Editor’s Note:

Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers, written by Yan Xuetong (Yan), dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University, was recently published by Princeton University Press. The book explains China’s increasing influence by presenting a theory on moral-realism attributing to the rise and fall of nations to political leadership. Yan argues the stronger the political leadership of a rising power, the more likely it will replace a prevailing state in the international system. What has contributed to the rise of China? Where will China-US ties head? Global Times (GT) reporter Lu Yuanzhi interviewed Yan on these issues.

GT: The rise and fall of great powers is a subject of constant discussion. As a nation adopting a non-Western political system, China is rising and has gained growing global influence. What do you think are some the factors contributing to China’s rise?  

Yan: In my new book- Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers, I argue the rise of great powers lies in the reform capability of their leaderships, rather than political systems. China’s rise is a result of the Chinese government’s capability to implement reforms. Neither China’s rise nor US’ prior ascent is attributed to their systems. If political systems play a decisive role, it cannot explain why other countries adopting Western political systems cannot be a superpower like the US, why other Communist countries during the Cold War could not become a superpower like the Soviet Union, or why China, without changing its fundamental political system since 1949, could rise after reform and opening-up started in 1978, but not during the Cultural Revolution. Since reform and opening-up, China has relied on the government’s capability to keep reforming, instead of making changes in the political system to become a rising power. The US has been in decline during the 21st century because its their government is less capable of reform than the Chinese government, and not because its political system is inferior to China’s.

GT: To maintain the government’s capability to implement reforms, what is most important to China?

Yan: There are two main elements: The Chinese government should lead the nation heading toward a correct and progressive direction. The government should be capable of translating the ideas of reform into implementation. Although former US president Barack Obama was open to reform, he could not overcome the obstacles from Congress, the opposition, and other fields, to turn his ideas into reality. Since reform and opening-up, the Chinese government has constantly overcome obstacles to advance reform.

GT: How should China apply its growing international influence?

Yan: First, we need to figure out the laws on how we can influence other countries. Then, adopt policy according to those laws, so our influence plays a role in benefiting China’s national rejuvenation.

With growing international influence, China can shape a favorable international environment. However, sometimes, increased influence may lead to a negative result. For example, the US believes that China, as the world’s largest trading nation, should not enjoy the preferential treatment for a developing nation. What we should do is to use our influence in a positive way, such as promoting reform of the World Trade Organization.

GT: Compared with the rise of great powers in history, such as the UK, and the rise of the US, what new tests will China face? Is it more difficult?

Yan: The era of China’s rise is different from the UK’s and the US. The UK rose at the age of mechanization and the US rose in the era of electrification, while China is rising in the digital age. At present, the digital economy is emerging as the main source of national wealth. How to compete in the digital era is new for both Beijing and Washington. History offers no reference to them. The rise of all great powers did not depend on replicating previous methods, but on creating new strategies unique to their period. Therefore, the biggest test of China’s rise is whether it can quickly and consistently boost its capability to reform and innovate, and whether it could upgrade innovation and reform. Such capability consists of the ability to reform and innovate in all fields, but during any age, politics rests at the core; the most important domain in the era of the digital economy is scientific and technological innovation. The difficulties faced by rising powers are the same in nature in any historical age as prior successful strategies do not suit the later conditions. Rising powers can only explore such paths through self-improvement and innovation.

GT: Currently, the US is vigilant toward China. In areas of ideology, how will China and the US interact with each other? Will they head into conflict, or will they influence each other? 

Yan: It would be difficult for the governments of China and the US to reach a consensus on ideology. Hence, it is crucial to prevent their strategic competition from falling into ideological domain. Once the two countries compete on ideology, a new Cold War may occur, which is detrimental to the whole world. US President Donald Trump has yet to show his determination to compete with China on ideology, but US elites including Trump administration’s key cabinet members hope to do that and believe the US has more advantages than China in a ideological competition. 

However, if China insists on not competing with ideology, the US cannot compete unilaterally. The contradiction between a rising power and an existing power is zero-sum. The rivalry between Beijing and Washington is inescapable, but Beijing can select what domains to compete. China should be determined not to engage in ideological competition.

GT: According to US media, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s team is developing a strategy for China based on the idea of “a fight with a really different civilization” for the first time in US history. How do you review such strategy? Is the US preparing a clash of civilizations against China? 

Yan: Proposing the idea of a fight with a different civilization for the “first time in US history” shows the unprofessional characteristic of the Pompeo’s team. In 1941, the US declared war on Japan as a response to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. Then the US and Japan were strong countries with different civilizations. But war between two countries with different civilizations doesn’t necessarily mean a clash of civilizations. The Pompeo team has a strong sense of ideology, but they’re not professional. It is not surprising their understanding of the nature of China-US strategic competition deviates from reality. Deviation in understanding bilateral ties from the US will harm America’s interests more than China’s. When one side makes more mistakes, the other side gains more benefits. China cannot and does not need to correct their wrong understanding. It is significant that China’s understanding of bilateral strategic competition should be in line with the reality. To win the strategic competition, we must have an understanding of China-US strategic competition consistent with the objective world.  

GT: In your new book, you mention “the power redistribution caused by China’s rise and America’s relative decline are changing the post-Cold War configuration from unipolar to bipolar” and “It is quite possible that a bipolar world will be formally established in the next few years.” How will the bipolarization influence the world?

Yan: In my book- Inertia of history: China and world in the next ten years- published in 2013, I said China-US bipolarization had started, and by 2023, a bipolar world will be set. The decade from 2013 to 2023 would witness the process directed to bipolarization. During that decade, faced with China-US competition, lesser fewer countries will have to take a side between the two giants. US’ allies’ attitude toward Huawei’s 5G technology shows ideology has not been a decisive factor. When Pompeo tried to persuade US allies to exclude Huawei’s 5G equipment from their network, so far only Canada and Australia have been persuaded, while Germany, the UK, Italy, and France dismissed their warnings. Ideological consensus does not necessarily mean these countries would adopt common policies on all issues. By 2023, if a bipolar world is set as I predict, an increasing number of states may resume a non-alignment policy. Such policy would not only be attractive to developing countries, even most developed countries would adopt it. 

GT: You believe the world center will transfer from Europe to East Asia. What are the distinctive features of a world centered on East Asia compared with current world?

Yan: The world center consists of two elements: a global strategic competitor resides in the region and the region has the most strategic value as a focus of competition. East Asia can meet the requirements. Specifically, China is the only rising great power and it is located in East Asia. Furthermore, I predict GDP and defense spending of East Asia will exceed that of Europe by 2023. The biggest difference between the world centered on East Asia and Europe is that East Asia’s influence and attractiveness would be larger than Europe’s. It would make East Asian customs, such as lifestyle, concepts and management, become international standards or norms. For example, the idea of the “tiger mom” has now had an influence in Western-developed countries.

GT: If the world center transfers from Europe to East Asia, how does strategic competition between China and the US in this region affect geopolitics? How will East Asian countries seek a balance between them?

Yan: If East Asia becomes the world center, the rivalry between Beijing and Washington in this region will be more intense. The US will centralize its focus on East Asia. In fact, the former Obama administration made the rebalance to Asia strategy, relocating the strategic center to the Asia Pacific region. The Trump administration proposed the “Indo-Pacific” strategy, whose scale seems to be larger, but what the US really concerns about is Northeast Asia.

Southeast Asian nations, such as Singapore, have already adopted a hedging strategy. They rely economically on China, and for security, they rely on the US. Now there is further break-down. For example, in terms of economy, they may side with China for trade, but with the US for investment. These countries choose sides with China or the US according to each specific issue. 

East Asian countries may adopt hedging strategy that is not in line with their political systems. The specific issues which East Asian nations would consider to side with China or the US are diverse as their states are different. They cannot adopt a common principle for taking sides, which is different from the one based on ideology during the Cold War. However, applying non-alignment strategy to keep a balance between China and the US would be widely adopted by East Asian countries.

GT: The China-US trade war is escalating, and the US has repeatedly challenged China over Huawei, the Taiwan question, and the South China Sea. Where will China-US ties head in the short and medium term?

Yan: Within two-years, these conflicts will be more intensified, but will not escalate into a war. The general trend is that the strategic conflicts between China and the US would be more severe. No matter whether Trump would serve another term, there would be no substantial change in their bilateral strategic relations. What we need to do is prevent conflicts from moving toward ideological confrontation. Since 1989, strategic conflicts between China and the US have always existed; sometimes they are severe, while sometimes they are mild. So far, the strategic conflicts between them have not reached the level of 1989 to 1993. As long as China avoids competing with the US with ideology, full-scale conflicts will not occur and the US will adopt a selective containment against China. This is not an ostrich policy, but an active strategic selection. 

GT: What are the long-term results of the strategic competition between Beijing and Washington? Will both countries enjoy long-term stability after the bipolarization is formed, or will one of them still be dominant?

Yan: After the bipolar world is formed, the strategic competition between China and the US will last long, at least 20 years. The Washington will have an edge over Beijing for 10 years. Within 10 years, it’s not possible for China to attain equal status with the US. In other words, by 2023, China will be a super power but junior to the US. With no unexpected crisis to the US, it will be at least 20 years before China can achieve equal status with the US in terms of comprehensive national strength.