peace comes and goes. Let me be clear: I do not take for granted that the European Union will survive. With its current development model it just can’t and given the lack still of a robust foreign policy in such a restive neighbourhood it becomes even less unlikely. That was the subject of my previous book. I still believe that Europe has a huge potential and that it is the best part of the world, but we have to reinvent it. The more I read in Europe’s history, the more I fear that Asia’s future will look a lot like it.

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