China's North Korea Policy--Interview with Chen Jian (Part 1)

Chen Jian: Chen Jian is Global Distinguished Professor of History at NYU Shanghai with an affiliated appointment at NYU. Chen is a leading scholar in modern Chinese history, the history of Chinese-American relations, and Cold War international history. Among his many publications are China's Road to the Korean War (1994), The China Challenge in the 21st Century: Implications for U.S. Foreign Policy (1997), and Mao's China and the Cold War (2001).

Interviewer: Zhaoxin Jiang (Meridian 180)

1. In the past year or two, what strikes you most about China and its relations with neighboring East Asian countries and regions?

In the past two years or so, what strikes me most, or more accurately speaking, interests me most as a scholar of Chinese international history and Chinese-American relations, are three new—yet interrelated—phenomena in China’s external behavior in general and its attitudes toward Asian-Pacific affairs in particular.

The first is that in an overall sense, China seems to have increasingly departed from the “grand guideline” set up by China’s late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, which Beijing had followed in China’s external relations since the end of the global Cold War.

In the aftermath of the Tiananmen tragedy of 1989 and, then, the fall of the Berlin War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc, and the end of the global Cold War, Deng introduced what has been known as his “twenty-four character statement,” defining how China should view itself and its role and position in the post-Cold War world: “Observe carefully; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacity and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.”

Since the early 1990s, China has met many domestic and international challenges while, at the same time, experiencing profound and continuous transformations in its society and state. Yet, from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jingtao, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership has generally adhered to Deng’s “maintaining a low profile” advice in China’s foreign policies.

In 2009-2010, in the wake of the global financial crisis, there began a series of important and ongoing debates among China’s policymakers, military planners, and academic elites concerning whether or not China should continuously follow Deng’s twenty-four-character advice as the fundamental guideline in managing world affairs. Largely because of an understanding of the complexity of China’s own problems, it seemed that Hu Jingtao and his fellow CCP leaders had concluded that China should not abandon Deng’s profoundly insightful advice in managing its foreign affairs. Yet, in the past year or so, increasingly I, as well as many other scholars who have paid close attention to China’s policy changes, feel that there has risen a powerful tendency in Beijing toward deviating from the guideline that Deng set up two decades ago. As a result, China has appeared to be more assertive in its management of a series of regional and global issues under the new leadership headed by Xi Jinping.

The second is that, in relation to the first but not necessarily because of it, China’s relations with such neighboring countries as the Philippines and, especially, Japan have rapidly deteriorated in the past two-three years. Indeed, first time since the establishment of the formal diplomatic relationship between the People’s Republic and Japan, the past year witnessed an almost complete absence of diplomatic exchanges, let alone high-level leaders’ meetings, between Beijing and Tokyo. A string of very small islands between Taiwan and Okinawa, known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan, have become the focal point of conflicting sovereignty claims. In the meantime, strong and, at times, very worrisome nationalist sentiments become rampant among both Japanese and Chinese media and the general public.

Why and how has all of this come into being? There are many quite deep reasons on both the Chinese and Japanese sides. This is not the proper place to have a detailed and in-depth discussion of them. What I would like to emphasize is one point, that is, both for China and Japan, the most important reasons are those of domestic origins. Primarily, this is not just a dispute about who should have control of the oil resources reportedly in existence in areas near the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. And this is even not so much a dispute about the two sides’ sovereignty claims over the islands, at least not so much as what has been presented and, as a result, what the general public has been made to believe.

In the final analysis, this is a dispute about great power status, national pride, domestic representation and mobilization, and legitimacy and contemporary implications of the specific paths toward modernity—and beyond— that China and Japan have undertaken in the past one-and-a-half century. Both countries have achieved great successes during the processes despite all kinds of setbacks and people’s sufferings during the same period. What different representations and understandings of complicated historical legacies have revealed are the profound legitimacy challenges that both countries are now facing. The Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute has emerged to serve as a central test case in this respect for both countries in recent years.

Now, let me turn to the third phenomenon, which is also related to the above two. This is about Chinese-American relations. What has struck me or interested me most in the past two years or so is the huge gap that has developed between, on the one hand, the powerful rhetoric of a major crisis—one that is likely (or even “inevitably,” as some are willing to say) to lead to a direct confrontation between China and the United States and, on the other, the greater-than-ever opportunities (though always associated with challenges) for China and the United States to imagine and develop what China’s President Xi Jinping has named as a “new pattern of major-power relations.”

These days, if one reads Chinese newspapers, such as the influential Global Times, one finds anti-U.S. imperialism/hegemonism pieces almost every day, which creates and enhances an image, especially among the Chinese, of the United States being an enemy of China. On the American side, one also finds it easy to locate evidence of deep and persistent suspicion of China being America’s ultimate enemy in the world in general and in the Asian-Pacific region in particular.

While there certainly is some degree of justification in the worries about the future development of Chinese-American relations, what I would like to emphasize is that, from a historian’s perspective, I do not believe that there actually is—or will be—a general crisis in the relations between Beijing and Washington. Despite all of the hostile languages that many in China and the United States have used toward each other, and despite the many differences between them, the reality is that Chinese-American relations, in an overall sense and also from a long-range perspective, have been enhanced rather than weakened in the past several years. One of the most important “facts” is that in the wake of the global financial crisis and the “great recession,” China has played a constructive role in helping enhance America’s position and capacity in dealing with them, thus further strengthening, rather than weakening, the already extensive economic interdependence between the two countries. Top policymakers and military planners of the two countries have maintained, or even upgraded, direct consultations and exchanges between them, leading up to some consensus of fundamental importance shared by both sides (such as the basic need of exploring how a “new pattern of major-power relations” can be materialized between China and the United States). Beijing and Washington also have strived as much as possible to cooperate on a series of global and regional issues, such as dealing with the North Korean nuclear challenge.

Chinese-American relations today are fundamentally different from Soviet-American relations during the Cold War in three critical aspects: first, unlike the Soviet Union, China today does not present itself as an alternative—in terms of how the mainstream path toward modernity/postmodernity should and can be defined—to the American pattern of development and way of life. Second, unlike the Soviet Union, China today is an integral part of the world economic system and institution largely led and defined by the United States and the capitalist West, not an “outsider” of or an opponent to them. Third, unlike the Soviet Union, China today does not have its own military alliance or bloc that stand in confrontation with America’s worldwide alliance system. The overwhelming majority of problems between China and the United State are the ones that have also existed between America and its Western allies in the recent past (including Japan, if we still remember the “America’s coming war with Japan” rhetoric of the late 1980's and early 1990's).

The primary challenges facing China and the United States, like the ones facing China and Japan, are also of domestic origins, which concern how to put one’s own house in good order. None of these challenges can be resolved by going into a direct military confrontation with each other.

2. In 2013, in the midst of activities commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the Korean War armistice agreement, on different occasions and in varied forms, the Chinese leadership has reiterated the vital role the legacies of Korean War have played in accelerating China’s growing global influence. What are your thoughts on this? What do you observe as the legacies for China?

This actually is a matter with close connections with what we just have discussed above. Briefly, at the center of the events that you have mentioned is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership’s efforts to cope with the profound legitimacy challenges that the Chinese “Communist” state has been facing.

In many key senses, China’s Korean War experience and the CCP leadership’s representation of it—which has been named “The Great War to Resist America and Assist Korea”—have occupied a crucial and, at times, even central position in legitimating the “New China” and promoting Mao Zedong’s revolutionary programs aimed at transforming China’s state, society and international outlook. In China’s age of “reform and opening-up,” Mao’s “revolution after revolution” has long withered, yet Beijing’s representation of the Chinese experience during the Korean has remained a critical pillar in supporting the legitimacy narrative of the Chinese “Communist” state. This is one of the most important reasons for Beijing’s leaders to highlight the positive impact of China’s Korean War experience on China and its position in the world.

In order to make this point clearer, let me discuss briefly why and how Mao and his fellow CCP leaders made the decision to fight the war in Korea. Security and geopolitical concerns certainly played an important role. After all, Korea is China’s neighbor and, in history, it once belonged to China’s spheres of influence. For Beijing’s leaders, allowing Korea to be controlled by hostile imperialist forces meant grave threats to China’s security interests. Yet, as I have emphasized in my own studies, Mao and his comrades made the decision to enter the Korean War mainly for turning pressures created by external crises into the dynamics for enhancing the CCP’s control of China’s state and society. China’s intervention in Korea also represented a crucial step by Mao and his comrades to revive China’s central position in East Asian international affairs (which, in turn, would serve as a powerful source of domestic mobilization. Indeed, Mao hoped to use China’s victory in Korea to prove to the world and, especially, to China’s own people that, as he pronounced at the People’s Republic’s establishment, “we the Chinese people have stood up.”

China’s intervention in the Korean War created great pressures for the Chinese Communist state. It resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers, forced the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars on military purposes at the expense of China’s economic reconstruction, prevented the CCP from “liberating” Taiwan, and made Beijing, at least in the short term, more dependent upon Moscow for military and other material support. China’s confrontation with America worsened, and the PRC was excluded from the United Nations, a status that would exist until the early 1970's.

However, from Beijing’s perspective—and especially from Mao’s perspective—China’s interventions in Korea brought about considerable gains to the “New China.” In particular, it further bolstered Mao’s plans for continuing the revolution at home after its nationwide victory. During the war years, the Communist regime found itself in a powerful position to penetrate into almost every area of Chinese society through intensive mass mobilization under the banner of revolutionary nationalism. Mao was therefore more confident and enthusiastic than ever before to take new steps to transform China’s state and society.

As far as the war’s impact on China’s international status is concerned, the fact that Chinese troops successfully forced the U.S./UN forces to retreat from the Chinese-Korean border to the 38th parallel allowed Beijing to call its intervention in Korea a “great victory.” Mao and his comrades thus believed that they had won a powerful position from which to claim that international society — friends and foes alike— had to accept China as a Great Power.

All of this has been turned into a sustained and useful source of domestic mobilization in the years after the Korean War. Narratives of China’s “glorious victories” in Korea have been used to legitimate the various political, economic, social and cultural revolutions that had swept across China’s cities and countryside during Mao’s times, inspiring revolutionary nationalism (often presented in forms of patriotism) and everyday people’s “inner support” to all kinds of policies of the Party/State. After Mao’s death, when the Mao-style “Communist” ideological legitimization of China’s path toward modernity had faded along with the unfolding of the “reform and opening-up” processes, narratives of China’s Korean War experience, by appealing to the Chinese people’s feelings of nationalism/patriotism, have served as an effective instrument in helping legitimate the continuous existence of the Chinese “Communist” state (which, in reality, is anything but “communist). And this, in my opinion, has been the greatest legacy of China’s Korean War experience.