By Mohammad Mazhari

China isn’t the USSR: Texas University professor

February 19, 2021 - 11:8

TEHRAN - An American professor from the University of Texas says that the strategy that was applied by the U.S. against the Soviet Union during the Cold War won’t work with China.

In an interview with the Tehran Times, Jon R. Taylor, professor of political science and geography, notes that “engagement, competition” and “even a form of containment is now on the table” with China “but the same strategy employed against the Soviet Union during the Cold War won’t work with China.”

“China isn’t the USSR and this is not the ‘great game’ of the 1950s-1980s.  There is a need for pragmatism and managed cooperation on those areas of mutual concern,” Taylor suggests.
The following is the text of the interview:

Q:  How do you evaluate the new U.S. administration's policy towards China? Is Washington going to curb Beijing? Is there any obvious strategy?  

A: So far, President Joe Biden has attempted to tone down the harsh rhetoric experienced during the Trump Administration.  That said, China-U.S. relations are at a key moment.  He can either take advantage of the opportunity to stabilize and press for improved engagement in China-U.S. relations or conversely, he can continue to support a decidedly chilly relationship between the two countries.

“China’s strategy might best be summed up by this: focus on building and enhancing trade and financial cooperation and avoid America’s proclivity to involve itself militarily in the region.  China has become a major economic competitor to the U.S. and the EU in the Middle East (West Asia) during the past decade, especially since the creation of the Belt and Road Initiative.”  Biden has stated that he's prepared for the U.S. to engage in "extreme competition" with China but not "conflict," all the while delineating his approach from Trump’s.  

Which begs the question about attempting to curb China’s global ambitions?  Frankly, that time has passed.  Engagement, competition, and yes, even a form of containment is now on the table.  But the same strategy employed against the Soviet Union during the Cold War won’t work with China.  China isn’t the USSR and this is not the “great game” of the 1950s-1980s.  There is a need for pragmatism and managed cooperation in those areas of mutual concern.  Given the current political environment in Washington, that might be easier said than done.

Q: What is the logic of China's power? Is it just an economic power or it will turn into a new military hegemon in the world? 

A: Without engaging in too much humor here, do you have a full semester to discuss the answer to these questions?  As China’s power has continued to grow, its interests have also continued to expand.  China’s logic of power is like that of any great power – protecting critical and strategic interests, expanding areas of economic and political influence, and projecting geopolitical leadership.  The U.S. and some of its allies believe that China will turn into a global military hegemon.  I’m not convinced, due in large part to reading and/or listening to discussions by Chinese scholars, commentaries by leading Party officials and theoreticians, and speeches by foreign policy and military policymakers.  Few, if any, of these sources suggest that China is going to pursue global military hegemony.  There are both internal and external institutional and political factors that will likely hinder any push for global military hegemony.  That said, China is a major player in the global economy.  Does it pursue economic hegemony?  Sure, in the same way, that the U.S. and the EU pursue economic hegemony.  China has engaged in a form of regional political hegemony that is couched in the language of consensus-building and economic cooperation.  And in the wake of America’s retreat into economic isolationism during the past four years, China has taken up the banner of leadership on global governance.  It has also attempted to build alternative economic and political institutions that parallel established organizations such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).  But these are a far cry from American-style political or military hegemony.

Q: While the U.S. tends to intervene in other countries' domestic issues under the pretext of human rights, China is reluctant to do so. What is your comment? 

A: This is an excellent question.  The United States has had a penchant to regularly intervene in the affairs of other nations.  The result?  Since the advent of the Cold War in 1948, the U.S. engaged in almost 200 military interventions. Ironically, the U.S. does not view itself as an aggressor state.  More often than not, U.S. presidents have viewed the military intervention as an effective foreign policy tool used to address humanitarian concerns, regime change, democracy promotion, and counterterrorism strategies.  Were some interventions justified?  Sure.  But many others were based on U.S. strategic interests and goals alone – which have often had a dismal record of effectiveness, cost, and necessity.  Contrast this with China.  Since 1950, it has engaged in just two conflicts – both on its periphery.  While China has pursued a decidedly non-interventionist foreign policy, as a major power it has tried to both protect its economic and political interests while also maintaining its long-held policy of non-interference, which has been a cornerstone of its foreign policy since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.  China tends to demonstrate less interest in the domestic issues of other countries unless they pose a direct economic or military threat to China’s interests or Chinese citizens.  Right or wrong, this is in keeping with China’s non-interference policy.  Thanks to its growing global influence, I think that China will face increasing pressure to balance its policy of non-interference with a duty to assist in mediating conflicts.  We’ve already seen this occur during the past 20 years as greater integration into global governance institutions has encouraged China to commit troops to UN peacekeeping operations.  We will likely see more of this going forward.

Q: Do you expect the formation of a China-centered alliance in Asia to push it to confront the U.S.? Or China is keen to collaborate with America?  

A: Some would say that we have already seen the formation of one alliance: The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).  Contrary to puffed-up commentaries from some observers, the SCO is not an “Asian NATO” or some sort of military alliance.  It’s a political bloc whose members have low, if non-existent, levels of military integration.  There is the potential for deepening Sino-Russian cooperation on common security interests.  But that doesn’t mean a full-blown military alliance.  The SCO has never engaged in any military, anti-terrorist, or peacekeeping operations.  The SCO lacks NATO-style permanent military command structures.  If there was an actual crisis that required its members to act, the SCO would have difficulty stitching together much beyond Chinese-Russian bilateral military cooperation agreements.  Some members are at loggerheads with each other.  And let’s also keep in mind that China has almost as many adversaries as it has friends in Asia.  There is a backlash in the region to China’s increasing influence and power. Better to make friends through economic cooperation and reduce concerns.  This is why the prudent approach for China is to encourage multilateral trade partnerships such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).  These trade mechanisms create positive venues for relations with China while reducing potential skepticism about China’s intentions.  The fact that the U.S. is not participating in any of these initiatives has to be viewed by China as a successful strategy.

Q: How do you assess China's strategy when it comes to its ties with Arab countries like Saudi Arabia in West Asia? 

A: China’s strategy might best be summed up by this: focus on building and enhancing trade and financial cooperation and avoid America’s proclivity to involve itself militarily in the region.  China has become a major economic competitor to the U.S. and the EU in the Middle East (West Asia) during the past decade, especially since the creation of the Belt and Road Initiative.  

They are more concerned with successful multilateral financial agreements such as the Belt and Road Initiative, bilateral partnerships such as the China-Iran Comprehensive Strategic Partnership, and diplomatic efforts such as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran than with engaging in military intervention.  Since the 1990s, China’s interests have expanded to include interest in oil imports, trade, and investments.  China has largely stayed out of the region’s conflicts, choosing instead to criticize Western interference in both wars against Iraq and NATO’s intervention in Libya.  This approach has been increasingly useful given the history of conflict in the Middle East (West Asia) and China’s stated policy of non-interference in foreign affairs.

Q: Do you consider China a reliable ally for countries that have problems with the U.S., especially when we talk about Iran?

A:  There’s an old joke that China isn’t as concerned about allies as it is about customers.  While I think that this is a little specious, there is something to this.  China maintains few military alliances and does not have the numerous economic and political allies of the United States.  But this does not mean that China is somehow friendless and alone.  It’s not.  For those who maintain good relations with China, the nation has a tendency to provide substantial support to its friends. Some would accuse it of buying friends.  But that can be said of any great power aiming for global influence.  Can China be considered a reliable ally, particularly for a nation like Iran?  Yes.  But unlike U.S. alliances built on military, political, and economic concerns, China’s alliances are built primarily on political, economic, and soft power concerns.  The China-Iran Comprehensive Strategic Partnership is an example of this approach. This strategic partnership provides both sides with something significant: China gains a foothold in a nation that has long been a thorn in the side of the U.S. and China assists Iran in strengthening its economy and regional clout.