Event Coverage

Published on May 3rd, 2016 | Total Views: | by Ann Listerud

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Peaceful, Cautious Rivalry – Stapleton Roy on the Changing Geopolitics of East Asia

Ambassador J. Stapleton (Stape) Roy, is Distinguished Scholar and Founding Director Emeritus at the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is a fluent Chinese speaker and spent much of his distinguished career in East Asia, serving as American ambassador to China, Singapore, and Indonesia. He delivered the 21st Century China Program’s fourth annual Robert F. Ellsworth Memorial Lecture at UC San Diego in 2016.

This is the first part of a two-part series. Stay tuned for an exclusive interview with Ambassador Roy as part of our “3 Questions with…” series. Below is China Focus Contributor Ann Listerud’s take on the lecture. The full text of the Ambassador’s remarks can be found here. Also, be sure to listen to the official podcast of the 21st Century China Program, China 21, featuring Professor Emeritus and Chair of the 21st Century China Program Susan Shirk with Ambassador Roy. 


Amidst rising tensions in the South China Sea, Former Ambassador and Founding Director Emeritus of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States Stapleton Roy delivered this year’s Robert F. Ellsworth Memorial Lecture at UC San Diego hosted by the 21st Century China Program.

Stapleton Roy, having served as ambassador to China during the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident, is intimately familiar with US-China relations. He lived in China until the age of 13, when his family was evacuated in 1948.  His experiences give him a unique perspective on Chinese culture and society.  With these in mind, he conveyed his thoughts on the United States’ role in the Pacific as it relates to China’s emerging military power.

The United States, says Roy, is the only country strong enough to handle a strong China alone.

The United States, says Roy, is the only country strong enough to handle a strong China alone. This makes US involvement in the Pacific region essential in the coming future.  Conflict with China would be dramatically different from previous wars the United States has waged abroad.  Instead of facing opponents exclusively on land, the US would have to contend with air force, naval and cyber space combatants.  The results would be highly costly for both parties.  Given these costs, it is very unlikely the US and China will come to arms so long as there are any possible alternative means of dispute settlement.  Roy reassured the audience that US-China grievances are not strong enough to warrant the high price of open warfare with one another.

In its five-thousand years of history, China has never been able to assert naval dominance in the Asia Pacific.

There are further reasons China is unlikely to instigate war or attempt to unilaterally dominate the region.  China is economically powerful when at peace, but also extremely vulnerable in war. China is bordered by powerful countries, notably India and Russia, that have contentious relationships and nuclear capabilities.  China has little to no control of the island chains in the South China Sea, severely reducing naval access to the ocean.  In its five-thousand years of history, China has never been able to assert naval dominance in the Asia Pacific.

Historical narrative is very much at the forefront of Chinese strategists’ minds.  The economic miracle of today is seen as finally crawling out from under the shadow of the 100 years of humiliation.  Currently, China’s foreign strategy is not to dominate, but to avoid being dominated by others. Outsiders should understand that most Chinese people believe their country’s peaceful rise is sincere. China’s neighbors are understandably skeptical, and the Chinese people might not be the best at predicting the future of Chinese foreign policy.

China has a very unique form of authoritarian rule, which has limited individual rulers’ power since Mao.  Even Deng Xiaoping, China’s second most powerful leader, had to depend on consensus among the overall political oligarchy.  It is a very well ordered dictatorship, unlike ‘normal’ authoritarian regimes where leaders try to hold onto power for as long as possible.

China is an authoritarian system remarkably open to outside influences – something unprecedented in modern history.

And yet, Chinese political culture is highly in flux.  In the post-Mao years, the Communist party’s stance has created a place for formerly reviled groups, namely entrepreneurs and intellectuals.  With the rising stream of students studying abroad and returning home, China is an authoritarian system remarkably open to outside influences – something unprecedented in modern history.  China is also unique in that a larger proportion of the elite has studied abroad and understands foreign culture than their American or Japanese counterparts.

Xi Jinping has the unenviable task of trying to preserve central authoritarianism in an increasingly open country. Xi’s administration must try and maintain order in the short and medium term, ideally in a way that creates the least strain on China overall.  In the long run, China’s current form of authoritarianism alongside international openness and economic growth is unsustainable.  But while change in inevitable, it will take place in decades not years.  Can China have both a regular government and democracy?  Possibly, said Roy, but likely not.  It might not be possible to maintain stability and economic growth with a democratic China.  Though Roy did not give a time frame, he emphasized that this change will take place long after our current politicians have left office.

“East Asian countries do not want to choose between China and the United States”

Ideally, the United States and China can act as counterbalances, deterring one another in the region with neither dominating.  “East Asian countries do not want to choose between China and the United States,” Ambassador Roy said, and stressed the overall well-being of the region would be best served through peaceful, cautious rivalry.  However, if the United States pushed too far, it could spark an arms race.  Competition for both the US and China requires partners and third-party countries.

The real concern is not China’s rise, but US complacency.  Cold War policies that promoted international intellectual exchange, charity work, and other non-military aspects of foreign policy are grossly neglected and underfunded now. We should be concerned about allowing our infrastructure to fall into further disrepair and isolationist political trends.  The US political system is much more short-term oriented than China’s, making it prone to ignoring mid to long-term goals.  Ambassador Roy is not afraid of a strong China. That this is not motivating change at home is what really worries him.

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About the Author

Ann Listerud is a second-year GPS MA student, studying China & Japan, and economic policy. Her interests include comparative aging population problems, as well as labor and infrastructure issues.  She interned at Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI), and currently works for the Center on Global Transformation (CGT) and the Fudan-UC Center. Previously she lived in Kaifeng and Shenzhen China for a total of three years, and speaks Chinese and Japanese.



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