Affirming A New Strategic Relationship

By Martin Jacques & Shirong Chen

Renowned China expert Martin Jacques just released the second edition of his book When China Rules the World this summer. He sat down with ChinaReport to discuss the historic shift in both British and Chinese foreign policies in a new era of fragmenting American power.
ChinaReport: Ten years ago, when the Chinese president made a state visit to the United Kingdom, the two sides had some awkward moments. One side appeared to be forthright about democracy and human rights, while the other side seemed to be uneasy about the subject and prefer to stick to trade and economics. What’s the situation like now between China and the United Kingdom?
Martin Jacques: I think this was the situation with the UK – There were probably two conversations taking place. The pressure from the media and various organisations means you’ve got to raise issues like human rights and democracy. And then there was business side of things, like trade. The big turning point came after British Prime Minister David Cameron met the Dalai Lama. China then put Britain in the deep freeze for a period. Since then, there’s a big shift of opinion in the government, from thinking that the big questions were to do with human rights and democracy to the belief that the strategic relationship between China and the UK was extremely important for Britain’s future.

CR: So important to the extent that other issues could be swept under the carpet?
MJ: Not to brush it under the carpet, but not to assume the same significance either. In the past, there was a lot of grandstanding. It was playing to public opinion. It wasn’t having any particular effect on China. China’s not going to bow to that kind of pressure; they’ve never shown any sign of doing that.

CR: The United Kingdom is part of the EU and there are still the sticking points such as the arms embargo and the recognition of China as a market economy. These issues haven’t been solved yet.
MJ: No. I think the context of the arms embargo has changed. The change doesn’t make the solution any easier. Originally, it was mainly due to American pressure. The global outlook has changed significantly since then: people in America realise China is a rising power both in economy and military. Today’s China is very different. It’s no longer weak. I’m quite optimistic about the EU Chinese relations, actually more optimistic than I am about the US-China relationship.

On the issue of market economy status, I believe at some point, China will be embraced as a market economy by the EU. I don’t know when. But I think that is probably an easier issue to be dealt with. The fact is that China is becoming a more open, mature and important economy. Just like the [Chinese yuan] renminbi is going to become part of the IMF currency basket, I think the market economy will shift in the same way.

CR: You’ve mentioned a different context. With China’s economic growth and military spending going up, there was talk about the China threat and muscle-flexing. Do you perceive China as being more assertive in its foreign policy?
MJ: It’s a good question. There has clearly been a shift in China’s foreign policy. In my view, the shift is necessary. Historically, China’s foreign policy was shaped by Deng Xiaoping’s paradigm, and the message has been: we are weak and poor, we need to grow, reducing poverty and getting stronger. Hence, we have to hide our capability, and above all, we have to get on with the United States. I think it was absolutely the right thing to do.

China is no longer in that situation. Its economy is roughly as large as that of the United States. It may well be much poorer by some measure, yet it’s come a long way and is in a very different position.

I think this is what the China Dream is about. China’s over 100 years’ weakness gives way to a situation where it’s no longer at the bidding of others. For example, in East Asia, China is acting more on its own terms. That is a historic shift. But I would add one word of caution to this: Deng Xiaoping’s paradigm has not lost its historical significance. It is still important, because China is a big country and there is a fear of China just because of its size.

CR: We can trace that as far back as to Napoleonic times.
MJ: Exactly. It goes back a very long time. So China can easily make other countries nervous and anxious. However China moves, it needs to understand that. If it goes too far, it’s going to arouse fears and forms of resistance and become unpopular. This could make its tasks more difficult. So I think that the new positions have to be blended with the old.

As China is building its “One Belt, One Road” strategy, some of the ASEAN countries are important to the maritime Silk Road. They are not on the land route “belt”, which in the long run is more important because of the economic transformation of the Eurasian continent. Arguably, those ASEAN countries become less important. But what does matter is how China gets on with the ASEAN countries serves as a touchstone for its foreign relations with smaller countries in the world.

CR: On the issue of One Belt, One Road, will it be part of China’s geopolitical solution?
MJ: One Belt, One Road is really a whole new perspective in the transformation of Eurasia and Central Asia. A tremendous prize if it could be achieved. I assume the Chinese bet is placed on its own success in transforming China through economic growth, investment, and infrastructure. The acute problem for land-locked Central Asia is low levels of economic growth, gaining very little from globalisation.

CR: Any considerations in its ethnic and religious problems?
MJ: You are absolutely right that ethnicity and religious factors are going to be a very important part in this equation. Whether China can overcome those difficulties, we don’t know. I think there’s a fair chance. China has had a tough time in Xinjiang, so I’m not confident that this is their strongest card. I’m a great admirer of what the Chinese government has done since 1949, especially after Reform and Opening-up. It’s an extraordinary transformation. But their weakest link has been handling the complex issues in Xinjiang and Tibet.

CR: Talking about weaknesses, the uttermost important thing in Beijing seems to be the anticorruption campaign. What did you learn from your conversation with Wang Qishan, who is leading the anti-corruption drive?
MJ: I found it fascinating. I got invited to the conference. At the time, I wasn’t sure whether to go as I was busy. I am glad I made it as it was really interesting. I drew two main conclusions. First, there is a profound recognition that corruption is eating away and corroding trust in the government and the Chinese Communist Party. What I picked up from Wang Qishan was that the future of the Chinese Communist Party was being threatened if nothing is done.

Secondly, the campaign and the whole movement against corruption is dramatic and very serious. I can’t think in the modern period of any movement against corruption in any country which has been so big and so ambitious.

CR: But, what if the force is so overwhelming that it might cause damage to the Party?
MJ: It could be. Corruption is a very difficult issue to tackle because it’s rooted in the culture. The problem in China is it’s got the double element to it. One, it’s historically rooted in the culture; secondly, the reform has transformed the Party and money, particularly the significance of money in society. Party officials’ achievement was measured by their contribution to GDP and so on. So it’s moved away from political loyalty to an economic model.

CR: Have you offered any prescription for that?
MJ: My view is that the whole movement against corruption is extremely important. The danger with campaigns against corruption is that they work for a period and then things return to how they used to be. They’re very difficult, not just in China. How to move a society, a government and Party to the new norm in which corruption is unacceptable is a challenge.

Now I think to do that you have to be very transparent. You’ve got to make public the income and assets of officials at all levels.

CR: How difficult is it for China to do so?
MJ: This would be very difficult. I don’t know whether there’s been any precedent in China but there is in other countries. For example, in Sweden, every single person’s tax return is viewable by anyone on the Internet. I agree a Nordic country with its different traditions and small population is not necessarily a blueprint for China, but the idea is very important.

CR: Indeed for China to do so, it involves an enormous database and IT infrastructure.
MJ: I agree. The Chinese are very good at experimenting in a limited geographical context, so maybe they could trial it in a city, in Shanghai, Beijing or Tianjin, for example, and then trial it in a province before rolling it out in due course. This is extremely important for China. It can also have demonstrative effect on the world. Corruption is a global problem.

CR: Geopolitically, there have been interesting developments recently, particularly with the signing of TPP agreement. What’s your view?
MJ: The geopolitical situation and its outlook are uncertain. I’ve always held a view that the TPP, in America’s perspective, is a way of containing China in the new context. How to deal with China’s rise in trade in the Asia Pacific region on the backdrop of America’s decline is tricky. The idea of [the] TPP was thinking [of] a way to push China out or to the edges of the game. That’s quite explicit. President Obama has laid his cards on the table, saying this is about China.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. We are no longer in a Cold War situation where international trade rules are designed by divided and polarised powers. Today’s world trade system is more integrated even though there are lots of different bilateral and multilateral agreements. As a result, it’s more difficult to break it. But the Americans are coming up with ideas to bifurcate the system and push the Chinese to the edges. Because they can see what’s driving China’s rise is their growing importance in Asia, where a third of the world’s population lives. The Chinese know what the Americans are up to with all this.

CR: What about the TTIP then?
MJ: That’s a bit different as it’s an Atlantic deal. Theoretically, China could be a party to everything. If China rises and keeps rising, it’s going to be so important globally that it could be a party to both deals, the TPP in the short term, and the Atlantic deal in the long term. If China does the investment deal with the United States and does similar things with Europe, then you could see overlapping issues. A lot would also depend on China-US relations.

CR: Will the China-UK relationship be as dependent on the China US relationship as it was?
MJ: The indication in 2015 so far means it may not be like it used to be. Britain’s decision to join the AIIB was an extraordinary step, because the British government has been America’s most loyal ally ever since the Second World War. It would not even allow a piece of paper to get between the relationships. America has been campaigning against the AIIB even though they claim the contrary. Following Britain’s footsteps, many other Western countries also joined in.

I think that says a lot in a new era. We are in an era of the fragmentation of American power. The question for the British government is, is it in our interest to carry on grandstanding on issues of human rights and democracy, or are we going to develop our own strategic relationship with China? The key mover here is George Osborne, and he clearly has a very long term view about what the relationship should be like. Compared to Germany, Britain has been dragging its feet on its relationship with China. But suddenly things have changed. I’m sure the Chinese will always remember that Britain joined the AIIB at the crucial juncture.

The Chinese are very loyal and they value friendship. The point is, countries have to find a way of living in the world as it is and as it’s becoming, and not just as it was.

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