The ascent of China will most likely be the biggest geopolitical drama of the 21st century. Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, discusses China’s military expansion, the longevity of the country’s ‘peaceful rise,’ and the effects on global governance and international rules.

Question: I remember a couple of years ago the CCTV aired a program called “The Rise of Great Nations” that featured the histories of Rome, Great Britain, Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union. What implications do these lessons have for China?

Answer: I think the consensus here is that economic growth is the key to becoming a rising power. The Chinese have also concluded that to sustain economic growth it is also necessary to maintain political stability. In the rise and fall of great powers, one lesson the Chinese always learn is that aggression will not pay.

So the lessons we have learned are very consistent with the current policies.

Some younger-generation opinion leaders and others, maybe some officials as well, are calling for a more assertive policy toward other countries. But the mainstream thinking, I mean the top leadership, is still very sober-minded about China’s own power and influence, and they are very conscious of China’s internal challenges combined with external challenges. So they will continue to pursue a policy following Deng Xiaoping’s teaching that we should keep a low profile.

Q: To be honest, I don’t have a problem with China being more assertive, since it will commit the country more deeply to constructing and maintaining peace and security in the world. That commitment is perhaps driven by Chinese people’s growing confidence in themselves, as China grows much bigger and much more powerful.

I have more of a problem with China’s nationalism driven by humiliation or a victim complex. This means that two kinds of nationalism are emerging in China. And I hope the more constructive or healthy nationalism will prevail over the more negative and reactionary nationalism.

A: I share your sentiments and observation. There are people in China who feel China is still being humiliated by advanced countries.

This kind of sentiment is a very interesting combination of superiority and inferiority. On the one hand, some people say we are stronger than before, China is a rising power and China may dominate the world in the future. On the other hand, when unpleasant things happen they say China is being humiliated and still a victim of world politics.

How can we overcome this mentality? I think by more exposure to the outside world, and more importantly, by better education in China itself. I mean, we have to improve our own society and rule of law.

China was indeed humiliated by Western powers in its modern history. But that humiliation was not only a result of Western aggression; it had a lot to do with China’s own problems. Our history books have not provided very balanced and comprehensive interpretations. That’s why I think we should restudy history.

I also believe we should upgrade the level of our civilization and have better social conduct. If one does not enjoy equality and is mistreated in society, how can he or she treat others as equals? So I think the feeling of being humiliated and victimized internationally has deep roots in China’s own society. When Chinese citizens have more self-esteem, dignity and confidence toward each other, and when the hierarchical order as we see today is changed, they will have more confidence in international affairs.

Q: What is the primary driving force that will shape the world in terms of politics and global governance in the next 20 years?

A: Well, I can think of three or four driving forces.

The first is globalization. I think globalization is still going on, although it has setbacks and the negative effect of globalization is more obvious than before. The negative effect is basically twofold. The first is social and economic disparity, not only between rich and poor countries, but within all rich and poor countries.

But globalization, with all its problems, will have to go on as a driving force. You cannot reverse it.

And then the second driving force I can think of is still the traditional competitions and relations between nation states, or the rise and fall of great powers. Some powers are stronger, some are weaker than before.

China, the United States, Japan, the European Union, Russia, India, Brazil and many others, they together shape the world order, and they are the biggest driving forces. Still, smaller countries also are driving forces.

The third driving force I can think of is ethnic groups, religious groups and their organizations that are not under the control of nation states. Those groups can take actions and mobilize their populations. In the Middle East, for instance, Islamic groups are active. In the United States, we also see influential religious groups. In China, we have ethnic groups, Tibetans, Uighurs and so on.

Q: China is becoming more involved in regional strategic politics, particularly in the oil and gas fields. This could complicate China’s peaceful foreign policy as well as its relations with the United States and other countries. Have you any suggestions on how to overcome these potential problems?

A: Well, when we talk about peaceful rise and peaceful development, I don’t think that is a declaration that China will never use its military force under any circumstances. When we think about peaceful rise, I’m thinking that China should avoid direct military confrontation with great powers and with other countries, including smaller neighbors like Cambodia and Mongolia. We should not engage ourselves in military conflict in solving problems with those countries.

But I cannot exclude the possibility that sometimes we have to use military force to solve a local problem, for instance, to rescue Chinese citizens from being kidnapped and to protect some communication line if the line is threatened by piracy or some terrorist group.

Q: Some might argue that although we have had this military-industrial complex since the Eisenhower days in the United States, there seems to be a sort of military-oil-and-gas complex emerging in China. And that could actually upset the “peaceful rise” strategy, to use the official phrase. That could perhaps bring about some setback or perhaps negative implications for this peaceful conduct of foreign policy. How would you respond to those concerns?

A: We are depending more and more on oil and natural gas supplies and other natural resources imports from all over the world, from Sudan to Angola to Venezuela to Chile. So there are communication lines China is concerned about. There are sea lanes not only through the Malacca Straits, but also through the Persian Gulf, the Indian Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and Central Asia. Military forces are needed. We already have sent fleets to fight piracy in Somalia and elsewhere.

China participates in quite a few U.N. peacekeeping operations, as well. These moves do not need to bring about tensions with other countries. Rather, they have increased the opportunities for international cooperation, including with the United States and Japan, because we share the common goals and interests to provide security and safeguard peace.

We don’t fight each other in the Malacca Straits and stop each other from getting oil supplies. We are guarding against terrorist groups, pirates and natural disasters. I don’t think China’s expansion of naval forces alone can solve the problem of ensuring oil supplies. International cooperation is the key.

We also have to protect China’s economic interests and our citizens in many countries. We have seen Chinese people being kidnapped in Afghanistan and killed elsewhere. Enhancing our diplomatic activities can help, but maybe sometime in the future China would use its rapidly deployed forces to rescue Chinese citizens. These are very comprehensive operations, not simply military issues.

What’s more, China should diversify oil and natural gas supplies. Now we have supplies from Iran, which is faced with possible sanctions. We also seek alternatives in, for instance, Saudi Arabia, Angola, Sudan, Myanmar (Burma) and Venezuela. Interestingly, most of the countries I refer to are not favored by the United States. This is an additional reason why the U.S. is an important but complicating factor.

One strong Chinese argument here is that the Americans have good trade relations with the traditional, reliable and large oil producers, while China is a newcomer and has to compete. Does the United States intend to set obstacles for China to get supplies by putting pressure on those countries that are friendly to China but not so friendly to the U.S.?

To be sure, China is more and more involved in those regional issues. And this is a fairly new challenge. In the Mao Tse-tung years, China was isolated from world economics and was not very much influenced by regional instability. In the initial years of reform and opening, China was in a sense a free rider.

With fast-expanded economic interests, especially in many less-developed countries like Afghanistan, Central Asia and southern Africa, China will have to be more responsible and proactive in providing, or in helping provide, political stability in those countries and sustaining regional peace.

Q: What do you think would have a direct impact on China’s stability and security in the coming years? It seems that religious and ethnic strife will likely come from the western part of China, whereas the fallout of the great power struggle will likely come from the eastern border. Globalization perhaps will come from everywhere. Which direction will China’s primary threat come from?

A: Problems are rising in the western part of China in recent years. But those coastal areas also have many, many vulnerabilities and pitfalls, but of a different nature. China is kind of representative of the whole world. You have the First World in Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Shanghai and somewhere in Beijing. And you have the Third World in some remote areas in the west. They are going through different phases of historical development.

In some national minority areas, the problems are still pre-modern, so to speak. But in Shanghai, there are many postmodern problems. You don’t have to ask people to take birth control measures in Beijing and Shanghai. In the pre-modern communities, the ethnic tensions you mentioned may be more serious. But in Shanghai and elsewhere, problems related to the aging population, social welfare and education may also lead to social unrest.

I think it more and more depends on local governments, officials and people to solve their own problems, rather than depending on the central government’s instructions and aid. You will see a more diversified China. Although this is still a very unified country, we should allow different voices, different policies conducted by localities according to their conditions.

Geopolitically and geo-economically, the western part of China, the western border and beyond will gain more importance in the future. I’m not here to reduce the significance of Japan. But I really think the western part of Asia is gaining more importance to China. For one thing, we don’t get oil supplies, natural gas supplies from Japan or South Korea. We have to look to the west for all those communication lines for supplies of natural resources.

Q: So it sounds like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization could become a much more powerful and important vehicle and forum than the G-20 from a Chinese perspective.

A: Well, I don’t necessarily think so. While the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is growing and being strengthened, it is essentially a loosely organized mechanism, not an alliance. The original purpose until today is to counter terrorism, separatism and extremism aimed at domestic and regional stability. Economic cooperation is becoming more important, but it is still based on bilateral trade.

Taken as a whole, a regional cooperation mechanism is lacking. Central Asia is still very much divided along national borders. Social and economic dimensions of integration are lagging behind security cooperation. They are not as advanced as in East Asia. So SCO still has a long way to go.

In addition, I don’t want to hide the different desires and different expectations of the organization. I mean, China and Russia do not think exactly the same way.

Q: Some intellectuals in the West say China is now imposing its rule on the world as the country grows, as exemplified by Martin Jacques’ book “When China Rules the World.” How do you react to those arguments?

A: I don’t see the possibility, not in my lifetime, that China will become No. 1 in world politics or China will dominate or rule the world. Because looking from within we have so many domestic challenges, including those reflected in the enlarged gap between rich and poor, social disparity and also in environmental degradation. If we cannot find a way to solve those problems, such as water shortage, pollution, climate change, and cope with social tensions successfully, China will not become that kind of global power on a par with the United States.

I don’t want to overemphasize China’s challenges, but I do think the outside world should take this into account when some say China is going to rule the world.

Another part of the question, which is not directly (in response to) the question you asked, is the so-called China model, zhongguo moshi, or Beijing Consensus. Yes, many developing countries and some developed countries admire China’s achievements. When I went to Eastern Europe, some said Peking University is as good as Harvard University. Well, to me it is not true, of course. China’s economy, education and technology are lagging far behind those of the United States. Those exaggerations of China’s power may not be ill-intended, but we should not be fooled and intoxicated by those exaggerations and praises.

In addition, in reality how many countries are really learning Chinese experiences? And how can they learn if they don’t establish their own Communist party or a similar political system?

China’s experiences are so unique. When we review our history in the past 30 years and try to explain why China has made such achievements, the main official conclusion is that most importantly we have the wise policies carried out by this very strong and correct Communist Party leadership. Without such an efficient, centralized and powerful government, there would not have been the China miracle.

If that is the case, which I believe is true, when other countries want to learn from China they should first of all adopt a similar form of government, establish a ruling party that will not be challenged by opposition parties.

When you think of how other countries can learn from the so-called China model, you must bear in mind the uniqueness of China. It is easy to say they desire to learn, but how much they could learn and whether they have really studied are entirely different. Otherwise, I don’t think that is a very valid statement or argument. You can learn a little bit, for instance, state intervention into the market, regulations, etc., but that is very limited.

I don’t want to avoid answering a very fundamental question, which is that China is politically different from most other countries in the world. Namely, China is seen as a Communist country–and China is really led by a Communist party.

In the Western terminology and mind-set, how can a Communist country join the world? That is a fundamental conceptual challenge to them, and also to us. Because we are seen as politically different, many people in China hold the suspicion that the Western world will never accept China as an equal partner.

Theoretically, there are two ways to solve the puzzle. The first is to transform China into a country that is similar to Western democracies. However, that is not feasible and not desirable to China’s leaders and elites. The other way around it is that China cooperates with other countries and they gradually accept and treat China as an equal partner.

At the same time, I also think that China will have to change itself by conducting political reform. I don’t mean to propose changes into a political system akin to that of Japan or the United States–and Japan and the United States have different political systems, too. China will remain a one-party polity for a long, long time to come. This is a reality we have to recognize. Meanwhile, China will be more pluralistic and diversified politically, and will strengthen its legal system and find ways to protect human rights.

Q: Recently, people have begun to define the U.S.-China relationship as a “strategic partnership,” or involving “strategic reassurance.” Yet nothing has actually taken root intellectually, conceptually or even in policy terms. Beyond the national interest argument, is there anything that actually makes the U.S.-China relationship genuinely strategic?

A: I think both countries, especially both governments, realize very well the trend towards globalization. Because they are more and more interdependent, and their economies are intertwined, their financial institutions have to cooperate with each other on the values of the dollar and yuan. China and the U.S. are linked by other global issues, and regional issues like the North Korean nuclear problem, the Iranian nuclear deadlock. These are all strategic issues.

In their respective strategic outlook, the two giants have taken into consideration all these issues. Without the strategic partnership, China cannot enjoy economic prosperity. And without financial stability in China and without China’s economic growth, the United States cannot enjoy economic recovery either. They don’t need to say they have common strategic interests in that regard. They know it very well.

And they also know very well that a major conflict between the two nations would lead to disasters to both. American strategists are looking at China’s future 20 years from now, 30 years from now. If Chinese and American strategists predict that United States and China will confront each other in a war, how could they plan for the future of their nation? To this extent, notions like “strategic reassurance,” “responsible stakeholder” carry real meanings.

Q: I was really struck by an article written by a Chinese scholar arguing that China should help the United States retain its leading role in maintaining the world order because U.S. hegemony has benefitted China greatly by excusing the country from committing to maintaining the world order. Does this argument make sense?

A: Yes, it makes sense to me, but only to a limit. We really want to see the U.S. economy prospering. China benefits from a strong U.S. economy and borrows from its technological know-how. The paradox there is that political elites in China don’t want to see too much American political influence in the world and the expansion of its military power.

And the same kind of paradox and anxiety exists in the U.S. when it watches China. The Obama administration says it welcomes a strong, prosperous China. But do they mean a stronger military power of China? These two countries share one thing in common: They wish each other well in economic terms but not necessarily in political and geostrategic terms.

On the one hand, I do share this scholar’s expectation that the United States will remain prosperous and educationally and scientifically advanced. It has the resources and advantages to keep its leading position in the world. But frankly speaking, this hope cannot be translated into assessing and perceiving U.S. military and political power.

It is politically incorrect in China to say we want a stronger U.S. hegemony. But this kind of strategic thinking you just described is very important. I mean, we should analyze the world in a more complicated and sophisticated way.

The same logic applies to Japan. We really want Japan to be economically advanced so we can make more money together with it. But at the same time, we don’t want Japan to be armed with nuclear weapons or to have a very rapid expansion of naval power because we have some problems with Japan in security terms. This kind of complexity and ambivalence will last almost forever.

Q: How do you think the Chinese see the U.S.-Japan alliance? Since Nixon’s visit in the 1970s, China’s position on the alliance has been one of grudging acceptance, rather than welcoming it. How do you think China sees the alliance right now, and how will that view change over the coming years?

A: I think most Chinese analysts will say the U.S.-Japan strategic alliance will last for its own sake and for the interests of both countries. Both want to maintain it, and this is the reality, a fait accompli. In the early and mid-1990s, when the Cold War just ended and a Taiwan Strait crisis occurred, there were anxieties in Beijing and some expectations that Japan would move away from the U.S. orbit.

Nowadays we are accustomed to the U.S.-Japan alliance. Now the U.S. and Japan have some bilateral problems, but I don’t see many Chinese try to take pleasure from that. Instability in U.S.-Japan relations may not necessarily benefit China.

Q: Former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said the primary rationale for Japan to allow the U.S. military to be stationed in Okinawa is to maintain the deterrence factor. So far, that deterrence has been designed to cope with North Korean instability or threat. But some are now trying to include China as a reason for the deterrence factor. Do you think China will and can be deterred by the United States and Japan?

A: I don’t see many new things here. I mean, the continuity is very obvious. With the saying or without the saying that China provides the rationale, the U.S.-Japan strategic alliance is partly directed at China.

Now, China is growing up with a larger naval power. I think it is natural that some Japanese would say they should do something to counter or balance off Chinese power. As an analyst, I don’t have a big problem with that, although such a saying is not very good for public relations.

Many Chinese will say we have peaceful intentions, and the growing of our military power will pose no threat to anyone. This is a sincere statement. But in the real world, we see the security dilemma faced by every country.

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Wang Jisi, an expert on U.S. diplomacy, U.S.-China relations and international politics, is concurrently director of the Institute of International Strategic Studies at the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China. He is one of the most influential scholars of American studies, and carries a great deal of weight in the policymaking of the Chinese leadership led by President Hu Jintao. After graduating from Peking University, he pursued his academic career at Oxford University and the University of California at Berkeley. While he has an active network with U.S. government officials, he is also well-versed in Japan-China relations. He was once a visiting fellow at the Tokyo Foundation.

– Yoichi Funabashi