12/02/2014 10:50 am ET Updated Feb 01, 2015

China: Young Voices


I used the occasion of my invitation to deliver the keynote address at the closing ceremonies of the 2014 Beijing Forum to meet with a group of Chinese students. I found them to be more interactive than they were during my previous trips. They were more willing not only to ask questions, but also to comment on my presentations, although they delivered all their comments in a congenial manner. (The one student who struck a discordant note turned out to be an American studying in Beijing.)

I opened my discussion of United States-China relations by pointing them to the oft-cited study by Kenneth Lieberthal (an American scholar) and Wang Jisi (a Chinese scholar) that revealed rising tensions between the United States and China. The report found that leading figures in both nations were increasingly expressing mistrust and articulating viewpoints critical of the other country. In response, a student asked, "Why was President Obama's staff so adamant about him not endorsing Xi Jinping's statement that China sought a 'new type of relationship between major countries in the twenty-first century?'" I said that I assumed it was because the statement was so open-ended, so subject to a wide range of interpretations, that whoever endorsed it would have a hard time telling to what he had agreed. "Okay," the same student allowed, "but what about our commitment to a 'peaceful rise,' which we've recently modified to be a 'peaceful development?'" I was tempted to say that China tends to embrace these catchphrases -- actually, slogans -- as if they were developed strategies. Instead, I explained that these words may not play as well as one might expect given that Deng Xiaopeng stated, "... hold your position, hide your capacities, bide your time." And Sun Tzu stated, "Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak."

I laid out the reasons both powers would benefit if the United States abandoned its current tendency to consider most every Chinese move to be a form of aggression, and if China abandoned its tendency to consider most American moves as an attempt to constrain and restrain, if not humiliate, a growing China. Both nations -- and the world -- would gain if both sides were to introduce a series of measures that would exercise a degree of self-imposed restraint. For instance, both the United States and China could cease their attempts to pull the small nations on China's land borders into their respective orbits and could treat them instead as a neutral buffer zone. (Austria was treated similarly during the Cold War.) Both the United States and China should be free to offer these nations investment, credits, and trade, but both powers should refrain from making military commitments to the countries in the buffer zone.

In my discussion with the students of this approach, I was critical of the United States' increased involvement in Vietnam and the Philippines, as well as China's unilateral moves with regard to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Scarborough Shoal, and Vietnam. A student expressed much surprise and said, in response, "We offered to jointly develop the area with Vietnam; they refused. What do you want us to do?" Another was livid about Japan, which he viewed as a "militaristic" nation that China must face down. I responded by pointing out that, while I was also concerned about some of the Abe government's moves, at this stage a majority of the Japanese public still supports the pacifistic Constitution of Japan and opposes major military buildups and new military commitments. I therefore pointed out that it might be unwise to provoke Japan.

The discussion continued for almost two hours. During the whole give and take, the students, without exception, defended the Chinese government's position and seemed incapable of seeing (or at least acknowledging) that the other side also has a point. I did not get the impression that the students were reciting some party line that someone had fed them, nor did they seem to feel that they had to toe the party line in order to protect their futures -- which did seem to be the case during my first visit to China in 1973. The students seemed to genuinely hold patriotic Chinese sentiments and did not seem open to the kind of thinking that fosters an ability to see both sides of an issue. They seemed confident in their sense that China has a major role to play in shaping the future of the Asia-Pacific region, but they see no need to be boisterous about it. They evinced a sense of citizens of a rising power -- one that faces a power that is declining but still one that must very much be reckoned with.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Relations at The George Washington University. His most recent book, The New Normal, was just published by Transaction Publishers in November 2014.