Photo: Zou Zhidong/ GT
The twists and turns of the China-US relationship stir the nerve of officials and scholars of both countries. With intensifying China-US strategic competition, will tension in bilateral relations spill over into the military field? How can the two countries avoid a war? How to respond to those voices portraying China's military development as a threat? Global Times reporters (GT) Yu Jincui and Li Qingqing talked to Zhou Bo (Zhou), director for Security Cooperation of Office for International Military Cooperation, Ministry of National Defense, about these questions during the Beijing Xiangshan Forum, which is being held from October 20 to 22.
GT: The theme of the 9th Beijing Xiangshan Forum is "Maintaining international order and promoting peace in the Asia-Pacific." How can a new security architecture be established to protect regional peace and how can China contribute to it?
Zhou: I think you have raised the two most important issues. One is the international order; and the other is the security architecture in the Asia-Pacific region.
The international order after 1945 is not really what the West called "liberal international order." It is a myth, because the international order is composed of many elements. For example, China and Russia are not "liberal" according to the West, but both are permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC). No resolutions of the UNSC could be passed without their agreement. Therefore, China and Russia's views and decisions over the most important international issues are naturally reflected in the resolutions of the UNSC. And these resolutions for decades would have huge impact on the international order. The concept of the "liberal international order" is simplistic and biased.
To talk about the security architecture in the Asia-Pacific, there is no agreement on how it should evolve, because in this region we have seen alliance system and the so-called ASEAN centrality. And we also have security structure like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization that is not aimed at any third party. So, to put these all together, we would see a mixed picture. China's stand has been consistent that whatever this security architecture is, it has to be open, transparent and inclusive.
GT: China displayed many new types of weapons during the military parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. Some Western media outlets called it a show of military muscle. How does one respond to such comments? Why is China's military development so often misinterpreted?
Zhou: I do not consider this a show of muscle. I would rather argue that this actually is an unprecedented effort of China being transparent, because we almost have shown everything we have. Although China's comprehensive strength has increased tremendously, China has not used its military strength against any country. Nobody can deny that China's rise in the last four decades has been peaceful.
It's quite interesting to ask why Western media would portray China as a threat. I think China's rise is somehow considered a threat to the so-called liberal international order. They do not like it. Therefore, they portray China's rise as abnormal. But facts speak louder than words. The fact is that in the last four decades, China hasn't fired a single bullet at any country. Such restrained use of force for a rising power is already a miracle in the world. If you look at the US, some people argue that the US would fight a war every two or three years. But for a country like China which has not been involved in any war in four decades, how can it be a threat?
In the South China Sea, some countries have portrayed China as being "assertive "and "coercive." But they cannot give any example of China using force against anybody. Besides, China is providing more international public security goods in countering piracy, disaster relief and peacekeeping. All these are good enough to brush away the China threat theory.
GT: Has China done enough to explain its military development and strategic intentions to the world?
Zhou: The strategic objective of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is clearly laid out - to become mechanized by 2020, modernized by 2035 and world-class military by the mid-21st century. This is known to all, and we are confident that we can achieve this because of the Chinese government's commitment, the sustained defense investment and the Chinese industry that is next to none. By the mid-21st century, I believe the comprehensive strength of China would be much higher. As China's strength grows, we can also contribute more to the world.
The motto of the PLA is to "serve the people heart and soul." In the 21st century, who are the people? In my understanding, it is not only the Chinese people, but also the people of the whole world.
GT: China is determined to rise peacefully, but the West believes a country will inevitably seek hegemony after becoming strong. Can they accept that China will be an exception? Can the misunderstanding be solved through better communication?
Zhou: China has been peaceful in the last four decades, which exactly demonstrates that a strong country is not necessarily aggressive or hegemonic. How could China and the US-led Western countries better communicate with each other? China and the US have many channels of communication. In 2008, we officially set up a Beijing-Washington military hotline that allows direct communication between the military leaders. We also have a Memorandum of Understanding Regarding the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters.
But the most important thing is to avoid miscalculation. This is particularly true in the South China Sea because since the Trump administration, the US Navy has stepped up its so-called freedom of navigation (FON) operations. This is a serious issue because they could trigger conflicts. The problem is that the two sides read the same issue in different lights. As China considers it a sovereignty issue, the US would consider that it is challenging the so-called excessive maritime claims of China. But for a country which has pledged not to take sides in the South China Sea, why would it step up operations in the region?
Even in terms of international law, the two countries have a different understanding. This is natural because the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea is the product of nine years' negotiation. To encourage countries to sign this document, there is ambiguity which allows flexible interpretations, otherwise the negotiations could never finish. We should sit down and talk about our differences. One should not worsen the situation by sending ships to challenge the other. When the US challenges China, it also challenges other countries' claims, such as Vietnam and the Philippines. But the media would single China out. And it is interesting that other countries would normally remain silent. However, China will speak out.
GT: Amid intensifying strategic competition, the US launched trade and technological wars against China. To what extent will the tensions spread into the military field?
Zhou: I hope the tensions will not spread to other fields and we should try our best to prevent this from happening. Let me be very clear about this: Neither the PLA nor the US military wants a conflict. I have many interactions with my US counterparts and I believe they do not want to see a conflict. But in spite of the good wishes, we must have good approaches to avoid this from happening. So that is why the US Navy's operation could lead to a dangerous situation in the South China Sea.
The current situation between the two militaries is not bad, but the US military has labeled China a "strategic competitor" and described China-US relations as great power competition. Would this great power competition be a prelude to another Cold War in which the US allies will not even support the US? It would be most unfortunate if we slip into this Cold War. We must try our best to avoid this from happening.
GT: You said both China and the US don't want military clashes. We know that there are a certain number of China hawks in US political and military circles. As you observe, how will they affect Washington's China policy？
Zhou: Whether one is a hawk or dove depends on how you would look at this issue from which angle and from what distance, I believe, from my interaction with American counterparts, I have not seen anyone who said because I'm a hawk, I want to have a war with China.
So this is not the case. The only thing is how we could make joint efforts to prevent this kind of so-called great power competition into a hot war or a hot conflict. That is the challenge for us. And because of US intransigence, they would insist on enhancing all these FON operations in the Chinese waters. That makes the situation most difficult, because how could China back down on a sovereignty issue?
GT: In which area or over which issue are China and the US more likely to go into military clashes, or a military crisis?
Zhou: I believe the South China Sea is still the hot spot because of the increasing US operations there. How would China react? We will do our utmost to safeguard our sovereignty. That is why whenever US ships come, we make sure that we're going to send our ships to stop them from sailing closer to the Chinese islands and rocks.
Although we send them warnings, we also try our best to observe good seamanship. Both have to follow certain rules during the close encounter to make sure there is no miscalculation.
GT: One popular view has it that a war is inevitable to solve the Taiwan question. What is your opinion? Is the US willing to pay a military price for Taiwan?
Zhou: Taiwan is a part of China and the world recognizes the fact. We definitely would like a peaceful reunification. But in recent years, Taiwan has shown a tendency of slipping away from the Chinese mainland because current Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen is quite different with her predecessor Ma Ying-jeou.
I don't know if the US is willing to pay a military price for Taiwan. This is a good question for them!
GT: The Quad recently held a ministerial meeting in the US, a move interpreted as an update of the four-nation group. US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the US is planning to deploy missiles in Australia. Will Quad, an informal arrangement, become a formal alliance that targets China?
Zhou: During the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that "India does not see the Indo-Pacific region as a strategy or as a club of limited members. And by no means do we consider it as directed against any country." I don't believe that any of the four countries in Quad wish to sacrifice its bilateral relationship with China for the benefits of other three countries.
Indeed, the US has launched its Indo-Pacific Strategy. But as you have just mentioned Australia, I think Australia has made it clear that it would not deploy US missiles. All these countries, including the US, have very close economic or even political ties with China. It is not an easy decision for them to form a club against China.
GT: The Beijing Xiangshan Forum has been held nine times. As a frequent participant, how do you feel about the development of the forum over the years? What is its significance?
Zhou: Xiangshan Forum was initially a small forum held for scholars. But now it includes both senior officials and eminent scholars. If you look at the theme this year, you would find it very inclusive. It focuses on the Asia-Pacific and at the same time involves the grand issues in the world. For example, it is very natural for China to talk about major power relations because China is a major power itself. But we also pay attention to the rights and interests of medium and small countries.
For example, in 2015, we gave the defense minister of the Maldives an opportunity to speak at a plenary session. The Maldives is a very small country and I do not think major international security forums give floor to such small countries. It is in China that small countries can have a chance to talk about their concerns.
Meanwhile, Xiangshan Forum also includes hot issues such as arms control. The Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty is already dead because US President Donald Trump has withdrawn from it. Then what about the future of the nuclear disarmament? What is China's role in the future?
The Western countries have expressed their wishes as exemplified by both US President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to include China in a kind of multilateral nuclear disarmament process. China has refused to reduce its nuclear capabilities. Why? Because China's strategic equilibrium is made of a small number of nuclear weapons and a larger number of conventional weapons including missiles with conventional warheads. If you want China to reduce its nuclear weapons, China has to increase its arsenal of conventional weapons.
On the other hand, if you want China to reduce its conventional weapons arsenal, then China would have to increase its nuclear arsenal, so which is the pro and which is the con? You just can't ask China to reduce both at the same time. It doesn't make sense because according to SIPRI, a think tank in Stockholm, the US and Russia have more than 6,000 nuclear warheads each. So altogether, it's more than 13,000 nuclear warheads, but SIPRI only talks about China having 290.
I don't know how they have come to this conclusion, but this is what the 2019 Yearbook says. And China's nuclear warheads, according to them, are even smaller than those of France. France, according to them, has 300. So you compare more than 6,000 nuclear warheads each to China's 290 and ask China to reduce. This is just like a fat man inviting a lean man to go out and diet all together. How can this be possible?