Orville Schell On A Rising China

Orville Schell On A Rising China

By Rui Zhao

John Mearsheimer foretold that China’s rise will usher in a new era of great-power politics that has the potential to challenge the current global status quo. This not only poses pertinent questions on geo-political stability and security, but also on how governments, NGOs, businesses and the rest of the international community should engage with China.

Rising China: Can the Process be a Peaceful One? hosted by the Asia Scotland Institute, in partnership with the China-Britain Business Council and EY, welcomed the distinguished Orville Schell on Monday evening to shed light on a relatively opaque and unpredictable issue. Addressing a diverse and introspective crowd, among whom sat the Chinese Consul General Pan Xin Chun and Japanese Consul General Daisuke Matsunaga, Schell began by describing China’s astounding economic ascendancy “visible in its skylines and airports”. He delved into China’s history of transitions – from years of nationalism under Chang Kai Shek to Mao Tse-tung’s communist Cultural Revolution, followed by the “curious episode of synthesis” between East and West under Deng Xiao Ping, during which China opened up to the global free market and “diplomatic relations restored between Beijing and Washington”. Schell asserted that China has once again changed its course under the stewardship of President Xi Jinping as Beijing “enters a new chapter of identity formation and reinvention”. He acknowledged that China, “no longer the sick man of Asia”, can now “afford to put its head up” and aspire to become a much more confident and assertive actor in Asia and the world.

The Arthur Ross Director of the Center on US-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York City alluded to the instrumental US-China relationship of “incomparable importance” by discussing Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, underscored by America’s long history as a pacific power and Europe’s current preoccupation with the refugee crisis and the Islamist terror threat. He highlighted two key challenges, the first of which concerns what he termed “the question of models”. This encompasses narratives surrounding democracy and the differences between Chinese and Western political and value systems; China’s weak human rights record, deficient civil society and mass government censorship are more than familiar realities. The second challenge concerns the burgeoning territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the Senkaku islands which possesses “no foreseeable remedy”, thereby exerting quite a “serious strain” on bilateral relations. As countries like Japan, Philippines, Brunei and Vietnam turn to the US for support, China feels more compelled to safeguard its territorial integrity from America’s expanding regional presence, incidentally evoking a very classical realist discourse on strategic balancing and containment. However, Schell stressed that amid the growing tensions between China and the US, “we should not be hopeless” as “one issue has emerged on which the two nations are largely in accord: climate change.” He added that CO2 emissions, once a “burden of the West, can now be shared”, denoting the positive sense of reassurance that the 2015 Paris climate deal engendered.

Schell then proceeded to remind us that China itself faces a host of daunting internal challenges such as slowing growth rates and stalled political and environmental reforms, not to mention an economy laden with imbalances, rising inflation, bad loans and bad debts exacerbated by government intervention and bureaucracy. China certainly needs to learn to balance such domestic priorities with its external commitments in order to forge this ‘new identity’ that Schell cited. Throughout the event, Schell touched upon the upcoming presidential elections – how “the Trump factor will change things” and in more detail, how hypothetically, under Hilary Clinton, the US would want to “find a reset button” and breathe more muscle into establishing relations with the Chinese. He also commented on China’s relations with North and South Korea as well as Taiwan.

“The next act of the script is not yet written”, Schell concluded, “It is not easy to describe what the future holds or what direction China is going to take.” Given its incipient tendencies, he explained, “Anything that threatens 3 decades of development … or whenever sovereignty enters the picture, China loses its flexibility”. He continued, “National narratives and interests are pretty firm. That is how every country conducts its foreign policy and enhances its legitimacy at home”. Nevertheless, Schell maintained that dialogue, commerce, trade and cultural exchange will become increasingly important to promote mutual accommodation, collaboration, convergence and most important of all, understanding. Only then, can the thought-provoking proposition Rising China: Can the Process be a Peaceful One be answered with a resounding Yes.

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