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In conversation with Kerry Brown

A Wide-ranging Conversation With Kerry Brown About His Book, “China’s World”, Which Explores Contemporary Chinese Foreign Policy Within A Broader Historical Context.


What distinguishes your account from the proliferating attempts to understand China, and what do conventional narratives of Xi Jinping’s China miss?

My book is one of the surprisingly few overarching reviews of Chinese foreign policy, both in historic terms and in terms of China’s involvement in the whole world, rather than a particular region or part. There are many, many excellent studies of issues like China and Asia, China and the Belt and Road Initiative, China and Africa. Of course, I have read a lot of these over the last 25 years. But in an era in which the Xi administration talks so often of `comprehensiveness’ in its domestic and international policy, I wanted to write something that, however incomplete, was broad enough to capture that. China’s role in the world is the archetypal `blind man and the elephant’ scenario — you can look at one part of it and think you see one thing, then another and feel like you are contemplating a different problem. If you put all this together, you at least get an overview that can modify and perhaps make views of China a bit more accurate and holistic. That was my aim in the book.

You highlight the importance of the Five Principles enunciated shortly after the formation of the People’s Republic in 1949 for trying to understand China’s contemporary foreign policy. How do Chinese policymakers view these principles today and how do they inform the country’s behaviour?

Interestingly, they still stand by them, and the language of non-interference, respect for the sovereignty of others, and peaceful co-existence is still strong in the rhetoric of Chinese foreign policy and diplomacy. But the challenge, as my book tries to make clear, is that it is hard for China as the kind of actor it is today, with a huge military, economy, and linkages with the outside world, to use the sort of language and mindset that it created when it was none of these things. It is a bit like an adult trying to use the language of childhood after they have grown up. China could say it was into non-interference and peaceful co-existence in an era where it had no foreign investment abroad, no real supply issues for raw materials and energy to fuel its manufacturing-based economy, and no interests in the stability of the markets it sends goods to. Today, of course, China has vast interests in all of these areas, stretching throughout the world. The challenge, therefore, is for it to stand by the Five Principles, at least as rhetoric, while not looking like a hypocrite because its behaviour, for self-interested reasons, must violate these. This is an issue I feel that Chinese policymakers are still wrestling with.

In contrast to his predecessor Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping has sought to raise the role of the president and the party in foreign policy. However, as you identify, his worldview remains ambiguous, hidden by Party dogma and competing constituencies. What do we know about Xi’s view of relations with the outside world and of China’s role in it?

The only thing one can say for certain is that he certainly apportions a great deal of time and effort to it. Before the pandemic, Xi travelled to over 50 countries after becoming president and party secretary in 2012-13. He went to large and small countries, across all continents, and many places like Russia, the US, and Indonesia, he visited on several occasions. Ironically, it seems that Japan was the only place he hadn’t visited by 2020. A visit scheduled that year had to be postponed and has yet to happen. One can read into this that of all China’s international relations, Japan offers the sharpest challenges, at least on the surface. To come back to the use of the term `comprehensive’, I think for Xi and his colleagues too there is an implicit acceptance that their country’s domestic issues all have international dimensions. Like the US, China’s domestic issues are also global ones, because they affect the world due to their size and importance.

In 2021, I suppose we can see some efforts to scale back China’s global exposure and commitments with the Dual Circulation approach, which seeks to strengthen domestic consumption, and the production of China’s proprietary technology. But with the struggle across the world to deal with climate change, and the commitments made by Xi at the UN General Assembly and then COP26 in 2021, I don’t think his administration is going to fundamentally change their commitment to globalisation, albeit with Chinese characteristics. A final trait of the Xi view of the world is, for good or bad, an insistence on showing confidence and not being diffident. This might be presentational; it might be that there is an underlying, and residual, lack of confidence behind this mask. But the mask of confidence is going to remain in place, because that is the Xi era ethos — be proud to be Chinese.

In your view, how will China be involved in regional and international issues in the future? Will it play a larger diplomatic role in resolving crises such as Afghanistan, North Korea or Iran or will it remain a rather passive player?

If Afghanistan and North Korea are taken as case studies of Chinese involvement in the international system and issues, then I think they both show why Chinese power is going to continue to be cautious and risk-averse. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan in mid-2021 was not a good thing for China, despite its aversion to having its greatest competitor operating right up against its borders. It leaves a vacuum that China is probably very reluctant, and maybe incapable of filling. It is hard to imagine the People’s Liberation Army being able to march into Kabul if there is chronic unrest there and trying to impose order —not least because having studied how this country sucked Britain, the Soviet Union, and then the US’s resources and diplomatic energy dry with no real positive result. China will be averse to making the same mistakes.

It also must be genuinely worried that despite limitations on what it can do militarily, it may well be exposed to Taliban terrorism in ways that would have massive consequences within China. After all, Beijing justified the terrible clampdown in Xinjiang since 2017 on the grounds of pre-emptive security. If there are only one or two terrorist attacks in China linked to the outside world going forward, the political consequences could be catastrophic for the Xi administration, which has staked so much on ensuring stability and combatting militant Islam and other forms of extremism. As for North Korea, there too, the history of Chinese impotence and inability to get their way on key issues like nuclearisation is well known and pre-dates Xi. For all the Xi era confidence, these look no closer to being resolved now than they did before he came to power.

Since 1949, Sino-American relations have oscillated from tense episodes of outright hostility (notably Korea) to periods of détente with cooperation in some policy areas and cultural exchanges. Contemporary relations seem to be trending towards a period of confrontation once again. How mutually dependent are these two countries and, despite tensions, are there areas for sustained cooperation?

Under Biden, despite the three-hour virtual summit in mid-November 2021, the US remains engaged in a somewhat last-minute effort to contain China. However, on this particular issue, the horse has already well and truly left the stable. The one thing we can be sure of is that after decades of somewhat jealous bilateralism with China, the US now appreciates that the problems being posed by Beijing are too large for Washington to handle on its own.

The US is now turning towards a strategy of diversification so that it shares the burden of dealing with China with others. For the first time, therefore, a dialogue on China with the EU has been established. The Quad, with Japan, Australia and India, has been revitalised since 2020 and raised to head of state-level with the online summit held this year. The US has newly reawakened to the strategic value of Australia by signing the AUKUS deal, including the UK, in September. The issue with a lot of this is that if, as many feel likely, Trump tries to stand for election again in 2024, and succeeds, then much of this multilateralism might just be chucked out of the window, and we will revert to trade wars once more. Trump’s re-election would be good news in Beijing. Rightly or wrongly, it would reinforce their conviction that they are dealing with a declining power.

What could the Chinese government do to allay its neighbours’ deep-seated suspicion towards its power and intentions? And, has Beijing given up on its attempts to improve its international image altogether?

It is hard for China to do much because the suspicions held towards China in the region are deep-seated and very old! To name three major examples, Vietnam, Korea, and Japan have all been vying with China in various guises, not for decades but centuries. This is not an overtly political issue — democracies versus autocracies for instance — but a purely nationalistic and cultural one. The best that China can do is simply to assume that these suspicions and fears are there and deal with those in everything it does. That largely means that almost all its foreign policy will need to be underwritten by a strong element of appeal to self-interest.

Despite severe political issues, the Japanese remain strong and successful investors in China. Vietnam continues to enjoy decent trade links with its huge neighbour. The same applies to Korea, where a brief period of punishment in 2017 because of THAAD ended with them continuing to work with each other pragmatically. As for China’s international image, the `no apology for being who we are’ approach is well-entrenched under Xi. I think the Chinese government has long ceased to believe in `soft power’ and has a `take it or leave it’ approach to its image now. Those that like it, it believes, will continue to do so; those that don’t were unlikely to change their minds, and so aren’t worth much effort.

Tensions in the South and East China Seas continue to oscillate markedly. How do you see these territorial disputes evolving in the next few years?

They will simmer, and it will continue to be a key strategic area for China to show its influence and stake out strategic territory. There is a very good reason for this. The South and East China seas are right next to China and are therefore places it has no choice but to show its intentions in. They also relate intimately to the issue of Taiwan. I think China intends to simply maintain pressure in this area and to make incremental progress for itself, but to ensure that things don’t escalate. This is a hard balancing act. It has enough confidence and pride now to feel that it should not and cannot countenance the US always dictating what it can do in its backyard. On the other hand, it is also well aware that many in Washington are itching for a reason to escalate things with what they regard as their greatest competitor. Misapprehension, missteps, and mistakes are all very possible in this space, which is why continued military to military dialogue, and the sort of political discussions seen between Biden and Xi this November, are crucial. If the US and China stop talking to each other, then an issue like the South China Sea becomes way more threatening.

Is there a ‘China problem’? How do you envision the international order evolving, and what role do you expect China to play in shaping it?

There is a China problem inasmuch as a lot of people, in many different places, inside and outside China, do not agree on what sort of power China is, what its long-term aims are, and what the outside world should do about this. We, therefore, have an issue with two sides. On one hand, there is a China that is complex, runs on different drivers depending on the issue one is talking about and is often poor at communicating, or resentful that it needs to communicate and do things that it sees everyone else doing without the need to explain themselves.

On the other hand, there is an outside world where consensus on what China is and what sort of world it wants is also divided. Some see it as a power that must be confronted because of its unacceptable political model and the threat it poses to Western norms and values, which it intentionally subverts. Others see it as a place with a distinctive, exceptionalist cultural and political outlook, one that is self-interested, but not proselytising, and therefore has to be managed because it constitutes a fifth of humanity and a fifth of global GDP.

In areas of existential importance to humanity’s future, like combatting pandemics and climate change, China is more often than not an ally, rather than a foe. Nor is it an ideological competitor in the way that the Soviet Union framed itself. It is a complicator at best. China’s complexity, therefore, and the complex world it is creating by playing a bigger role through economic and military size, is the China problem. That of course is a very different thing from China as an aggressive, assertive imposer of a new set of norms and behaviours; although many believe in this view strongly, it is hard to extrapolate from the evidence we see before us.

Kerry Brown is the Professor of Chinese Studies and Director of the Lau China Institute.