The following interview questions were answered by Prof. Mel Gurtov [1] in October 2012. The main topics of the interview were the U.S. pivot to Asia, the South China Sea and UNLCOS as well as the upcoming elections and the leadership transition in the US.

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U.S. Pivot to Asia

Do you see the risk of the pivot being misunderstood in China as a direct answer to its rise?

There is no misunderstanding about the pivot: It is clearly directed at addressing (the Chinese would say containing) China’s increasing capabilities, military and otherwise, in East Asia. Beijing has already commented critically about it, but without the Cold War-era hysteria. U.S. intentions have been pretty clear. While not admitting that the pivot is anti-Chinese, various U.S. officials have said that while they hope for improved cooperation with China, the U.S. is a “permanent resident” (Sec. Clinton) of the Asia-Pacific and supports its alliance network. In light of the territorial disputes in the region, the pivot may be looked upon either as a security assurance or a provocation.

Are you of the opinion that the Chinese military buildup could endanger U.S. strategic interests in the region?

I do not think it is a strategic problem for the U.S. We need only look at the array of U.S. military assets in and near to East Asia to realize how one-sided the strategic balance really is. No one in the U.S. navy or air force really considers China a strategic rival.

How do you evaluate the danger of a potential rise of nationalism in China concerning the future of U.S.-China relations?

Rising nationalism is always problematic, whether it is China’s, the U.S.’s, or anyone else’s. And rising nationalism is also a domestic political problem for all leaderships—for example, China’s anti-Japanese nationalism, which is a two-edged sword, to be exploited but also contained. However, nationalism expressed as national pride rather than foreign-policy assertiveness or aggressiveness is perfectly acceptable, and I think pride in accomplishment is the main thrust of Chinese nationalism today. (Here, as in the first question, it is very important not to focus only on China. U.S. nationalism has always been a potent factor in its foreign policy, particularly in the form of exceptionalism.

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South China Sea / Law of the Sea

Which role should the U.S. play in trying to find a solution for the ongoing disputes? And how important is it that the U.S. ratifies the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea?

The U.S. should not be taking sides in the dispute, but rather should play the role of peacemaker (or “honest broker”). By taking sides, as it is doing now, it is actually exacerbating the problem – supporting those claimants (including Japan) who believe they can be tougher with China with the U.S. standing behind them. To be sure, the Chinese should not be allowed to act as though history is only on their side. But they have an important economic stake in Southeast Asia, as well as with Japan, and thus do not (in my view) seem intent on creating a war over territory. Thus, the ideal U.S. posture should be to continue urging all sides to disavow use of force, sign the code of conduct on the South China Sea dispute, and abide by the terms of the UNCLOS. (In the case of UNCLOS, U.S. credibility requires that it ratify that treaty!)

How do you evaluate the fact that China is often going back to historical claims when it comes to questions of territory?

As for China’s claims, its so-called 9-dash line should not be regarded as the end of discussions. All the parties have their historically based claims, and none is better than anyone else’s. It would be nice, of course, if these claims could be submitted to the ICJ, but that is very unlikely to happen. International negotiations will only be successful if the parties agree to disagree about history and, as the Chinese say, gezhi yi xia –shelve the matter.

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Elections/Leadership Transition

Do you believe that the upcoming elections in the U.S. might bring change to U.S.-China relations?

If Romney is elected we can certainly expect a harder U.S. line toward China even as he seeks to maintain the economic relationship on behalf of US corporations. U.S. military strength in Asia will increase (beyond the “pivot”), pressure will increase on China’s currency and the trade imbalance, and there may be new naval confrontations. The possibility greatly increases under Romney for a return to Cold War-style relations. On the other hand, Obama’s China policy will be about what it is now: no longer engagement, but rather hedging.

Do you believe that the new leadership of Xi Jinping will substantially change the U.S.-China relations?

On the Chinese side, I don’t see any major change occurring with the transition to Xi Jinping. As in the past, there will be areas of cooperation and areas of tension with the US, but no effort to challenge the U.S. for Asia or international leadership. The Chinese simply have too many internal problems to pose that kind of challenge. However, should a major confrontation occur over Taiwan, Japan, or the South China Sea – China’s declared “core interests” – this prediction will not hold.

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General

Do you see a change in the status quo happening in the 21st century? If yes, who do you think will challenge U.S. global dominance?

US global dominance is already fast eroding, as Obama (but not Romney!) understands. But at least for the foreseeable future, the U.S. will remain the most powerful country overall. China will not be the new hegemon in this century. I have a new book on this subject that will be published next spring: Will This Be China’s Century? A Skeptic’s View. You can see from the title what I believe.

How do you see the run for natural resources affecting this possible change?

As is obvious, a major component of China’s foreign policy is resource diplomacy, energy resources in particular. And of course the global competition for oil, gas, precious minerals, and water will continue to intensify. But one feature of resource competition is that it is more amenable than territory to international cooperation, including in places like the South China and East China Seas. National leaderships are not so crazy, I optimistically believe, that they will go to war over resources and kill the opportunity to share them.

Thank you very much for the interview.

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[1] More on Prof. Gurtov can be found at: http://worldoregon.org/persona/mel-gurtov.

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