Late last week I received a set of questions from a major media organization as a prelude to an interview that in the end didn’t take place. Since they are the common questions that I hear a lot, I decided to post the answers I had written.
Q. Is China reclaiming what it sees as its rightful place in the world?
A. I’m not sure the Chinese leadership has a clear or compelling view of China’s place in the world. In the Maoist era they were revolutionary leaders, looking to provide guidance to the developing world. Today it seems they are simply looking out for themselves. Given China is home to a fifth of humanity, and on a per capita level actually below the global average in per capita production and income, perhaps that is a more mature and responsible mentality.
Q. What are some of the “uncomfortable realities” of China’s emergence as a superpower?
A. The Chinese leadership does not see their country as a superpower. The much discussed “Chinese dream” is to be a “moderately prosperous” nation by mid-century. They have relatively modest ambitions. The problem is that in a world of increasing environmental constraints bringing one-fifth of humanity up to levels of consumption on par with moderately advanced nations has costs and consequences for everyone else on the planet. That is, perhaps, what is really at the root of much of the international anxiety about the so-called “rise of China.”
Q. How do the Chinese view the relationship to the US and to the rest of the world and what would they like to see.
A. China does not want any trouble with the United States. It can’t afford it. China needs a relatively peaceful international environment to prosper. Conflict comes with economic costs which China’s still fragile economy, and even more fragile political system, cannot bear. Ideally, the Chinese leadership would like to be left alone to develop their economy. Unfortunately, we live in an increasingly interdependent world and China’s pursuit of its own development is impacting many others. The root cause of the disputes in the seas surrounding China, for example, is access to resources. The nationalist rhetoric and military posturing we see more frequently is a symptom of the deeper problem. Once inflamed, these nationalist nerves make it difficult to resolve disputes. Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia is seen by most parties in the region as a guarantee that the U.S. military will be an arbiter of last resort. Since we have clearly identified allies in the region, and China is not one of them, China feels excluded, which is causing considerable anxiety among the Chinese leadership.