As China continues to develop, so does its global influence. What would the future be like for South-East Asia with a ‘risen China’?
Prof Zhang Weiwei is among the most respected scholars in China today. He is a leading expert on China’s “reform and opening up” policies and its status as a “civilisational state.”
As director of the China Institute at Shanghai’s elite Fudan University, he is also professor of International Relations and had served as English interpreter for China’s Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping. In an exclusive interview earlier in the week, Prof Zhang spoke to Sunday Star about future prospects with China.
As the leading authority on China’s civilisational state, how would you define it, as distinct from a nation state?
With China, it’s a combination of the world’s longest continuous civilisation and a super-large modern state. A civilisational state is made up of hundreds of states amalgamated into one large state.
China is a modern state respecting international law like a nation state, but culturally diverse, with sovereignty and territorial integrity.
There are four features of China’s civilisational state: a super-large population of 1.4 billion people, a continent-size territory, significant culture, and a long history.
If we are returning to an East Asian tributary system, what changes can we expect in China’s policies in this region today?
The tributary system is a Western name for China’s relations in this region (in the past). China is a “civilisational” – as an adjective – state, a modern amalgamation of many (component communities).
During the Ming Dynasty, China was a world power – but as a civilisational state more than a nation state – and did not seek to colonise other countries, unlike Western powers that were nation states. Since then, China’s status and capacity as a nation state has grown significantly. Will it then become more like Western powers now?
China today is a nation state, but different from European (nation) states. It is also still a civilisational state.
The Chinese people are not just Han, although the Han majority is 92%. There are 56 ethnic groups in China, (mostly) minorities.
But China rejected the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling on the South China Sea, initiated by the Philippines, which found China’s claims insupportable.
The tribunal was illegal; it had no right to make such decisions. The Permanent Court of Arbitration is not part of the United Nations.
How can countries in South-East Asia be convinced that the rise of China will not simply result in Chinese imperialism replacing US imperialism?
China emphasises win-win partnerships, such as in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It encourages discovering, building, and benefiting together.
Countries in South-East Asia join the BRI out of their own interest. It is not something imposed by China.
Some countries have described the Second Belt and Road Summit this year as being more consultative than the first. As for the future?
The future Belt and Road Summits will be even more open and consultative.
Is the current US-China trade dispute only a symptom of much larger differences, such as a historic divide in the reshaping of a new global order?
It is more than about trade. With the United States especially, it is zero-sum, but for China it is win-win.
The Chinese economy is larger than the US economy, or soon will be. (In PPP or purchasing power parity terms, China’s economy grew larger than the US economy in 2014.)
The United States is trying to decouple its economy from China’s. How can China ensure that it would not only withstand these efforts but also triumph?
The attempt to decouple the two economies will fail. About 85% of US companies that are already in China want to stay.
Looking at the trade structure, most Chinese exports to the US are irreplaceable. No other place in the world gives a better price-quality ratio in manufactured goods.
So the US cannot win in this decoupling because there are no alternatives (as desirable producing countries). China has the world’s largest chain or network, or factory clusters, for all kinds of goods.
How likely do you see a hot war – more than a trade war or a cold war – breaking out between a rising China and what is perceived to be a declining United States?
The US knows that it won’t win (a hot war). No two nuclear-armed countries will go to war. It would be very messy.
So far no two nuclear-armed countries have fought. There may be a small likelihood of direct confrontation, but not a war situation.
No commercial shipping has been interrupted by China. So the US need not worry.
Can Asean, or an Asean country like Malaysia, help to bring the United States and China closer together as partners rather than as rivals?
Possibly. Malaysia perhaps can help, as it is friendly to both China and the US.
As China continues in its rise, what steps is it taking to provide for more cooperative and consultative relations in this region?
Trade between China and Asean countries, for example, has grown, and has now exceeded China-US trade.
Generally, China’s relations with Asean countries are quite promising, with Free Trade Area relationships as well.
Bunn Nagara is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.