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Opportunities and Challenges for China's New Leaders in Building Mutual Trust with the World
By Wang Yizhou



TO BETTER understand the current challenge of building mutual trust between China and the world, it is important to understand the background of China's new leaders, President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang. They are the first generation of leaders born after the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. As a result, they carry fewer historical burdens than did Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, who were well aware of the humiliating experiences of China's modern history.


It is a sad and well-known fact that China, one of the world's earliest civilizations, fell into a semi-colonial state following the First Opium War in 1840, oppressed and humiliated by the Western great powers. As a result, the Chinese people underwent revolution and struggle for a hundred years, leaving deep scars on the country's political psychology. But Xi and Li grew up, were educated and pursued their careers during China's era of reform and opening, and therefore have a tendency to look forward with confidence. They are leaders fully committed to Deng Xiaoping's path of "progress through co-operation and development from reform."


They also have assumed leadership at a crucial moment, when this nation is being recognized as an ascendant power by its neighbors and the international community. Thus China's new leaders somehow possess a different global consciousness than their predecessors — more confident, ambitious and enterprising. To quote Xi, "Leaders in this term of office are shouldering the great mission to realize the dream of Chinese national revival."

Realizing the Dream

In my opinion, the "Chinese dream" as it is discussed by Xi and other officials includes the following goals:


First, to double per capita income during their term in office, from the current $5,000 to $10,000 by 2020. Conservative forecasts suggest that China will overtake the United States as the world's largest economy by the middle of this century, when the PRC will celebrate its 100th anniversary. Making up one-fifth of the world's population, China is poised to become a new-style great power in the East, relatively rich and prosperous, its people living in peace and working in contentment.


Second, to make strong gains in technology for national defense and to lay a solid foundation for national unification, territorial integrity and the settlement of sovereignty disputes. Though China is now a global power with worldwide influence, most foreigners hardly know that the Chinese people still have something painful in their hearts. This is the fact that the nation is still not truly unified, because of the legacy of civil war (1946-1949). Taiwan Island is still divided politically from the mainland. Therefore, China's new leaders will work hard to realize the dream of national unification and integrity, which is also why it is vital to modernize the country's defense capabilities. Besides, China's land boundary and its coastline are especially long, with 14 neighbor countries by land and eight by sea, among which 10 have long-term sovereignty disputes with China, varying in nature and degree. Maintaining sovereignty and territorial integrity is one of the most important sources of political legitimacy. As a result, China's modernization of its military and national defense is focused on advances in quality rather than quantity.


The third goal of the Chinese dream is to act as a newly emerging great power and contribute to peace and prosperity in East Asia, as well as global development. In fact, all leaders of the PRC have had global ambitions, although their direction and emphasis may have differed. For Mao Zedong, it was to complete the revolution in China and push forward the world revolution, fighting an international system dominated by the West, especially when the red star faded in the Soviet Union. For Deng Xiaoping, it was to solve the problem of poverty and economic growth in China, gaining more appeal and charm for socialism with Chinese characteristics in an economically globalized world. Later leaders, namely Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping, are following Deng's path and emphasizing China's role as a responsible great power.


I believe China's new leaders are committed to leading a peaceful, ascending and constantly stronger nation dedicated to the cause of helping to create a more reasonable and just world order, thus gaining more respect from the world. However, these ambitions are encountering some doubts and challenges.

Challenges, Doubts and Tricks

First is the suspicion and resulting containment policies of the world's superpower. Sino-US relations are complex, with both positive and negative aspects. In the view of many Chinese people, the US would like to keep close economic and trade ties with China, while at the same time making every attempt to guarantee that China won't be a threat to America's position as a superpower. This is the main source of uncertainty in relations between China and the world.


Second is the challenge that is posed by the anxieties and little tricks of China's neighbors. Given the sheer size of China and the country's rapid economic growth, combined with complex foreign relations throughout its history, the country finds itself surrounded by more than 20 neighboring countries that hold contradictory and sometimes negative attitudes toward China's ascent — with Japan and the Philippines being examples.


The third challenge concerns the shockwave of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which came into effect in the 1990s and has provided opportunities for nations to exploit resources at sea, adding to international disputes. It is estimated that more than 60 out of the 150 coastal states face bilateral or multilateral maritime disputes concerning fisheries, island ownership, seabed resources and the exploitation of the Polar region. China is involved in numerous disputes. To handle them well or not is a question directly connected to stability and peace in East Asia, and it also concerns the peaceful ascent of China.


Finally, the rise of nationalism within China means more pressure is coming to bear on China's leaders. It is not a coincidence that various versions of the "Chinese threat" have emerged. China and certain countries have new problems and difficulties in their political-security relations; internal debates, sometimes fueled by nationalism, are occurring in which rash opinions are sometimes expressed. As China continues its rise, we should seek and find solutions to the problems that undermine international trust. This will require various efforts.


First, it is necessary to build a smart balance of contention and co-operation between China and the US in order to keep the two going in the same direction. In traditional Chinese strategic thought, we should try "to resist but not fight, to co-operate but not assimilate." This is a guideline with which China's current leaders are obviously familiar. Of course, the US and China have major differences and structural contradictions. The former is the largest and most developed capitalist state while the latter is a newly emerging socialist country led by a communist party. Mutual distrust is inevitable, as are the increasing frictions in bilateral and international affairs. After all, the US is the only nation capable of imposing a real block on China's ascent. However, since the era of Deng, Chinese leaders are clearly aware that confrontation with the US has more disadvantages than advantages. The growth of China over the years could not have occurred without some tacit understanding from the US, which means the two countries will carry on co-operating regardless of how difficult it might sometimes be.

Balancing Rights and Stability

If the relationship with the US is handled well it will also be an effective way to improve China's relations with the world. When Xi meets with Obama, he emphasizes that it is crucial for China and the US to build "new-style" great-power relations. I believe it is in the fundamental interests of both countries to establish better communication and co-ordination in the future on key issues such as military affairs, information security, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, anti-terrorism and global governance.


Second, it is necessary to maintain a balance between "defending rights" and "ensuring stability" for mutual benefit with neighboring countries. In terms of defending rights, I mean China's strategy to become a "powerful maritime nation," as advocated by President Xi, in the context of China's maritime rights. This means measures to strengthen the navy and coast guard, and institutional arrangements to defend China's maritime sovereignty. For a country with long coastlines, three seas (the South China Sea, East China Sea and Yellow Sea) and a long history of neglecting to exploit its maritime resources, China's new leaders have chosen the defense of maritime rights as an important direction in which to strengthen national power and motivate the Chinese people. At the same time, the young elites in China must keep in mind Deng's admonition to keep "amicable relations in [the] neighborhood and benefit all through co-operation." This is an important source of China's unprecedented growth of the last 30 years, and it is also the cornerstone for China's promise of a peaceful ascent. It is a grand strategy, though fairly difficult, for China to maintain a harmonious, safe and wealthy neighborhood while at the same time steadily and firmly carrying forward the realization of China's maritime sovereignty and other rights.


Third, China must explore an effective way to keep the balance between solving problems on the basis of international common practice and providing public goods with Chinese characteristics, thus pushing forward a new world order in its neighborhood, especially in East Asia. From my observation, one defect in China's foreign policy leadership is that they are not familiar with or fond of using international practices or norms (including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea). They are not skillful at creating win-win results through multilateral regimes; they would rather choose bilateral negotiations that may give them a possible advantage. In a certain sense, this is a reflection of China's nervousness as a newcomer to the international system, and it needs to be overcome. It is necessary for China to become accustomed to international common practice and routine in dealing with all kinds of disputes. This is an essential process for a great power to learn to live in a modest way with others. As a newly emerging great power with a long history of civilization, China, in accordance with its ability, should be able to provide more public goods to the world, including those related to security issues, such as attempts to build a new security framework in Asia.


The recent improvement of relations between Beijing and Taipei is inspiring. Despite still being divided, the two sides demonstrate a political willingness and creative involvement that has relieved the once dangerous confrontation, creating a "co-operation but not assimilation" effect. Similarly, the Six-Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear program, the Shanghai Co-operation Organization, various initiatives in the Mekong River region, the signing of an ASEAN agreement for a nuclear-free zone and flexibility in dealing with maritime disputes are all public goods for security that are provided, or will be provided, by China. If over time China sustains these types of initiatives on trust and security, the notion of a "Chinese Threat" may one day pass away.


Finally, China must deal with the double-edged effect of rising nationalism domestically, making use of its constructive function as a unifying force while at the same time mitigating its destructive power. In East Asia, the rise of nationalism in China, South Korea and Japan provides leaders with an opportunity for domestic political mobilization. On the other hand, it can also bring about new confusions and challenges. Leaders in China have never forgotten that during the country's decline that began in 1840, China suffered greatly from Japan's extreme nationalism and militarism. But before that, neighboring countries also suffered from China's strong national power.

Beauty and Unity

China's current nation-building project should carry on and promote the country's fine traditions of thought and civilization, while trying to remove the sense of national self-importance or conceit that has been an antipathy to other countries. Political leaders should get their inspiration from sociologist and anthropologist Fei Xiaotong, a great thinker in contemporary China, who called on people to "find your beauty and that of others, share the beauty and achieve unity."1 That is to say, leaders should have confidence in guiding the people to learn and carry forward their nation's best culture, while at the same time appreciating and absorbing the cream of the cultural heritage of other countries. When this reaches equilibrium, the prospect of a harmonious world will come true. As a great country with a history of civilization for thousands of years, China has an opportunity to pursue and manage this equilibrium.


After many years of research into East Asian security issues, I have the impression, unlike some in the media and elsewhere, that it will not be that difficult for China to build mutual trust with the rest of the world. The true difficulty lies in recognizing the nature of the problem.


Wang Yizhou is Associate Dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University.



Back to Issue
    China’s leaders are acutely aware that the country’s growing economic might and its increasing voice in international affairs are stirring concerns about how it will employ its newfound power and influence in the future. That presents China’s new leadership with the daunting challenge of building trust with the rest of the world. Wang Yizhou outlines the issues involved.
    Published: September 2013 (Vol.8 No.3)
    About the author

    Wang Yizhou is professor of international politics and Chinese foreign policy and Associate Dean in the School of International Studies, Peking University.

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