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China is a delicate matter

Interviews | Elvin Abbasli | 27-03-2017, 14:30

China is a delicate matterChina is becoming as one of the most quoted countries among the political circles due to its rise as an economic, military, and political power in the world. Recent developments regarding China`s expansionist policies in the light of new political course of the United States raise many questions. Teemu Naarajärvi, PhD candidate of East Asian studies at the University of Helsinki, shares his views on the various foreign policy aspects regarding China. 


Interviewer: Elvin Abbasli


Abbasli: “One Belt, One Road” – some describe it as China’s “Marshall Plan”. To what extent do you agree with this comparison? Is it purely an economic project aiming to integrate the East and the West as Chinese officials often reiterate, or China is also seeking to exert its political influence all around the world through this initiative?      

Naarajärvi: Personally, I am not that keen on such an analogy which considers China’s external economic expansion as a new Marshall Plan, because the world is different now and in reality there is still no rivalry comparable to the Cold War era between China and obviously, the U.S. On the other hand, I also agree that “One Belt, One Road” is not purely an economic project and China has also its political interests and calculations. China needs the initiatives such as “One Belt, One Road” as the country has a big industrial surplus capacity which encourages it to find new ways to international markets. From the point of the classical liberal stance, trade is something that brings countries and societies together and in that sense it could be supposed that China, through this way, gets positive reviews from the countries benefitting from such initiatives. Chinese officials and scholars are often keen to support this idea by regarding the trade as a guarantor of the prosperity and stability. And trade is constantly mentioned as a positive factor which brings peace to the world in the end. Having said that, “One Belt, One Road” is not such a great plan to compete with the current US-led global economic governance. It can be rather a complementary tool for the future ambitions of China. The political and ideological issues which may hide behind this project are often questioned by many people and those who see it as a new Marshall Plan tend to see the world in terms of the China-U.S. rivalry. But for me, it is not the only way of looking at the processes. Overall, it can be said that “One Belt, One Road” is mainly about economics but political ideas behind the scene should not be neglected either. But I am not sure about the strength of such projects as soft power mechanisms for China. It is no secret that China has severe deficits regarding its soft power. As we know, soft power is something that takes its roots from the society, develops from the bottom and going up, but in case of China this kind of initiatives have a top-down characteristic. It is difficult to see it as a soft power approach but China acknowledges this like a soft power and combines it with different other elements which can generally be called as a “smart power”. In China it is also regarded a comprehensive national power including all the mentioned aspects. 


That might be the reason why there are growing concerns about the real nature of the Chinese initiatives as political elites, civil society actors are behind all the projects. This also signals about the possible political aims hidden behind such initiatives.

This is actually linked with the problem regarding the soft power of China. Even Chinese business actors or companies which initiate new projects are considered to be under the control of the government and all the projects by those actors are seen as a part of a big plan. Obviously, there might be a plan but it is very hard to know about it. However, it should not be forgotten that soft power requires certain kind of trust towards the actor which is “mysterious” China in our case. And it is not surprising that trustworthiness of the Chinese initiatives is diminishing in Western Europe, North America because of the blurry lines between the business groups and the government.       


How do you think the possible end of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (“TPP”) will affect China? Some consider that it will give a stage to Beijing to increase its influence in its neighbourhood but growing American protectionism and new trade barriers are also threats to China’s economic growth and future ambitious projects. 

Actually, these two alternatives do not rule out each other. The TPP can already be considered dead as Trump has been very clear about it in his speeches and without the U.S. there is no point to talk about the TPP. China has its own initiatives and tries to offer them to its Asia-Pacific partners and neighbours. However, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), initiated by Beijing, is smaller than the TPP as the U.S., Japan, and Australia are not included although the latter seems interested in that project in the absence of the TPP. China is pushing for free trade agreements and this is quite natural when considering the country’s big economy and industrial output capacity. Recently, during the Munich Security Conference, Wang Yi, the Foreign Minister of China, also stressed the importance of the global trade liberalisation and criticised the protectionist rhetoric getting strong in some countries, notably, in the U.S. As it is known, China has its own free trade agreements with the ASEAN countries and the Asia Pacific region and the list of the countries aiming to conclude a bilateral free trade agreement with China is growing. Coming from this, protectionism can be regarded as a threat for China. Taking the words of Trump seriously which is still difficult to understand, it sounds really bad for China. The biggest bilateral trade and economic relationship in the world which exists between the U.S. and China can be affected with the imposition of higher tariffs for incoming goods and can hit both China and the U.S. hard. These two countries are already interlinked and I do not think that the Trump administration can make such a risk which could also put the American economy under the pressure. But the fact is that China would lose more in the case of the possible trade war than the U.S. because the trade between them is so unbalanced and China is highly dependent on exports. On the other hand, the U.S., may also lose Chinese investments, the fact of which can make the American government think twice. And as we talked before, the protectionist measures make the “One Belt, One Road” project more crucial for China. This project can be an alternative to direct the Chinese exports to the other parts of the world.


During the World Economic Forum 2017 in Davos, President Xi Jinping also showed his concern about the protectionist inclinations in the world.

Official China is concerned about this issue and we could witness this during the Munich Conference where Wang Yi expressed his support for the globalisation, free trade, and multilateralism. I think there are two reasons for such a position by the Chinese high officials.  First of all, China fears protectionism. Free trade is in the interest of China along with many other countries and China has benefitted much from the globalisation. Another reason, although it is still early to predict about it, may be the intention of China to take a central place in the world economics and politics. The end of the TPP and the call for the new isolationist policies in the U.S., the Brexit, growing populism, as well as the trade protectionism can increase the willingness of China to rise as a major political power in the world. However, it should not mean that China will push the U.S. away which is still the leading global power in the world. I think China is aiming to be the second in the world after the U.S. which is quite possible nowadays. But it depends on the willingness of the regime together with the opportunities and the political processes. The current situation can also help China to become a free trade champion and attract other regions and countries around it, notably, Europe. And this again brings the issue of soft power into the play. The more China talks positively about these values, the more it gains respect and popularity which gives additional power to Beijing in the international arena. But what is interesting here is that China does not show such a liberal stance in the domestic politics as it does in the foreign policy issues. On the contrary, China is continuing its sweeping crackdown on civil society inside the country. China always tries to separate the notions of democracy and free trade and wants to prove that they can exist separately whereas those are seen strongly interconnected with each other among the Western democracies.  


Do you think China will push harder in the near future to deter North Korea from its nuclear program? China, as being seen by the US and its allies as a responsible regional player, should cooperate with the global community and reach a deal with Washington on Pyongyang but what can China’s wins/losses be in this aspect?

China does not like to be questioned or criticised about its domestic policies and it is not probable that Beijing can be interested in the criticism of the regime in North Korea. However, China is not happy about North Korea either, especially after Kim Jong-un’s succession to leadership six years ago. The trace of the animosity was witnessed between Chinese officials and the current North Korean leader but the status-quo is still much better for Beijing rather than most of the alternatives which can lead to cataclysmic changes. The collapse of the regime in Pyongyang, by destabilising the whole region, would result in the huge refugee flows to the North-East China from North Korea. Besides, the U.S. and the region countries like Japan or South Korea would need to increase their military capabilities with the existence of such a scenario. That would even make Taiwan feel itself insecure and grow its military power. By considering this, it can be assumed that China will remain a strong advocate of the status-quo. Having said that, in case when the Security Council decides to tighten embargoes and sanctions on North Korea China will be in favour of them as the Chinese government does not want to be labelled as the strong supporter of the regime in its neighbourhood. At the same time, China will also try to save the North Korean regime from its collapse with the help of economic aid and exports. And again, it should not be forgotten that North Korea is remaining a problem not only for Japan and South Korea but for China itself but the latter is also interested to keep the status-quo rather than letting other alternatives happen.  


You also mentioned about the possible increase in the military capabilities of the U.S. and its allies in the region in case of the regime collapse. But some think that the regime change in North Korea will also bring the country’s nuclear programs to a halt which may result in the end of the American military presence in the region, especially in the Korean peninsula. 

That is just a rough prediction but I do not think the American army would leave the region permanently. There are currently about 30,000 American soldiers in South Korea and rather than coming back home they would probably be stationed in other military bases in the region. And another possibility can be their movement towards the Chinese border in case of the unification between South and North Korea in the future. Therefore, in my opinion, China does not see the alternatives very attractive. Another important thing is that we do not know what else can happen next and the regime change in one country can have a “domino effect” in the whole region. I do not think there will be a Western-style liberal democracy in Korea soon and economic disparities between South and North should not be forgotten either. The unification of Korea would be much more difficult than it was in the case of Germany in the 1990s which was not without challenges either.   


Considering the Taiwan president’s recent U.S. visit and her meetings with senior Republicans, do you think that the Trump administration can abandon the longstanding “One China” policy? How do you see the prospect of the future independent Taiwan?

The U.S., like every country in the world, can unilaterally abandon the “One China” policy but that would also mean that it would surely deteriorate the relations with China. The acknowledgement of the “One China” policy is a prerequisite of Beijing for creating the diplomatic relations with a country which is an example to the importance of this issue for mainland China. It seems that Trump has already backed down on his careless comments about Taiwan and he had probably not been briefed well about the seriousness of the issue before. Personally, I do not think the U.S. would go against that policy which can break the relations between two countries. Besides, the fact is that Taiwan’s independence issue is very hypothetical. The Republic of China, the political entity existing in Taiwan, is also committed to the idea that there is only one China but that principle should be differentiated from the “One China” policy. According to 1992 Consensus between Beijing and Taipei, both sides recognised that there is only one "China" and both mainland China and Taiwan belong to the same China, but each side interprets the meaning of “One China” from its own point of view and sees itself as the real China. And any hypothetical independence move by the Taiwanese administration can result in the massive shift from the current situation. It would also bring the end of the Consensus with the mainland China which has a very clear position about this issue: if Taipei “crosses the Rubicon” and declares independence there will be a war. Therefore, I do not consider that the independence scenario will happen in the near future. On the other hand, there is a growing Taiwanese identity in the island and more and more people start to see themselves as Taiwanese instead of Chinese. In the long-term perspective, independence may be expected but it requires the change in the way how China sees the issue. Currently, Taiwan is acting more or less as a de-facto state and the feeling to be an independent Taiwan rather than the Republic of China is becoming more important and attractive. But the threat by the mainland China will prevent them from doing that at least in the short-term perspective. In its turn, mainland China is also content with the current situation as long as Taiwan does not make any moves towards independence. In an ideal world, it would be good for Taiwanese people to decide their own future but there is a great power across the Taiwan Strait which prevent them to do what they want. 


About the author:

Elvin Abbasli

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