Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Key Person: Understanding Chinese Foreign Policy

Yan Xuetong (閻学通)
Professor/Director, Institute of International Affairs, Tsinghua University, China

Global American Discourse has launched a new corner, entitled “Key Person.” This corner talks about specific person who advocates important agendas in international affairs, regardless of fame, power, popularity, and social status. In the first post of “Key Person”, I am talking of Yan Xuetong.

It is quite difficult to understand Chinese way of thinking in global power games. Particularly, China’s hard-nosed attitude to the United States and Japan is unpleasant for me. But it is no use to see things simply through emotional perspectives. In order to understand China rationally, it is the best to read some commentaries written by Chinese opinion leaders.

Professor Yan received his BA from Heilongiang University in 1982, MA from the Institute of International Relations in 1986, and PhD from University of California, Berkeley in 1992. Since then, he has been writing numerous books and articles on Chinese foreign policy, US-Chinese relations, and Asia-Pacific security. He advises the Chinese government, and contributes essays to Chinese and foreign journals.

I would like to mention two articles to understand Yan Xuetong’s viewpoint on Chinese policy to the United States, Japan, and the Asia-Pacific region.

The first one is “The Rise of China in Chinese Eyes” in the Journal of Contemporary China in October 2001. In this article, Professor Yan points out that the rise of China is a long cherished desire among Chinese people to restore a great power status before the Opium War. Furthermore, he insists that the rise of China will benefit the world as a counter balance to American hegemony and a market with huge potential.

He points out that China had been the leading world power before the Opium War. For the Chinese, the rise of their nation is regaining lost international status. On the other hand, Chinese leaders never dream of catching up with the Unites States, and they are well aware of miserable failure in the Great Leap Forward. Yan insists that China is aiming at becoming the leader of the Third World, and its rise is peaceful. He criticizes US foreign policy belligerent, and advocates China’s role to constrain US-led unipolar world. Moreover, he argues that China will make the world more civilized through prevailing Confucian values as opposed to Western values. Finally, Yan mentions positive impacts of the Chinese market on the world economy.

In an article, entitled “Sino-US Relations in the Eyes of Chinese” (People’s Daily, March 4, 2005), Yan analyses survey results of public opinion poll on US-Chinese relations. Although Chinese people saw American people and society favorably, they were concerned with US foreign policy with regard to war in Iraq (37.6%), selling weapons to Taiwan (31.7%), and strengthening military ties with Japan (7.9%). Professor Yan commented as below.

All the Chinese public's dissatisfaction with the US is almost concentrated solely on the US's foreign policies, particularly the policy on China. Among other issues the Taiwan question is the core. Above 60 percent believe it to be the main question affecting the Sino-US relations in the future while about 32 percent Americans think the greatest issue in the Sino-US relations is that of human rights.

The media has an influence on people's opinion of the Sino-US relations, which cannot be underestimated. It is not so hard to see that as far as international affairs are concerned the Chinese public generally accepts what the media says.

It was also for this reason that Yan Xuetong pointed out the fact that among the reasons Chinese felt dissatisfied with the US the option of "selling weapons to Taiwan" and that of "waging the war in Iraq" were chosen by roughly the same number of people while people who chose the option of "strengthening military ties with Japan" were few - a phenomenon which greatly surprised Yan. "One of the things happened far away from us, another is a big thing which happened just outside our door and the other happened right inside our home. How could it be this result?" Yan Xuetong warned: "Think about the coverage our media devoted to Iraq, which was who knows how many times more than that of the US' arms sales to Taiwan!" Regarding "the US and Japan strengthening military ties" Ding Gang believes judging from the statistics many people were not aware of that at all or did not know much.


Professor Yan Xuetong articulates Chinese viewpoint and ambitions on the global stage. However, he is too unconscious of the threat posed by China to the global society. As to “The Rise of China in Chinese Eyes”, Ted Osius, Deputy Director of the Office of Korean Affairs at the U.S. State Department, questions Yan’s opinion that China as a peaceful power.

China lives in an uncertain neighborhood. While Russia and India hold potential for cooperation, they are not natural allies. Events in South Asia, the Korean peninsula, or the Taiwan Strait, could lead China to use force to safeguard its own interests. Recent history does not support Mr. Yan’s claim that China has a benign track record. In 1979, China attacked Vietnam; recent actions in the South China Sea are seen as provocative, especially by ASEAN; and only three years ago China tested its missiles in the Taiwan Strait. Today it is rattling the same saber. Indeed, China’s leaders have pointedly not ruled out the use of force to settle the Taiwan question.

Mr. Yan acknowledges that some in China would like to challenge America’s role in the world. Indeed, two of China’s senior colonels recently published “Unrestricted War,” examining methods a weak China might use when standing up to a strong U.S.

Discussing dangers the U.S. and Japan might pose to North Korea, Mr. Yan again
reminds us that China’s perspective is shaped by history. While it was only 68 years ago that Japan invaded and occupied Manchuria, today China has no reason to fear Japan militarily. Still, China has not dropped its quest for Japanese apologies and does not treat Japan as a normal country, one with a right to assume responsibility for its own defense. It is now time to ask if Japan, which also has a rich and remarkable history, should indefinitely limit its role in the world. Should China have a veto over Japan’s security policies? My answer is no.

In addition to Osius’s comment, I would like to mention the following. Throughout the history, Chinese emperors had been treating foreign kings as their junior partners. Only since the defeat in the Opium War, the Chinese accepted the Westphalian norms of international relations. Until blown up with Queen Victoria’s big gun, the Chinese looked down on foreigners as barbarians. Professor Yan misses this point when he advocates the Chinese world order. However, his articles are helpful to understand the underlying logic of Chinese foreign policy. Yan Xuetong is really a key person to the world.