The following interview with Prof. Allen Carlson [1] was carried out in Ithaca, January 10, 2014 by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann. The main focus of the interview was on the Chinese non-interference policy and the relations of China with its neighboring countries. All footnotes are remarks by Patrick Renz and Frauke Heidemann, aimed at giving some additional background knowledge and especially giving the links to the cited documents so that the reader can follow up on these issues easily.


. Non-Interference

In your 2011 article “Moving beyond Sovereignty” [2] you mentioned that you see a pragmatic emphasis on sovereignty in Chinese foreign policy discussions and we wondered whether you see any change within the last two years?

No. I think that for the most part Beijing is trying to carve out the same type of positions, which is staying out of the headlines when it comes to questions of intervention and humanitarian operations. One exception where there has been more activity in this regard, can be seen in light of the events that unfolded in Libya and in Syria. As a result it has been harder to defer this type of decisions and China had to take a bit of a stronger stand in the Security Council along with Russia. However, what often times has gone unreported and is a consistent part of this pragmatism, is the ongoing financial and technical support for a number of operations throughout Africa. The reporting about China’s position on these issues tends to be focused on the one or two times when they do use their veto power within the Security Council rather than this broader and expanding set of activities, which they are carrying out in all corners of the globe and primarily on the African continent.

Looking at Chinese voting patterns in the UN Security Council, China is a country that usually rather abstains than vetoes. Do you believe that maybe there was domestic public pressure in China as the abstention on Libya and the intervention thereafter did not go as expected or hoped.

I do think that the issue of societal influence and public opinion within China’s foreign relations is worth considering. I don’t think that when it comes to China’s Middle East policy that is the case though. Here it is more acquiescing to the situation in Libya and when Syria unfolds. They are following up on issues, which always have been of concern such as intervention in general, American hegemony and the establishment of new precedents. And in that regard, I believe they were starting to get cold feet. So it is more about great power politics than domestic politics or some sort of an internal dynamic. Even then, it is not like they are leading the charge on Syria, they are just going along with Moscow.

If we take a broader look at this region and given the recent statement of the Chinese Foreign Minister that China wants to have a greater military, economic and diplomatic role in the Middle East, where do you see China’s role evolving to?

I am not a specialist on Middle Eastern relations but I think Beijing’s main focus when it comes to the Middle East is really contingent upon their consideration of the domestic political situation and overriding needs for both stability and concerns about energy consumption. I think what they are looking for in the Middle East is not to take a leading role but rather whatever contributes to stability there they are on board with. In other words: I don’t believe they are likely to rock the boat. Even when it comes to Syria, yes they used their veto but not in a way that is particularly obstructionist. Even more importantly, when you turn to Iran there is a lot of evidence that China is trying to work with the U.S. to bring Iran into the fold rather than coming into conflict with Washington on these sorts of issues.


. China and its Neighbors

How do you see that in the Asia-Pacific environment looking at relations with the U.S. and also with China’s neighbors?

Switching to China’s close neighbors and where there is a lot more at stake for China, I think that the leadership is between public opinion on the one hand and zero-sum territorial issues on the other. However, they are finding it rather difficult to deal with these outstanding territorial issues as if they existed in a vacuum. Whether it is the Philippines, Vietnam or Japan, on these issues in the 1980s it was possible for Deng to deal with them from his position of paramount leadership and now there are so many factors involved that it complicates the relationship enormously. I wrote a piece earlier last year for Foreign Affairs where I said everyone should calm down, a war is not likely to break out in the near future and I stick by that. [3] Despite the rumbling between Beijing and Tokyo I am certain that both sides would be loathed to actually shoot at each other and they haven’t done that in quite some time. I am certain that despite the harsh words, this is unlikely to occur.

How do you see the role of the U.S. in that context, especially between Beijing and Tokyo?

I think that our role is actually fairly limited. Maybe this is an artifact of the changing status of the U.S. worldwide. Not that we have become a bystander, but it was pretty clear that the U.S. was in the drivers seat in Asia right up through the mid point of the last decade and it is now more constrained than it was previously the case. As a result, it is not as if Washington is telling Beijing or Tokyo to stop. It is not clear if we could have done this in the 90s but we certainly cannot do this now. I believe the best thing the U.S. can do is try to encourage both sides to realize just how much would be lost through an actually belligerent engagement over these little island.

Hypothetically, if you could change the U.S. foreign policy towards Asia in general and China in particular, are there certain fields that you see as going in the wrong direction?

Our ability is more constrained and we should see ourselves more as influencing events rather than controlling them. In that regard it is of great importance to think of ways in Northeast Asia to bring Beijing, Seoul and Tokyo together. North Korea and the unpredictability of its behavior could serve the role of bringing other actors in Northeast Asia together. Not against a common threat but in the context of a mutual concern or maintaining stability.

Going back to your project on non-traditional security concerns. What do you see as the biggest non-traditional security concern of China?

This largely relates to the fact that the leadership in China is more worried about questions of internal instability than with the acquisition of great power capabilities. Not that they are not doing the latter with their aircraft carrier capabilities or the continuing expansion of China’s missile program but when you look at overall military spending, it is pretty clear that most of it is related issues within China. One of the drivers in the discussions about non-traditional security within China is what to do with its military resources. The discussion is mostly about having the military prowess, which the state is going to use to maintain its position, whether we are talking about questions of protest or of public health, any of these issues. That is the incentive.

What would be your prediction for 2014; what is going to be the biggest challenge for China?

The biggest challenge for China is maintaining this balancing act of continuously becoming a stronger country and rising in a way that is not going to trigger some sort of counter-balancing within the region. If you look at China’s relationship with Asia over the past 20 years, you see those periods of more confrontational and more cooperative policymaking. In a lot of ways there are parallels between what has happened in the last two years and what unfolded in the 1990s with the Taiwan Straits Crisis and the issues involving the Mischief Reef [4]. Back then, the leadership realized that they had gone too far and I think right now this leadership realizes that they are at the precipitous edge when it comes to issues with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. Their challenge is going to be to calm the relations with China’s neighbors without appearing weak to the somewhat empowered domestic constituency that is nationalistic and makes use of the new forms of social media.

The wildcard in it is, that we still don’t know the degree to which there is continuity in the way that Xi Jinping thinks about China’s position in the world and the Hu and Wen administrations’ approach. There are all sorts of different indicators as to how Xi thinks about China, and if he is more nationalistic or continues to be realistic or will abide by some of Deng’s overarching policy guidelines. I don’t think anyone knows but as it has only been a year this is not surprising. There are parallels of how we tried to make sense of Jiang’s leadership in the early 90s and less with that of Hu and Wen. We knew they were technocrats and there were not a lot of differences going on. With Xi people are still trying to read the tealeaves. There is just too much volatility and turbulence to speak with any authority in those regards.


Thank you very much for the interview.


[1] More about Prof. Allen Carlson at:
[2] His article “Moving Beyond Sovereignty? A brief consideration of recent changes in China’s approach to international order and the emergence of the TianXia concept”, Journal of Contemporary China (2011), Vol. 20 No. 68 is accessible at: – preview.
[3] Prof. Carlson wrote the article “China Keeps the Peace at Sea: Why the Dragon Doesn’t Want War”, Foreign Affairs, February 21, 2013:
[4] More on China’s maritime disputes with its neighbors and also on how China seized control of the Mischief Reef in Bonnie Glaser’s Statement before the U.S. house Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces and the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Asia Pacific of January 14, 2014:

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