US involvement could tip South China Sea into war - Asia studies head

North Korea has apparently just tested an H-bomb - a shocking development, even though some doubt it actually was a hydrogen bomb. Already, Washington lawmakers are grabbing the moment to push through reinforcement of America’s presence in the Asia Pacific, already catalyzed by the “pivot to Asia” plan aimed against China. As Europe lines up to strike lucrative deals with Beijing, Washington is growing increasingly worried, even counter-attacking with the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement. The world is already an uneasy place, with Jihad rampant and now we have potentially deadly armament at the hands of unpredictable Pyongyang. Will the US and China be able to co-operate? Why is the West is so afraid of Beijing? We dive deep into the world of Asia Pacific political games with the president of the Shanghai Institute of International studies. Dongxiao Chen is on Sophie&co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:  Dongxiao Chen, president of the Shanghai Institute of International studies, it’s great to have you on our show today, welcome.

Dongxiao Chen: Thank you.

SS: So London has given President Xi a royal welcome recently, and that’s after UK criticizing China on a number of issues for years and years. What’s going on? Is UK after some lucrative deals or is it something else right now?

CD: Well, you see that nowadays we are living in an economically globalized world, and I think that the leaders, if they are really concerned of national interests, they should be more concerned about those practical and benefit of their economic interests. This should be always on  their high agenda, and I think that to compare with the complementarity of both sides of the economic development and as well as this huge potential of this cooperation, not only on the economic side but on the other side - I think that that’s the main reason driving London more closer to Beijing.

SS: Lucrative deals, right?

CD: Yeah, to some extent.

SS: You know, this cozying up of UK and China towards each other has drawn criticism from Washington. Why is that two sovereign countries can’t have a relationship without irritating America?

CD: I think that some Washington people - I am not quite sure whether the President Obama or those officials publicly would criticize those economic relations between London and Beijing…

SS: But you know they’re annoyed, right? If I know, you should know…

CD: Yeah, of course, but there are some people, in Washington, they could not understand why: London used to be the closest ally and now seems to have shifted away from Washington and more closer to Beijing. I think that they could not adapt themselves to a more multi-polarized world in which China has much more important role, particularly in economic aspect, and that London, if it is to continue to maintain its status of financial center, then they should do something to strengthen its ties with Beijing, if they are going to try to maintain their status of financial center.

SS: You have also said that there’s need to rethink the regional security order in the Asia-Pacific region. That would actually mean challenging the existing American alliance system that is already in place. But would it still mean that it has to include the U.S. in the new order?

CD: Of course. I think that if we’re going to construct, or build up a regional order, sustainable. It should be an inclusive multilateral process, including those bilateral alliances. But how to make this inclusive multilateral process connected or aligned with those bilateral? Big question. This is not a problem on China’s side. This is the challenge for Washington, for the U.S., because they still believe that this regional architecture, this regional security order should be based upon the bilateral alliance excluding China. So, I think that this is the problem: obstacles that the U.S. should overcome.

SS: We’re going to talk about excluding China from this architecture a bit later, but first, I want to talk about America’s pivot to Asia - and I’m talking about America redeploying its military in the Asia-Pacific region. Is it a real threat to China or this move has little substance, actually?

CD: Well, conceptually speaking, it should not be perceived as an existing threat. Because, based upon our reading of so-called “pivoting” or rebalancing, it is multidimensional. Of course, Washington said that it is going to shift 60% of its military force to Asia-Pacific, but that’s only part of it. In addition to that the U.S. tried to reap the benefit of dynamic economic cooperation in Asia-Pacific. Washington tried to grasp this opportunity. So, that’s both the military dimension, as well as the economic dimension. U.S. said it also tries to be much more engaged with East Asia, Asia-Pacific, as a stabilizing force. So, we just have to look and see to what extent - because deeds speak louder than those words.

SS: Let’s, for now, let’s focus on the military aspect; we will get to the economic aspect and all of that. China has staked claims South China sea, and then its neighbors have turned to America to actually dispute these claims. Do you think claiming this territory is worth this diplomatic row?

CD: The tensions rising over the South China Sea are not by China, rather, because of some other countries, some of the Asian countries included. They have occupied these territories that have been long claimed by China, but for a long period of time China has showed its self-restraint, and we hope that we can shift those differences over those territories’ sovereignty, through this joint exploitation. This is our strategy which we have been carrying on for many-many years. We have never changed that. But nowadays it’s the U.S. who used to say that the U.S. has “no position”, “tries to maintain its neutrality”. Now it seems to me that the U.S. has its position and tries to stir up the tension. That makes problems.

SS: But you now see U.S. and its allies staging naval drills in the waters next to China, and you have the Chinese press that calls for the nation’s military to be ready for provocations. Can a real confrontation glare up here?

CD: So far, I think that we have given quite clear message to Washington that the South China Sea is most important area. If we can keep sealine communications safe, there will be for public good for all countries, including China and the U.S.. So, don’t try to stir up these tensions. Let’s manage these differences. If we can maintain the stability - because the so-called “freedom of navigation”, U.S. is very concerned. It’s not a matter here. So I think, why not we - Washington, Beijing - work together?

SS: Okay, but this was a very scholar-like answer that you just gave me. I’m asking, the way things stay now, with America and its allies staging drills in the waters next to China - do you think there’s a real chance of an actual confrontation or its overexaggerated?

CD: Of course. The possibilities always stay there. If we could not manage those differences, it is quite likely that those incidents may escalate or spin out of control, based upon a miscalculation. Both sides understand the differences there, but they try to avoid those confrontation, because it is in their common interest.

SS: Because, I mean, the confrontation between these two powerhouses would be insane to even really consider, right? To even start to consider, it’s crazy, that America and China could actually confront each other.

CD: Of course.

SS: But you have said that peace between China and America will end once their mutual interests exhaust each other. What exactly does that mean?

CD: I mean that for a sustainable workable big country-relationship, the common interest is important but not enough. Both sides should also cultivate the sense of mutual respect. If both sides could cultivate this sense of mutual respect and can build up this shared common understanding of what will the regional order look like, or what it should be, it is more likely for them to, you know, solve these differences, even if they could not see eye-to-eye on this specific issues, but they, at least, understand that these are specific issues, we shall not have these specific differences of interests to hijack overall relationship. So, this is what I mean that even if these common interests are exhausted, at least there’s common understanding of these important norms of interacting with each other.

SS: So, okay, let’s say common interests are exhausted, but other common issues aren’t worked on - then what comes instead of peace?

CD: If we have a static perspective, if there’s no agreement on the vision of order or what order will be in future, it is very likely that both sides would not try to expand the list of their cooperation. They will just focus on their differences.

SS: Okay, so they just end their cooperation but it doesn’t mean they become adversaries.

CD: If both sides do not see each other as adversaries, if they believe that they can be partners for building a new world order, than they can find, they can expand these cooperative areas. For instance, if both sides could not agree with how to counter terrorism, then the terrorism itself will be an issue diving each other rather uniting each other. But if both sides can share their common understanding of how to counter terrorism ,then the terrorism, the so-called “third party issues” bring them together. So, aside of those existing bilateral common interests, there’s a huge number of potential common interests going beyond their bilateral scope, but that depends upon whether both sides -Washington and China can share some basic norms and visions of the future.

SS: I want to know your honest answer, your subjective opinion in this matter, not a scholar’s opinion - right now, if you put your hand on your heart, would you say America and China are partners or adversaries?

CD: Well, you know, China-U.S. relationship is extremely complicated. The single terms like “partner”, “adversary”, “competitor” is not sufficient enough to generalize. So, I would say that yes, it is a “competitive partnership”.

SS:  So you’ve also said that when it comes to understanding Great Power relations, America has some blind spots. What do you mean?

CD: When I say that there’s a “blind spot”, I mean the U.S. strategic culture, their unique strategic culture, which, I would’ve called it a kind of “superpower autism”.

SS: Superpower autism?

CD: Egoism. You know, U.S., historically, because of its unique geographical location and also its culture of exceptionalism and in the past decades U.S. has enjoyed its superpower position and even a period of a unipolar moment. So, U.S. sometimes is too self-confident and always tries to reduce its own vulnerability to zero at the expense of other countries’ security. But, as a matter of fact, in real life, it’s impossible for a country to try  to reduce its vulnerability to zero, but the U.S. try to pursue such kind of policy, what I call an “absolute security” - that is a kind of a blind spot, because when the U.S., Washington tries to pursue this absolute security, actually, it just puts other countries at a different level of threat, imposed by Washington, because U.S. would always try to enjoy, because of its technology, try to, you know, information superiority, cyber-superiority, military superiority or even try to control some of the outer space. That will impose a lot of challenges and security threats to other countries.

SS: So when President Obama comes out and says that the U.S. will not let China write the rules of the global economy - do you think it’s fair, that China can’t but for some reason America is entitled to it?

CD:  Of course, it’s unfair. I think, we, Chinese, believe that we are living in a multipolar world and every country should have its own say in decision making of roles and norms.. It is impossible for a single country to try to set agenda. It’s not China, but of course, it’s not the U.S. We can compete. So, I think that all those countries should have their own voice. But nowadays there’s developing countries which are underrepresented…

SS: You’ve said that the voices of the developing countries aren’t heard enough - I wouldn’t call China a developing country, but I know that China ranks 6th in IMF voting share, as well as China is the second largest economy in the world. Is it fair that your country isn’t given a louder voice?

CD:  Of course, we don’t believe that nowadays IMF or World Bank, those Bretton Woods systems need to be reformed, unless, I think, it could be a threat for the new balance of power, of the global economy. So far, this kind of reforms was slow. Partially, some of those reform proposals have been blocked by the U.S. within the Congress. It is unfair.

SS: Is that why China is coming up with the China-led Asia Infrastructure and Investment bank?

CD:  It is partially a reason, because we believe that it will help, it will give some pressure on existing multinational institutions, including  IMF and the World Bank to accelerate their reform pace and so I think  it’s very good…

SS: So, it is about countering the Western influence after all?

CD:  There is some competition, but it is also complimentary, because by reforming those reforming those existing multilateral economic institutions, it will also be beneficial in the long term for those developing countries. Because, even those developing  countries, they believe that multilateral institutions - IMF or World Bank - they are too bureaucratic. It’s efficiency is so low, and they need to reform. But the Western interest there is to try and to block, to resist the reform. So we believe, we are rationally speaking, we think  that if we can make this structure, organisation, much more clear, much more efficient - that will be good for all countries, not only for developing countries. So, at least, I’ve heard a lot of scholars and experts from Great Britain, from the U.S., they think that yes, it’s wrong for these kinds of reform proposals to be blocked in Washington DC or by the Congress.

SS: But what about politicians? Why do you think America reacted so actually about China coming up with  the whole Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, especially urging their partners like GB, France, Australia, Germany, not to join their venture - which they did anyways. Why were they so panicky about western countries joining this new institution?

CD: Washington, including President Obama himself have recognized that it’s a mistake. They totally misunderstand the mission and the function of the AIB. They believe that it is kind of counter-Western institution, it is kind of a conspiracy plan, that China, Beijing tried to set up a new kitchen; but actually, as China said, it’s not going to set up a new kitchen, but we are going to try to add up a new facility, make this old kitchen much more efficient. So that’s the way.

SS: Do you think America should join this venture?

CD: Of course, if they are willing to do that. I think that it is quite open. Chinese always keep Washington posted on process of AIB, including, we always even kept Tokyo informed, we always inform them about the status of what is going on and Washington, you know, they are quite clear about the process, it’s not secret, it’s not a “black box” operation.

SS: So, the U.S. has an extensive system of alliance in Asia Pacific. They’re actually coming up with a Trans-Pacific-Partnership deal right now, and they’re not being secretive about it - for them it's all about excluding China from the process. Should China be doing something more to counter that?

CD: China felt the pressure of the TPP on multi-faceted aspects, because TPP, it’s negotiated in secret, we just do not know what it’s really about, particularly it is has a potential of an active impact on China’s interests. So, we always, you know, we were quite clear to Washington colleagues that they should let this process be much more transparent.

SS: So it’s about transparency, not about being included in the process?

CD: This is one thing - I said, multi-faceted aspects. It should be transparent so that we should know what is going on. Secondly, so far, a lot of these articles, particularly in regard to this state-owned enterprises reform, in regard to this information, digital economy, in regard to labor force standard - they are quite new.

SS: The more interesting question is, will they be able to isolate China? Will this bill somehow manage to isolate China?

CD: I think, it is impossible, because China’s trade volume, it’s market, is extremely important, so without China’s involvement into TPP, I think the influence of the TPP, well, would important, of course, but not that important. So, Washington has already said: “we welcome China, it all depends on China’s decision”. We still try to wait and see, because it all depends on China’s own economic reform, whether we are ready. But at the same time,  think, TPP is... sometimes we feel pressure, sometimes we think it will be a kind of leverage to be used pushing forward a reform at home.

SS: Funny you say that, because I was speaking to American Congressman, his name is Brad Sherman, and he’s against TPP, but he actually argues that TPP would be beneficial for China, meaning, you know, all these goods are mostly assembled in China and then they’re sent to the U.S. via TPP members like Vietnam. What do you think, could it actually be beneficial to China?

CD: No, I  think if China won’t join TPP, for a long period of time, based upon a lot of surveys, a lot of research, that this impact will obviously be felt on quite a number of industries in China, particularly given this trade transferring from China to other countries, like Vietnam, Mexico. So, the long-term here is quite clear that the impact is obvious. But in short term, I don't know. The short term is not so obvious.

SS: Dongxiao Chen, president of the Shanghai Institute of International studies, thank you very much for this interesting insight into China-U.S. relations. It’s been great talking to you.