Beijing can defend itself against American aggression – Chinese think tank dean

Washington is taking another shot at building relations with Beijing. The Chinese leader is preparing for a state visit to the US to meet with the new president. But this comes as tensions over the South China Sea continue to boil over. With hostile rhetoric from both sides, where will the relationship head? Last week, we got the American take on where the US and China stand. To get the view from Beijing, we are joined by a frequent adviser to the Chinese government, the dean of a leading Chinese think tank – the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, a participant of the Moscow Economic Forum – Dr. Wang Wen.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Dr. Wang Wen, head of the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies, it's' really great to have you on our program today, welcome. You're also a frequent adviser to the Chinese president as we know, there's a lot of questions to discuss. After a series of threats against China from the new American administration - from starting a trade war, to expelling China from its artificial islands - the U.S. seems to be trying to strike a friendly chord. Is Beijing ready to turn the page and start fresh?

Wang Wen: Well, actually, how to deal with the new American Administration - it's one of the most important missions of China's foreign policy, and as you've mentioned that President Xi and President Trump will meet next week - I think, this will have a very good start point for the new period of the U.S.-China relationship.

SS: You mentioned the Mar-a-Lago summit. What does China expect from that meeting?

WW: I think that the U.S. should learn from Russia, because Russia respects China very much and China respects Russia very much, but the U.S. didn't respect Russia, didn't respect China - you know, in the past. So that's why this time China's target is to, maybe, tell the U.S. how to respect the other great powers such as China, such as Russia. I think, nowadays, one of the very big challenges for China-U.S. relationship is how to avoid the historical trap - that means, if one great power rises up, another great power will launch a war at it or we'll have a war between those great powers, the existing and the rising power. So I think China doesn't want to have a war with the U.S., so China wants to avoid historical trap with the U.S.

SS: I want to talk in detail about how China should avoid the war, because the words of diplomacy sound wonderful and it encourages a lot of people, but then you go into detail and you wonder how  that's going to work out - for instance, Secretary of State Tillerson said that China and the US are guided by ‘non-conflict and non-confrontation’, but it's not like the US is going to stop its navy patrols in the South China sea, or China is not likely to give up on its islands - so is it in fact impossible to take out the ‘confrontation’ out of that relationship?

WW: I think the South China sea is the issue that is very-very complicated. Nowadays China and U.S. have a very good channel to negotiate and to coordinate. I think this is a very good...

SS: What's that channel?

WW: For example, Mr. Secretary visited Beijing,  also we have a few of high officials who visited DC and we can discuss face-to-face and then coordinate and negotiate about the problem and deal with the crisis. I think this is very good. For China, nowadays, from think-thank scholar’s perspective, now we have enough confidence to deal with the U.S. about South China sea.

SS: I was speaking to Pentagon adviser the other day and he said that there are people in Washington who want showdown with China - that's his direct quote. Are there similar hawks in China who would also want a full long confrontation with the U.S.?

WW: I think the U.S.' viewpoint about South China sea is very-very complicated. There are a lot of different viewpoints....

SS: I am not talking only about South China sea -just in general. You know, there are people in America right now, maybe some in Administration or not who are actually for confrontation with China, for one reason or another - maybe, because of what's you've mentioned, that there's one greater power and the other one is rising and just in the matter of years it will become even greater than America itself. Maybe that's the reason why they would want a showdown. I don't know. But there are people in America who would want that. Are there similar hawks in China who would want that as well?

WW: I don't think so. I think that firstly, the U.S. cannot not consider China as the next Iraq or next Afghanistan or next Libya. China is the second largest economy in the world. China fears not any hollow discourse, or hollow announcement from the U.S. China has enough power to defend [itself] against any enemy. On the other hand, China has the wisdom. We have enough wisdom to do with this very complicated and horrible, threatening, discourse.

SS: But you didn't answer my question. Are there people in China who have a similar view that there should be a confrontation?

WW: Of course! China is avery complication region. We have 1.3 bn population, there's a lot of nationalism. For those nationalists, they have very tough...they dare conflict with the U.S. - but apart from this, China's government is very rational. China's government wants to balance those nationalists and those liberals and to take the separate road in the foreign policy. China wants to deal with any greater power relationship peacefully and gradually and with "win-win" method, yeah.

SS: We'll get to "win-win", but you know what I’ve been told time and time again,  from the Chinese side and from the American side, that an "accidental encounter" can spark a full-on military confrontation, a war,even. Even the slightest accident in the region. Is this something that is always in the cards for the Chinese? Are you prepared for this kind of scenario? Because there are no guarantees... Accidents happen all the time.

WW: I think that yes, China is prepared for any possibility now, because on one hand China has a lot of think-tanks - we, think-tanks, think for our government and prepare every possibility. And on the other hand, that is our foreign policy is very smart. We avoid those worst situations that happened. This is a very interesting thing - trust China’s foreign policy. In the past 30 years, Chia had no war with any country. China is the most peaceful country in the world.

SS: You've used the term "mutual respect’, and the Chinese seem to use this word combination lately, which means both sides don’t challenge each other's interests. The U.S. traditionally has its interests in the Asia Pacific, it has Japan and other nations - is China ready to accept that? Are you not going to challenge that? Are you not going to challenge America being partners with Japan, South Korea?

WW: Yes, we often, always, we feel the challenge, because of the rise of China. The rise of China has changed the structure of the Asia-Pacific and other countries - such as you've mentioned: Japan, South Korea or other countries in the South-East Asia - they cannot adhere, they can not be fit for new conditions. So nowadays China has to be patient to deal with other countries, neighbour countries. And gradually, let the other countries to be fit for China, new great power China. So, this is what I think is China's foreign policy now.

SS: There's always the One China policy that U.S. administration has said it's going to respect,but only in its own way it's not going to challenge the status of Taiwan, but it will help it militarily. So how's that sitting with China right now?

WW: I think that One China policy is the borderline of China's foreign policy...

SS: But how do you view or feel about the One China policy the way Americans see it?

WW: I think even President Trump - he knows the borderline of China's foreign policy. After he got the position, his new position, he never touched the borderline. President Trump chose to respect the One China policy. It is my understanding.

SS: Okay, but despite Chinese warnings, the U.S. is reportedly prepared for a large arms shipment to Taiwan. That's a fact. Is China going to challenge that somehow? Are you going to take some serious counter-measures or is it just going to be statements of displeasure?

WW: Yes, China criticised sales from the U.S. to Taiwan, but on the other hand, form the the scholar's perspective, we feel full confidence that any arms the U.S. sells to Taiwan, they will belong to China in the future, because Taiwan will a part of China in the future.

SS: But future is a very broad notion. I mean, we're talking right now, things are happening and Taiwan is getting stronger militarily thanks for the United States - are you okay with that? Because it can take another hundred years until Taiwan becomes Chinese the way you see it.

WW: I don't think so. Taiwan is an island. Even if Taiwan's military power becomes much more than before, Taiwan cannot change the status quo of the One China, because the GDP of mainland China nowadays is dozens of times of Taiwan's.  Chinese military power is dozen times more than Taiwan's. Taiwan cannot change status quo or any conditions now. So we feel enough confidence. And, as for the future, China has a long civilization. We have the wisdom to wait and enough patience to wait for the new future and perfect the future.

SS: The islands in the South China Sea that Beijing claims as its own can soon become airstrips for combat Chinese aircraft. Do you think China is going to deploy a permanent force there to back its claim to the Islands?

WW: I think in those islands in the South China sea, China has enough right to protect our sovereignty. So, no one can stop it. It is our owner’s right, so why the U.S. is intervening in the South China island construction? There are so many Chinese people confused about it and criticising the U.S. intervention. So, I think the most important thing is that the world needs to know that the South China Sea, it's a relationship between China and South East-Asia countries.

SS: But it doesn't always look that easy. When I hear Secretary Tillerson say that "United States is going to deny" or not allow China access to its islands that it's building - how do you react to that? What if the U.S. really tries to deny access to China, what are you going to?

WW: But the U.S. often gossips over everything,

SS: You mean it's just blah-blah-blah? And there's...

WW: This  is a reality we look at. The U.S. often gossips about everything in the world, but they cannot do everything, now.

SS: So right now, when the U.S. Administration is saying "we're going to deny China access to its artificial islands that it's building" - you think it has no grounds for truth or action?

WW: We reject those gossips. We criticise those gossips. We ask the U.S. to keep the balance, keep silence about South China Sea.

SS: What happens if the United States really tries to deny China access to the islands that it's building? How will China react?

WW: I think we depend on U.S. real activity. We have enough solutions to react to the U.S. actions, so we just wait and see how will the U.S. act, yes.

SS: So, also, we're seeing a tendency right now: U.S. has long had its allies your region - Vietnam, South Korea, Japan, but for instance, Philippines right now is turning to China, breaking its ties with America - even though you have a territorial dispute. What should China do woo the other nations around it? Do you think they're going to form an alliance around Beijing now?

WW: I think that Phillippines' turn to China - it's a very clever and very right thing. Philippines woke up. In the past, the former President of Philippines trusted the U.S. too much and then the new President of Philippines suddenly woke up: the U.S. cannot give Phillippines anything, but China keeps sending regular support to Philippines. So, I think this is why Philippines... Filipino people are smart, they see which country treats them well, which country just cheats him. So I think, this is a very good example for the neighbour countries of China. I have enough confidence for Vietnam, for Malaysia, as well as the other countries, even South Korea or Japan.

SS: Looking at things right now, do you think that the the system of US alliances in the region, with your neighbours, with the Pacific Rim, do you think it's falling apart, do you think that system is unraveling?

WW: I think for the new conditions of Asia-Pacific, the military alliance with the U.S. is useless, because it's new conditions, it's a new century. We, Asia-Pacific countries should develop sustainably, so I think - how do we develop sustainably? We don't need those military alliances, we need development, we need investment, we need construction of infrastructure, not those military allies. This is my answer.

SS: It's true that we've spoken so much about the U.S.-Chinese confrontation and you hear about it a lot - then I think about it, and I'm thinking, it's impossible for an average American to imagine his or her life without Chinese products. I mean, the two countries are so closely connected by trade and intertwined economically - how is it even possible to talk about confrontation when both sides have so much to lose in terms of money?

WW: I think that for the U.S.-China relationship, we cannot only focus on those confrontations. We shall look at the other face of the two great powers' relationship. Every year, there are over 6 million people exchanged between the two countries. There are nearly $600 billion dollars in trade. So, I think this is the other face - the U.S. and China now are in interdependent conditions, so I think confrontation is really a media definition, media idea. In the reality between the two countries we share, we enjoy peace, we enjoy interdependence, we enjoy the "win-win" games. This is my understanding. I travel to the U.S. many times, every year, and found that all those ordinary people in the U.S., all those ordinary people in China - you ask them, most of them will think that stability, peace, "win-win" is our common target.

SS: I want to talk about the TPP agreement that President Trump has buried. President Obama wanted that deal very much and it would have excluded China. Your president right now is saying he will defend free trade, so is China actually ready to pick up on where the U.S. left off?

WW: All the countries in the world should follow the WTO rules. We have the existing rules, why does the U.S. should establish the new rules? So I think that Trump did well. Most of Chinese, you know, support Trump.

SS: I understand why you would support Trump burying TPP, because, obviously it's very unnerving when a huge deal like that excludes a huge country like yours from the region. But China has no devised a Free Trade Pact for the region itself - it's called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership - let me ask you think, is Beijing ready to welcome the US to become a part of it?

WW: Part of what?

SS: Of that Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership.

WW: Of course, I think if the U.S. can join, can participate, we will welcome them. Nowadays the core value of Chinese foreign policy is "win-win", an open, inclusive. So, anyone who wants China's initiative, China welcomes. For example, the biggest new initiative, One Belt-One Road, we welcome any country to join the One Belt-One Road initiative. So, I think, Russia did a right now, but the U.S. now still hesitates to join or not. This is very interesting.

SS: Also, I wanted to ask you about China that has always been content with being a leader of its own region, but right now, we're seeing China building the Silk Road infrastructure project and also investing so much in Africa - so is this tradition changing, is Beijing ready to seek more influence abroad?

WW: Of course, China is second largest economy and in 10 years China will be the largest economy in the world, and also in 3 or 5 years China will the largest consumption market in the world. So China, of course it wants to provide international, public good the world. In the past rest of the world underestimated China's contribution to the global governance, so 3 years ago, President Xi launched a new initiatives, as you mentioned, a Silk Road initiative, or One Belt One Road initiative. It means that as a new great power, Chinese want to contribute to the world with peaceful, with "win-win" principles, without war, without conflict. I think, it's a good thing for the world.

SS: Finally, really shortly, I am going to ask you about Trump - because you can't really tell what Trump wants from China, because one day he says one thing, another day he says another thing - do you think that's part of his strategy, to be unpredictable, and if yes, is this working?

WW: Trump is a very interesting guy, and now he is studying, he's learning how to be a President of the U.S., and he's a smart guy to learn something. So, I think, we cannot analyze Trump according to election campaign period. We should give Trump enough time to learn, to study as a President, so I think that China has confidence to engage with Trump and to tell Trump how this deal will benefit to the U.S.' core interests in the future. I think cooperation between U.S. and China, cooperation between U.S. and Russia will a benefit to U.S. interests. This is my viewpoint.

SS: Dr. Wang, thank you very much for this interview, we wish you best of luck.