China Feeling Its Oats

Those who seek to get off the collision course have their work cut out for them.

Flickr/ryan_xmI just returned from participating in the Beijing Forum, an annual event that takes place at the beautiful campus of Peking University. Hundreds of public intellectuals and academics from many nations engaged in this particular talkfest, which seeks to highlight the softer side of China.

My roundtable—on the topic of core values—was off the record. A Chinese colleague explained that, “we hope next year we will be able to have it on the record.” Another told the panel that each year he asks the American students that take his class whether their parents approved of their coming to China. He reported that most say “no” and that he tells them “good you came, there is nothing to fear.”

The chair of the meeting chuckled and added that “maybe the secret police is so secret no one can see it.” Later, over drinks and with a much smaller group, he allowed that the budget of the internal security apparatus was larger than that of the military. And when I asked for help when the computer in my room seemed not to work, the hotel staff explained that I could only access Chinese websites and blogs. The reality seems to lag considerably behind the PR.

In private meetings that followed, Chinese scholars of international relations who I talked with let it be known that this was not a good time for discussion, as the Communist National Congress had just begun its meeting, which culminates in a once-in-a-decade change of leadership. At this stage, nobody knows what the party line will be, so it is a wise strategy not to be quoted one way or the other.

I told my Chinese colleagues that I was concerned about the direction U.S.-Sino relations were developing: we were on a collision course, and I was interested in hearing suggestions about how to change direction. I quoted Henry Kissinger who stated that the remarks American political leaders made about China during our recent election were “deplorable” and echoed his call for “co-evolution.” I pointed to a suggestion put forth by leading Australian security strategist Hugh White indicating that the major players in the region (the United States, China, Japan and India) form an Asian “concert of powers,” comparable to the power sharing arrangement that emerged in post-Napoleonic Europe. And I mentioned Zbigniew Brzezinski’s idea, that the United States and China form an informal G2 partnership and leaders in both countries meet regularly for extensive discussions, not only on matters pertaining to U.S.-China relations, but issues of global import.

The response was rather underwhelming. One Chinese professor of international relations indicated that China was not ready to assume the burdens and responsibilities that were involved in sharing the duties of governing the world, as implied in the G2 concept. (This is a point amplified by Robert Zoellick, who has asked if China is willing to be a “responsible stakeholder,” by which he meant, among other things, making greater contributions to foreign aid, peacekeeping and humanitarian relief.)

A Brookings scholar who joined the conversation allowed that when he represented the United States officially and China was asked to take on this or that mission or duty on the world stage, its response was, “it is better if the U.S. proceeds.” But when Washington did take the lead, the Chinese complained about being left out. Well, responded a Chinese professor, China might be ready for C2 but not G2. What is C2? “Cooperate with the U.S., but not co-govern,” was the answer.

I said that, above all, we must be sure to demilitarize the U.S.-China conflict, and hope that China is willing to settle the disputes over the South China Sea in the same peaceful and conciliatory ways it settled many previous ones, including with Russia in 2004. This suggestion did not fare much better. “These settlements took place when China was weaker and its leaders less confident,” I was told. The United States was blamed (not completely without reason) for pushing Japan to stand up to China, as part of a U.S. containment strategy and drive to get Japan to increase its defense budget. My academic colleagues argued that historical evidence indicates that the contested islands are part of China and that “now that we marked our land borders, we must complete our nation-building by drawing the sea borders.”

These arguments could be just part of the opening salvo of what is going to be—one must hope—a negotiated settlement. Depending on the word that comes down once the new leadership is well ensconced, it may evolve into more conciliatory positions and greater willingness on the part of China to be a good global citizen. For now, it seems that those who seek to get off the collision course have their work cut out for them.

Amitai Etzioni served as a senior advisor to the Carter White House; taught at Columbia University, Harvard and The University of California at Berkeley; and is a university professor and professor of international relations at The George Washington University. His latest book is Hot Spots: American Foreign Policy in a Post-Human-Rights World.