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Huang Jing on China’s relations with the world
"The Russo-Ukrainian war has presented China with three fundamental strategic choices"
Happy New Year and welcome back to Sinification.
In the next couple of weeks, I will be experimenting with a slightly different format, making posts shorter and more topic-driven.
I thought it would be fitting to begin 2023 with an article providing a broad overview of China’s relations with the world. Its author, Huang Jing (黄靖) is a famous Chinese-American scholar. Born and raised in China, Huang moved to the US in the late 1980s to do his PhD at Harvard University. His main posts have been at Utah State University (1994-2004), the Brookings Institution (2004-2008) and Singapore’s prestigious Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy (2008-2018). In 2017, Huang was banned from returning to Singapore and accused by the city-state’s Ministry of Home Affairs of "subversion and foreign interference in Singapore's domestic politics” and of acting as "an agent of influence” for an unnamed foreign country. He has rejected these accusations and refuted the assertion made by a former Singaporean diplomat that Huang had been “an agent of Chinese influence”. Huang currently holds the post of Distinguished Professor at Shanghai International Studies University (SISU).
The excerpts below are from an interview conducted by “Looking at the World From Abroad” (海外看世界), a small-scale publication run by overseas Chinese scholars that addresses a Chinese audience. The interview was published just before Christmas.
Key points made by Huang:
China aims to preserve the current international order and opposes Russia's ambition of replacing it with a new “non-Western” one [一个新的“非西方”国际秩序]. This has led to “subtle but strategically significant” changes in Sino-Russian relations.
China’s future development depends on the US’s overall stability and on maintaining “manageable” [可控] relations with Washington.
The EU is currently readjusting its policy towards China and beginning to re-emphasise the cooperative elements in its relations with Beijing. French and German policies towards China depend in large part on the PRC’s own development and foreign policy choices.
The “softening” [缓和] of Japan, South Korea and Australia’s policies towards China are the result of: 1. A weak Biden administration; 2. The PLA’s muscle-flexing around Taiwan; 3. The deepening of economic ties in the region.
The strategic autonomy of many Asian, African and South American countries is increasing.
Sinification is a newsletter focusing on foreign affairs as viewed from China. It aims to provide key insights from Chinese think-tank and academic circles on a range of international issues.
THE US, RUSSIA AND UKRAINE
Interviewer: The progress of the Russo-Ukrainian war has brought about some subtle changes to Sino-Russian and Sino-Ukrainian relations. How should these be viewed?
Huang Jing: “In a long article published in ‘Russia in Global Affairs’ on 1 September 2022, Sergei Karaganov, a renowned Russian strategist and scholar, who is a close associate of Vladimir Putin, clearly stated that Russia's aim in launching the Russo-Ukrainian war was to bring down the US-led ‘Western international order’ and then establish a new ‘non-Western’ international order. It is precisely for this reason that the Russo-Ukrainian war has presented China with three fundamental strategic choices (challenges):
Should China safeguard the current international order?” [中国是否需要维护现行的国际秩序？]
Is the decline of the United States, and especially its involutionary decline, in China's fundamental interest? [美国的衰落、尤其是内卷性衰落是否符合中国的根本利益?]
Should China maintain a stable, or at the very least manageable, bilateral relationship with the US?” [中国是否需要和美国保持稳定的、至少可控的双边关系?]
“Clearly, China's strategy of ‘peaceful development’ and its [developmental] path dictate that China must safeguard and strive to improve the already-existing international order. The three pillars of this international order are, of course, (1) a political order that is centred on the United Nations, (2) an economic order that is underpinned by the WTO and other international trade agreements, and (3) a financial order under the framework of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the Asian Investment Bank, the Asian Development Bank and so on. All these orders are based on multilateral mechanisms and the structures of their organisations are all open and inclusive. This is the fundamental reason why China pursues multilateralism and promotes global governance through these multilateral mechanisms. But the US, after all, has a major and sometimes even leading role in this international order. In this sense, a peaceful and stable US is the necessary basis for maintaining rationality and certainty in [its] policies. By contrast, a declining, and especially involutionary, US is bound to lead to irrational and uncertain policies, which would have negative and even catastrophic effects on the existing international order.”
“This is why, even in the [current] tense atmosphere in which Washington is stirring up US-China ‘rivalry’ [‘竞争’] and is encircling and suppressing the PRC, China is still trying to manage bilateral relations with the United States, actively advocating cooperation and preventing Sino-US relations from slipping into the dangers of a ‘cold war’ or even [direct] confrontation.”
China's three fundamental strategic choices are the underlying reasons for the subtle but strategically significant changes in Sino-Russian and Sino-Ukrainian relations over the course of the Russo-Ukrainian war.
Interviewer: More room for manoeuvre in US-China relations and a potential softening [of ties] seem to have emerged since the Xi-Biden meeting. Was this [move] tactical or strategic in nature? How do you think both sides assess these changes?
Huang Jing: “It is essentially tactical. The bipartisan and widespread consensus in the US about China – that is, that the PRC is the ‘most serious challenger' to the US and to the (US-led) international order – has not changed.”
Interviewer: Have there been any substantial changes among US allies and partners in the context of US-China competition?
Huang Jing: “Conflicts of interest of US allies and partners in the context of the US-China ‘competition’ have always existed. If there are [now] ‘substantial changes’, it is because the ‘competition’ between the US and China has further exposed and intensified these conflicts of interest … For example, the US views China as its 'most serious challenger'. This view is driven by US security and hegemonic concerns. Thus, the US seeks to decouple [from China]. Europe, on the other hand, views China as a ‘systemic rival’, which is largely driven by its economic competition [with us]. Europe believes that China's ‘state capitalism’ is the underlying problem and thus demands ‘fair competition’ [‘公平竞争’], but opposes decoupling (and is unwilling to do so).”
Interviewer: Are the EU, NATO and especially Britain, France and Germany in the process of readjusting their policies towards China? If so, in what direction will they be turning?
Huang Jing: “The EU and NATO are not comparable in their policies towards China. The EU is a relatively independent international organisation (despite von der Leyen's evident pro-US stance [尽管冯德莱恩明显为美代言]), while NATO is a US-led military alliance.”
“At a time when the Russo-Ukrainian conflict is reaching a stalemate and could develop into a 'protracted war', the EU's China policy is being reoriented towards seeking cooperation with China. [In this respect,] European Council President Michel’s visit to China (and the resulting exposure of his conflict with the European Commission President, von der Leyen) is a positive sign [是一个积极迹象].”
“NATO, on the other hand, is tending towards greater assertiveness towards China, although the ‘Asia-Pacification of NATO’ [‘北约亚太化’] remains a fantasy that will be difficult to fulfil. Britain, as a sea power, is increasingly following the United States in its policy orientation. France and Germany, on the other hand, clearly have ‘strategic autonomy’ on their minds. However, the readjustment of French and German policy towards China ultimately depends on China's own development and foreign policy orientation.”
JAPAN, SOUTH KOREA AND AUSTRALIA
Interviewer: In Asia, are there any changes in Japan, South Korea and Australia?
Huang Jing: “The changes are obvious. After the US mid-term elections in particular, there has been a marked softening [缓和] of Japan, South Korea and Australia's policies towards China. In addition to the Biden administration's lameness and limited hope of being re-elected in 2024 (all three countries are, to varying degrees, taking a wait-and-see approach towards the Biden administration and are unwilling to continue to ‘invest’ in it), another important reason is China's ‘hard power’ in the Asia-Pacific region, as demonstrated by the PLA's round-the-island manoeuvres in the Taiwan Strait following Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, which was the largest air, land and sea military operation in the Asia-Pacific region since the Vietnam War. The absence of the United States during these military activities was enough to give Japan, South Korea and Australia pause for thought. Another key factor is the hard-to-reverse entry of all three countries into the Asia-Pacific’s economic sphere, which is inextricably linked to China's economic development. For Japan, avoiding being an enemy of both China and Russia – Japan's strategic nightmare – has even more of a strategic life-or-death dimension.”
AFRICA, LATIN AMERICA AND ASEAN
Interviewer: What are the trends and changes in developing countries (e.g. ASEAN countries, African countries and Latin American countries)?
Huang Jing: “There have been no fundamental changes. But their stance on not choosing sides in the context of US-China rivalry has been strengthened.”
Interviewer: There is a phenomenon called ‘double-sided toadying’ [两面讨好] (also called ‘hedging ones bets’ [两面下注]). Such a phenomenon was especially obvious in India following the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. How should this be interpreted?
Huang Jing: “India's refusal to follow the US in opposing and sanctioning Russia was not [the result of] ‘double-sided toadying’, but was dictated by its fundamental national security interests. For historical, cultural, religious, geopolitical and a variety of other reasons, the main threat to India's national security comes from the 'Islamic belt' … After the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, the only way for India to manage effectively the security threats coming from the 'Islamic belt' was to cooperate with Russia.”