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Finding common ground

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China Hands speaks to Major General Qiao Liang about his book, 'Unrestricted Warfare,' and the prospects of US-Chinese military relations

As a General in the Chinese Air Force, Qiao Liang caught us off guard with his wry sense of humor. Our first topic of conversation was jetlag, something the general apparently "never gets." He then proceeded to correct himself with a chuckle, saying that he does not suffer from jetlag when he leaves China but does for "as long as a month" upon his return.

Of course, in reality, General Qiao is no slouch. Serving in China's highly distinguished, highly secretive People's Liberation Army Air Force, Qiao broke ground in 1999, when the Foreign Broadcast Information Service published an English translation of his book, 'Unrestricted Warfare,' about the rising dominance of alternative modes of conducting war, as opposed to conventional military force.

Naturally, the book served as our next topic of conversation, so we asked the General what place he thought warfare served in today's society. Traditional military warfare, according to Qiao, "does not play as important a role" as it used to. Instead, "economic warfare, cyber warfare, and cultural warfare have gradually begun to play major roles."

We then asked the General to speculate on what he thought the source of any future US-China conflict might be. He said one factor would be the "American misconception" of China as an aggressive power, which Qiao believed China is "neither willing nor capable" of becoming in the near future.

General Qiao is also a member of the Chinese Communist Party's National Security Policy Committee, so when asked specifically about developments in China's military build-up, he was quick to assert its "purely defensive" nature. According to Qiao, China has "very weak offensive capabilities" and is merely seeking to "protect its people's safety."

The General, who also happens to be a professor at China's Air Command College, then showcased his historical repertoire to back up his points, from the "non-expansionist nature of the Qin empire" to the rise of British hegemony in the 18th century. "The misunderstanding is bi-directional," General Qiao did admit, as many Chinese people also believe that the "United States is trying to subjugate them."

General Qiao was upbeat about the future prospects of US-China relations, predicting "a very good state of affairs," dependent on the United States allowing China to "peacefully challenge" its hegemony in trade and culture. Nuclear warfare, according to Qiao, "is virtually impossible," even in the long term.

Our discussion then took a philosophical turn as the General described what he believes to be the "two-fold foundation of cooperation" between the United States and China. The first aspect of cooperation is simply the "bond of economic interdependence," as Qiao put it, a field that the General was also able to speak about at length. The second, though, is that the United States' and China's "political ideas are fundamentally similar," a concept that the General conceded "sounds very weird," at least at first.

Although China and the United States "seem to have different values," according to Qiao, "they agree on the most fundamental concept of political realism." Qiao believes that "the United States is very realist when it comes to political resolutions," and "China's politics focuses on realist demands."

Just like it started, our conversation with General Qiao ended on a lighter note. We asked General Qiao how he thought young people could contribute to alleviating US-China tensions, and he once again surprised us, referencing Gangnam Style and parkour.

According to Qiao, young Americans and Chinese can "find common ground through communication," including culture and sports. The General then chuckled and said he, of course, would not be able to participate in this kind of discussion. His wit and youthful smile could have fooled us.

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Teddy Miller, Johnny Xu from Yale University, and Angeline Lim from Fudan University contributed to this article.

This article also appears in China Hands.

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