US-China relations after elections: what to expect?

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Interview with Yuri Tavrovsky, Professor in international relations with the Friendship University in Moscow.

Yuri, once again I’m very happy to great you in this studio.

Thank you the pleasure is all mine, as usually.

Getting back to the Nuclear Security Summit in Seoul, what do you think could be the key issues which Mr. Obama and Hu Jintao had to discuss before both of them face the election both in the United States and China?

I think their position is quite different because Mr. Hu Jintao is sure to leave the chair number one in Beijing and President Obama has a fair chance to stay in the White House.

Yes, at least we could notice that from his remarks to Mr. Medvedev.

And of course there will be some corrections in the foreign policy of both China and America after the presidential election.

How considerable will they be?

I think that for America they could be quite considerable while in China the new leadership will try to continue the present course of foreign policy. The problem is that maybe they won’t be allowed to stay on the course.

By whom?

First of all by the Americans because I have the impression that the two big ships – America and China – are now on the coalition course. It started this year actually, maybe end of last year…

After the speech of President Obama in Australia, is it what you are referring to?

No, I don’t think that actually President Obama is so important. In think that American elites, American establishment somehow understood that China becomes number one among their adversaries. And China becomes too important, too rich and actually they tried somehow to have a compromise with China. In the year of 2009 President Obama made his first visit to Beijing and offered the so called G2 system – two nations controlling the world with the understanding that America will be number one and China will be number two in this G2 scheme. But the Chinese refused, they don’t want to join either America or Russia, or Vietnam, any other country. They want to be China, they are the great nation.

So, after that American establishment started to go from love-hate relationship, which was characteristic for early bilateral relations, to simply hate relationship. And we see that very important events are taking place, I mean those new military bases being built in Asia-Pacific, those new political constructions are also being discussed and implemented, I mean for example even Myanmar which used to be the evil guy now is a good guy because it is important for containing China. There are new bases in Australia, in Singapore, there are old bases in Japan, in South Korea being expanded. So, the center of military preparations is going to the Asia-Pacific region. It is very important, you know. It is a strategy, it is not a policy of President Obama, it is American strategy for many years to come.

A surprising fact is that one of the gurus of the United States international policy and foreign policy – Henry Kissinger in his recent book on China maintains that the United States needs to maintain good relations with China and perhaps get engaged in developing bilateral relations with that huge country in the eastern part of the world. But does that mean that modern US political establishment just wouldn’t listen to an experienced man like Henry Kissinger is?

I’m afraid it is so. I think there are many different opinions in America, competing schools of thought but it looks like “the hate China school of thought” is now getting the upper hand.

But in that case what are they going to do about their huge Chinese community living in the United States? Wouldn’t that policy backfire?

You know, this community is big enough but in terms of votes during the elections it is not as important as say Jewish vote or Mexican vote…

Or Indian vote. But still they possess huge amount of capital. They produce a considerable portion of the national GDP and they are players in the American economy who need to be accounted for.

Yes, that’s true. But maybe you know, the real bosses in America understand the national interests in a little bit broader sense.

Now, since we’ve mentioned Mr. Kissinger, can you remember his first trip to China, I mean he seems to be the one who discovered China for the American elite, isn’t he?

The glorious times of ping-pong diplomacy, the secret visits…

I’m sure you need to tell our listeners more about that.

You know, China and the United States weren’t in friendly relations and so the first step was to send an American ping-pong team to Beijing. And so, they played ping-pong match but that was very important because that is how the things started. Then there was this secret visit of Kissinger to Beijing.

Why was it secret?

Because their relations were very bad and maybe the Chinese side asked for it because Chairman Mao was a famous enemy of American humanism and imperialism…

But that was the time of the Chinese standoff with the Soviet Union, wasn’t it?

Yes, actually it was the start of the Chinese miracle, because I’m sure that America was very instrumental in Chinese economic miracle because America allowed China to have new technologies, it opened international markets for the Chinese goods. This secret visit took place in 1972 and a miracle started in 1978 when Deng Xiaoping became the ruler of China. Why there is this six years gap? Because China was in turmoil, the Chairman Mao died and there was instability, and they had to arrest his wife and her followers.

So, the country started to really develop fast after Deng Xiaoping took power. But the Chinese had to prove that they are enemies no more and they proved it by attacking Vietnam in 1979. They lost that war actually but they proved that China is not an adversary now and America started to help. But the Chinese were too efficient and they developed too quickly, and they became the owners of $1 trillion in American bonds, and America now is really afraid of the Chinese economic expansion.

Why wouldn’t it try to engage China in full dialog, the Chinese don’t seem to mind that?

Yes, actually the moods in China are very pro-American among millions of the Chinese. You know, the official publications by the Xinhua News Agency shows that there are 350 millions of the Chinese learning English, not because of merry old England but because of America. They all envy America, they want to live the American way of life and so on. And do you know how many Chinese learn Russian?

No.

It is about 30 thousand people. So, 350 million people and 30 thousands, it shows. It is sort of unnatural for me, I cannot understand why Americans are losing this great chance of improving bilateral relations with China to make it friendship from generation to generation. But for some reason they decided to appoint China to be the enemy number one. Maybe it is because the American dollar is really being threatened by the Chinese yuan.

And of course the trade deficit.

Yes, and they’ve asked China to revaluate yuan. And they do revaluate it but too slowly for America.

But they learn fast from the history lessons, I’m sure you remember that you were telling me about Japan…

Yes.

Which never gained from revaluating their own currency.

You know, the same story. After the World War II Japan is very poor, it is very weak, then the Korean War starts, America is interested in the US bases in Japan so it lifted the restrictions, it opened markets, Japan started to develop and the Japanese yen, actually the same character stands for yen and yuan, and yen becomes too strong and Americans start to ask the Japanese to revaluate it. The Japanese refuse but finally they succumb and then they have this economic crisis going on for twenty years. But the Chinese are in a better position so when Americans asked them to do it, they are not refusing, they are saying – well, we will do it but very slowly, step-by-step…

Of course they are pursuing their own national interests, which is absolutely logical.

Yes, sure but American are sure that only their national interests are important.

The US does not stand to gain from the standoff with China. I’m not saying they are going to lose but they are not gaining anything.

Yes, thiswise you know that political decisions are sometimes taken by the people who are not really wise.

By the way talking about the US politicians, do you remember Mr. Romney’s recent statement that Russia seems to the US enemy number one?

Yes.

 So, that just makes a perfect illustration of the level of their political decision making.

I can’t understand that either. Going back to the times of friendship, do you know that President Obama and the first President of the Republic of China Sun Yat-sen, they attended the same school.

No!

In Honolulu.

Really?

Why is it so? Because the Americans were very open for the Chinese, they invited them to missionary schools and so Sun Yat-sen went to Hawaii and spent several years there. And then a hundred years later, more than a hundred years because it was in the late 19th century when Sun Yat-sen was in Hawaii, the same school, the building is standing there at the same street and hundreds of thousands of Chinese went to America and the story repeats itself because now tens of thousands of Chinese are going to America for education. For example the next Chinese President Xi Jingpin was in America a month ago and secretly he visited his daughter in Harvard…

Was it that secretly?

Of course secretly because she studies there under a pseudonym for some reasons and children of many other prominent Chinese politicians, business people are doing the same. And there is not a single son or daughter of Chinese politician now in Moscow, learning in any Moscow university or St. Petersburg university.

We had scores of Chinese students back in the 1950’es.

Yes, and we have scores of Chinese students now but they are not offspring of the Chinese elite people.

Not princelings.

Not princelings, their parents just cannot afford Harvard so they travel to Moscow University. I really don’t understand the Americans. They should read Mr. Kissinger’s books.

But you know, getting back to the Nuclear Security Summit, when Mr. Obama and Mr. Hu met on the sidelines of the Summit, I remember that Mr. Hu issued a clear and quite stern statement regarding for instance North Korea nuclear program. So, his position was – keep talking, while Mr. Obama said that the US was strongly concerned about North Korean nuclear program. And then there were numerous experts who were saying that perhaps from the point of view of the nuclear security, who are rather concerned with preventing nuclear materials from getting into the hands of not governmental experts, North Korea was perfectly safe. So, I mean that this was just another issue when the Chinese made the US feel their own position and so what do they have to do?

You know, in almost all global problems and many local problems China is very important, it has the biggest say. And in case of North Korea I think their say is the loudest and most important. And they understand the Pyongyang’s position better than Americans, so that’s why Hu Jintao told them to keep talking. So, what else can America do, it won’t attack the North Korea.

Interestingly enough Mr. Obama also said, while he was there at the Summit, that ultimately Koreans are one nation which implied that perhaps the US is looking at the reunification of Koreas. But this is not something quite welcomed by China, is it?

Yes, I don’t think that China actually needs a unified Korea. I’m sure that China is not very happy about what is going on in Pyongyang, about its nuclear program. It would prefer sort of relations it has with the South Korea but China cannot start this process of reunification or somehow influence it. I don’t think that they can.

Are they supporting this process or the idea of reunification? I’m not sure. Are they?

I think they are quite neutral because the North Koreans never told anything about reunification.

But remember the words of a railroad built between the two and there have been a couple of trains traveling.

Yes, there is an idea of building this railroad which will be connected with the Russian Trans-Siberian Railroad. But the President of the South Korea is not saying anything about the reunification. Some of his predecessors were conducting this sunshine policy, they were offering economic assistance but it wasn’t very efficient.

But recently there have been a number of signs pointing to a change of mood in the South Korean political elite.

Maybe they will result in going back to this sunshine policy. But still I think that China now, feeling this containment policy, will be more interested in peaceful reunification of Korea if it will be neutral, if the American bases will be withdrawn from South Korea. You know that there are nuclear arms on those bases.

That’s what I’m leading to.

So, I think that Seoul wasn’t the best venue for nonnuclear summit actually.

But have you heard, in think there was some kind of idea circulated to make the South East Asia a nuclear free zone. Do you believe it?

No, I don’t believe that.

It is something like making the Middle East a nuclear free zone.

It is a very nice fairytale but in terms of reality I’m afraid it won’t happen in our lifetime.

Well, but another interesting thing for me is, since we’ve been mentioning Russia all the time, what is Russia’s stance on the US-Chinese intricate relationship? How do we see that?

Well, I think that we wouldn’t like to join either side of it and stay on our own course. You know, the Chinese used to say that we’ll better sit on the hill and watch the two tigers fight. It is not the same situation but apparently our relations with China are better than our relations with America, still we are strategic partners with China but we are not allies in the military terms, in political terms. So, of course we would like China-America relations to be peaceful and to benefit from it but if these relations will become not so friendly, it will affect our national interests, national security because we are a Pacific nation, we are a Eurasian nation, and already our leaders are thinking about it.

In the famous article published by the present Prime Minister and future President Putin, he doesn’t discuss this looming confrontation, but in October last year he met with the three bosses of our national TV stations and he was talking about this. Let me quote what Mr. Putin said: “You know, there are some people who are telling us about the so called Chinese threat and I answered them many times, and mostly they were our partners from the West, that in the this world mineral resources of Siberia and the Far East, Russian resources, are very important of course but still the fight and the confrontation is not for these resources. The real confrontation is for the world leadership and we are not going to have problems with China in this respect. China has different adversaries, so let them solve this problem. So, Russia apparently isn’t going to take any side.” That’s it. I think it is very reasonable.

Well, that’s balanced stance.

Yes.

 In Russian we’ve got a nice saying – if two fight, the third should stay away.

Yes, this situation will develop. Naturally this confrontation between China and America will develop for many, many years.

But Yuri, do you think that our partners like the United States for instance, if they enter into active confrontation with China, do you think that they would be content with our position of not taking sides for the same reason, as you already quoted that we are a Pacific nation, we could be instrumental in certain respects. Do you think that?

Naturally they won’t be very happy about that but I don’t think they have enough leverage to press us into taking anti-Chinese position. Apparently it is against our national interests. You know, what is more probable is that if America and its allied would press us on the so called European front with anti-ballistic missile program and other military programs, and they’ll press China on their Pacific coast front, then maybe Russia and China will be more inclined to become allies. Right now neither Moscow nor Beijing wants it but it is a possibility and we should recollect that the Soviet Union and the Chinese People’s Republic were allies in the 40’es and in the 50’es.

Yes, and we have long memories, I mean this part of the world – Eurasia – tends to have long memories.

At least I remember that.

Thank you so much Yuri.