By Emily Conrad and Zhang Hao
On September 29th - the day after US President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Russian President Vladimir Putin gave dramatically different speeches representing their countries at the United Nations General Assembly - a group of international scholars from these very countries gathered around a table at Tsinghua University. Sponsored by the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy, this roundtable discussion, entitled “Differing National Narratives in Beijing, Moscow, and Washington” sought to discuss how China, the United States, and Russia might better understand each other’s historical national narratives in order to engage more effectively with each other.
The two visiting scholars, representing the United States and Russian narratives respectively, were Robert Daly and Matthew Rojansky. Robert Daly is currently the director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center. Fluent in Mandarin, he has vast experience in China – beginning with a career in the United States diplomatic service and eventually transitioning to academia, as he served as the Director of the John Hopkins University Nanjing Center. Matthew Rojansky is currently the director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center. He was previously the Head of the Russian and Eurasian Program at the Carnegie Institute for International Peace. He also serves as an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins SAIS and American University.
The two-hour dialogue was an intense discussion, with the scholars candidly discussing sensitive historical and cultural misunderstandings between China, the United States, and Russia. The dialogue delved into Sino-US relations, often overlooking Russia in the process. While the dialogue focused on a positive goal - how the United States and Chinese governments may improve their engagement in the future – it was very clear that the discussants approached this subject from vastly different perspectives.
Three students from the Tsinghua-SAIS Dual Degree Program attended this dialogue – two from the United States and one from China. Upon meeting and discussing afterward, we were surprised to discover that our insights from this dialogue differed as much as the opinions and perspectives of the discussants. We then decided to write personal reflections based on our unique insights, in order to better provide our readers with a more complete understanding of this stimulating dialogue, as well as our personal ideas of the applications of this discussion to the international community.
…And what about Russia?
By Emily Conrad
In all of my international relations courses at Tsinghua University, the class discussions always seem to divert to the topic of United States and Chinese competition, as well as the potential for conflict between the two countries. These discussions are not absurdly hypothetical, but rather approach potential conflict as a very real possibility to be avoided if possible. Likewise, through my Chinese classmates, I have learned a great deal about the Chinese national narrative – from the era of national humiliation to socialism with Chinese characteristics; from China’s imperial and feudal past to Deng Xiaoping’s economic opening.
The goal of an exchange program, such as the Tsinghua-SAIS dual degree program, is to experience firsthand the national narrative and political motivations of “the other,” thereby learning how to improve foreign relations. Personally, due to academic cooperation and exchange between China and the United States, I do not believe that misunderstandings of each other are going to be problematic twenty years from now. I am not saying that conflict between these two powers will not arise, but rather that this conflict would not be for lack of understanding.
Needless to say, I wanted to attend this dialogue to learn about where Russia fits into the picture. Many scholars imagine a forthcoming international system with China and the United States as dominant powers. Where does Russia fall into this system? Unfortunately, I did not find a precise answer to this very important question. Thus, I will present the insights I gained from this dialogue and apply them to some of the insights I have gained through my studies and life in China. In short, I believe that Russia would be very disappointed with the role it would fill in a Chinese-United States dominated international system.
Matthew Rojansky began by sharing his experience watching the three speeches of the presidents of the US, China, and Russia to the United Nations on the corresponding national television channels – CNN, CCTV English, and an assortment of Russian media. While he was convinced that all three leaders had a very strong understanding of their citizen constituencies, he noticed an interesting dynamic: Both Obama and Putin seemed to reach out to China in their speeches, yet Xi’s speech ignored both of them, focusing instead on the lofty goals of peace and harmony in the current international system with a rising China. While Obama’s speech focused on universal values, Putin’s speech focused on threats to the existing international system (exclusively consisting of the United States of America.)
The national narrative of Russia is difficult to determine, partially because Russia is so big and consists of many different ethnicities, languages, and religions. However, the Russians do have a very strong sense of “having saved the world” from Hitler in World War II. (Interestingly, in his speech to the United Nations, Putin only mentioned Russia’s cooperation with China in World War II in terms of Hitler – vastly overlooking or disregarding the fundamental Chinese narrative of national humiliation at the hands of the Japanese.) Rojansky shared that recently the Russian narrative in foreign affairs has developed to focus on constraining the powers of the United States. Thus, Russia’s relationship with China can be viewed as a relationship of convenience; China is a friend because they share a similar aim to change the international system to be less US-centric.
During the discussion period afterward, Russia kept falling through the cracks, despite strong efforts to keep it in the conversation. Instead, the discussion remained focused on the relationship between the United States and China. In particular, the Chinese scholars were interested in the domestic reception of President Xi Jinping during his state visit to the United States among both the citizenry and United States political leadership. (While Xi’s visit was presented as a success in China, it was viewed lukewarm at best in the United States, much to the bewilderment of several of the Chinese scholars.)
In passing, however, the scholars shared incredible insights into China’s relationship with Russia. They noted that Russia is “trying” to become the fourth power in the world – following the United States, Europe, and (of course) China. They also admitted that if the United States viewed China as an equal partner, then Russia would be of increasingly less strategic importance to China. At the moment, China and Russia are being held together, they stipulated, not by economic interests, but rather by deep, shared distrust of the United States. Together, China and Russia are standing up to United States hegemony.
Yet, China’s relationship with Russia is much more complicated, particularly when viewing China’s deep and oftentimes thorny history with Russia and the Soviet Union. Comparatively, the Chinese scholars admitted that China had quite a good impression of the United States. The Chinese briefly mentioned that China had suffered a great deal at the hands of the Russians, particularly with Russia’s occupation in the northeast. While Russia and China were bound historically through communist brotherhood and China benefited a great deal from Soviet aid, this history was ultimately still very problematic for the Chinese. At one point, Matthew Rojansky point-blank asked the Chinese scholars whether or not the Chinese government respected Russia the way it clearly does the United States. Each Chinese professor carefully deflected the question, by stating only aspects about the Russia-China relationship, instead. It was fascinating to witness. At another point in time, a scholar claimed that China is sympathetic toward Russia. Whether or not it was his intention, it seemed that many view Russia as an unequal power to China.
Near the end of the dialogue, Matthew Rojansky mentioned his belief that in the long term China cannot preserve international peace and its friendship with Russia concurrently. The nature of Russia and the Russian narrative will bring China into conflict with the United States. I think the comments of the Chinese show that friendship with Russia is currently just a convenience, not a part of China’s long-term goals or strategy. This dialogue focused almost exclusively on the United States, which is clearly China’s main concern. As soon as China increases its power in the international system so that the United States recognizes it as an equal player, the balancing power of Russia will no longer be of need to China. When that day comes, it will be extremely interesting to see what transpires. Many Chinese I have spoken with have expressed frustration and anger with the fact that Russia still has territory which used to belong historically to China. When I asked someone about the potential for territorial disputes, the response was telling: In China, we do not ask for what we cannot get. We always wait for the right time in which we are sure we will get what we want.
While the above is only a hypothesis in a casual conversation among scholars, it hyperbolically reflects the sentiment that, even in an international sphere no longer dominated by the United States, Russia may find itself once again sidelined and with limited power. China’s friendship with Russia may only end up being a friendship of convenience due to shared interests, but interests ultimately subject to change.
Sino-US Relations: Thinking about the Impossibles
By Zhang Hao
I really appreciated Dr. Robert Daly’s opening remarks that candidly pointed out the longstanding and increasing mutual distrust between the United States and China, a distrust so strong that it cannot be alleviated by one or two official state visits. Compared with the overwhelmingly positive media coverage in China, President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US was viewed by the American media as more of a symbolic representation of bilateral cooperation, yet attracting deep suspicion from both United States political parties. Such suspicion may result from China’s conspicuous efforts to establish a more equal and just international economic order through a set of new institutions like the BRICS Bank, the One Belt One Road Initiatives, and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. However, as Dr. Daly mentioned, the American opinions of these initiatives, as well as their compatibility and/or competition with United States foreign policy goals, are still being formed, and may even lean on the positive side. It may then be the security conflicts in the West Pacific that have become the biggest challenge. Other commentators often include cyber security, but to me all of these reasons seem too superficial to capture the fundamental ones for such an intractable suspicious mentality.
As the discussion continued, three key problems arose as the major sources of this worrisome strategic distrust that has been virtually impossible to fully overcome. First of all, as many realists (especially offensive realists) argue, the anarchic international structure predetermines the tragedy of great power politics. Even though one may put forward thousands of arguments against this self-fulfilling prophecy, it is undeniable that the possibility of conflict between a rising power (China) and an extant hegemon (the United States) would increase substantially as the power gap between them lessened. This idea is so strong not only based on its sound theoretical reasoning, but also based on solid historical proof. As Dr. Daly put it, the US has feared the loss of its primacy facing China’s potential “threat”. The power transfer from Britain to the US in the first half of the last century was indeed peaceful, but this power transfer might end up being a rare exception. The continued mutual suspicion between the United States and China would shatter the dream of any form of similar transfer.
The Chinese panelists were absolutely correct to emphasize the difficulty of the US to fully recognize and embrace China as controlled by the Communist Party. Even though China has elevated its status tremendously in the US-led international community, the lack of legitimacy of the CCP government still prevents the US from granting China a truly equal footing in bilateral negotiations. What is more worrying is the fact that there is little hope that the US would do so in the foreseeable future, since recognizing the political principles of the CCP means an outright betrayal of its fundamental values. In US domestic politics, the gap between “free democracies” and “single-party dictatorships” is so substantial that bilateral relations with China should hardly have any theme of strategic cooperation other than a peaceful revolution. Fully aware of the US’s reluctance, China also reasonably restrains its sincerity.
Such an ideological dispute is worsened by the so-called “clash of civilizations”. Often efforts at intercultural communications fall short and, moreover, the United States and China come from vastly different political traditions. While the US cherishes democracy and rule of law as formal institutional checks on governmental authority, China’s preference leans enormously to the latter. As the US frequently advocates itself as the typical (if not single) successful model of modernity, it is inevitable that the suspicion from China would rise in regard to the US’s intentions. Considering its splendid past, with civilization spanning over two thousand years, China would find it impossible to admit its ultimate failure before a fairly new republic.
These three structural difficulties will continue to stand in the way towards better Sino-US relations. What we could hope for is not resolving them (since it would ultimately be impossible), but rather avoiding them as much as we can. Professor Yan, Xuetong in the Department of International Relations at Tsinghua University may agree that while China and the US cannot and will not become true friends, they can still become responsible actors who agree to prevent major conflicts.