Professors Don Emmerson and Ryo Sahashi, leading academics affiliated with Stanford’s Asia Pacific Research Council, waved amicably across the 6000 miles between Stanford University and Beijing. An ocean away, their interlocutors, Professors Wang Dong and Ding Yifan, waved back. Seated in Stanford’s Highly Immersive Classrooms, connected in real time by a video feed broadcast on massive, wall-sized screens in each room, the Stanford professors seemed almost close enough to reach out and shake the hands of their counterparts at Peking University. While the scholars skimmed over pages of scrawled notes, students filed into the rows of seats behind them. Emmerson, chatting with Professor Wang, referred to China as “the largest country in the world, as indicated by the turnout on our screen!”, a quip that drew chuckles from the gathering crowd as they looked from the Chinese students, packed shoulder-to-shoulder, to the much sparser Stanford crowd opposite them.
However, when the Forum for American/Chinese Exchange at Stanford (FACES) Fall Telesummit finally began, every scholar was deeply focused, all furrowed brows and hastily jotted sentences as they listened to one another and—barring a few more rye asides from Professor Emmerson—intently serious as they took turns to speak. The discussion turned quickly to discussion of a controversial proposal by China to establish a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), an international lending organization that would fund projects for urgently-needed infrastructure in the region, new roads and railways and maritime passages spanning the Asian continent—but which some commentators see as a Chinese power play, an attempt to marginalize the existing Asian Development Bank that fulfills this very function, but which was established under the leadership of the United States and is traditionally governed by Japan.
Professor Sahashi, drawing parallels with Japan’s own rapid rise to world prominence in the decades following World War II, argued that China’s attempts to establish new institutions like the AIIB are needlessly upsetting to a stable world order—an order which is capable of adapting to give China a political voice commensurate with its economic strength. “The world system should reflect China’s growing power. But my suggestion is that China seek adjustment within the institutions that already exist. That’s what Japan did in the 1980s and 90s. Japan waited, and eventually its power was reflected by greater representation in the IMF system. China does not need to create new institutions, but can work to gain more voting power in the existing framework.”
Professor Wang, an accomplished associate professor with PKU’s School of International Studies, coldly rejected the comparison. “Professor Sahashi, you say that China doesn’t need to set up another bank just to achieve greater influence in the current system. But China has tried, and simply failed. Out of this frustration, this disappointment, this disillusionment with the current system and the failure of the United States to take a responsible lead in reforming that system, came the push for the AIIB.”
Wang and Professor Ding, Deputy Director of China’s Institute of World Development, were united in strong defense of China’s proposal, and in their rejection of arguments that China’s investment bank is part of an attempt to oust the institutions and influence of the United States in Asia. “China has no intention to replace the existing Bretton Woods system or the Asian Development Bank. But if you look at the tremendous needs for infrastructure construction in Asia, it is clear that the existing institutions are incapable of meeting these needs,” Ding argued, down-playing the idea of a geopolitical dimension to China’s proposal. Both scholars claimed that it is only because of “heavy-handed pressure from the United States” that key regional players like South Korea and Australia have so far refused to sign on to the AIIB, and emphasized that such interference came with real economic costs to the region.
Wang said: “It’s very important for President Obama to understand why containment should not be part of a US policy towards China, and why the United States should truly welcome the rise of China to become a dominant power. And likewise, it’s very important for President Xi to reassure Obama that China is not interested in, much less capable of, pursuing a so-called Chinese Monroe Doctrine: pushing the United States out of East Asia.”
Emmerson, while recognizing the pressing need for more investment in the Asia Pacific region, voiced a note of caution, arguing that while the infrastructure China promises to provide is appealing in economic terms, it also could cause a dangerous shift in the region’s geopolitical balance. He pointed to China’s historic lack of official statistics about foreign aid and investment, which frustrates the efforts of scholars and analysts, arguing that such opacity made it difficult to understand China’s strategy in the region, and potentially dangerous to trust China’s motives. “I am concerned with whether or not the AIIB will be genuinely transparent—that is to say, not a corrupt extension of Chinese foreign policy, but a genuine attempt to help other countries with what is an urgent need for new infrastructure.”
Sahashi echoed this concern from another angle, doubting whether a Chinese-led bank would obey the same rigorous institutional standards that the Japanese-led ADB does—standards, he argued, which “promote human security, and human-based development as the bank decides how to invest.”
Professor Ding contended that China’s intentions, now and in the past, are peaceful: “I’d like to remind Professor Emmerson that the Silk Road used to be a commercial road—not a road for Chinese expansion. Even historically, China is not interested in expanding its force outside its own borders.” Both Stanford scholars, however, expressed their doubts. Prompted forwards by a question from a PKU student, Sahashi pointed towards China’s aggressive attempts to expand its maritime borders, arguing that such actions undermined connectivity and trust in the Asia-Pacific, and indicated a foreign policy directed less towards diplomacy, and more towards domination.
Professor Wang defended China’s actions, arguing that Singapore, Indonesia, Vietnam and other nations began the scramble to claim territory in the South China Sea: “China was the last country to start claiming land features in the South China Sea. Everyone else had already done that.” Wang further argued that China’s entrance to the competition actually introduced a measure of order to the region. “The Chinese government’s strategy is something I would call cooperative deterrence. It’s a response to the dilemma we are facing in the South China Sea: namely that every country involved in the disputes had already defected from the cooperation game. All other claimants believe their incentive is to engage in unilateral efforts to control territory, but China’s actions bring them together for joint negotiation.”
Emmerson, with a broad academic expertise that encompasses Myanmar, Malaysia, and the whole ASEAN region, rose visibly from his chair to criticize the defense, arguing that Wang and other Chinese academics were wrong to focus their discussions about the South China Sea on the territorial disputes, contending that such a focus missed the area’s broader significance: “The US is not a claimant in the South China Sea—we claim nothing. We are a user of the South China Sea, as is the rest of the world. And it is completely implausible to exclude those users and ignore their interests. It is implausible to claim that China need only negotiate bilaterally with each of the other claimants to the sea, and can ignore the rest of the Asian nations, despite the fact that the South China Sea is the maritime heart of all East Asia.”
Perhaps fittingly, a student in the audience brought the discussion to its conclusion with a final question, not explicitly about US-China relations at all, but about Thailand and the competing pulls exerted on it from China and Japan. Beside Professor Sahashi on the Stanford side, Professor Emmerson smiled. He had been careful throughout the discussion to emphasize the danger of marginalizing the diverse and indispensable interests of the entire community of Asian Pacific nations in a discussion of US-Chinese great-power politics.
“Every time the US and Chinese leaders meet, it is important to ask not only what is being said, but also what unspoken assumptions are creeping into the conversation. The very structure of our conversation—“China, the U.S.”—reeks of a G2. In other words, our conversation is about US-China relations. Therefore perhaps the greatest hazard that we face is to exaggerate their importance, and to forget that even though these are big countries and big economies, they are only two. If we talk about the success of the Asian Pacific region, we have to involve a range of other countries—and not exaggerate the extent to which a conversation between Obama and Xi can somehow solve the world’s problems.”
As the Telesummit came to its close, students rushed down from their neat rows of seats with the questions there hadn’t been time for them to ask, chatting with Professors Sahashi and Ding as the two neatly reorganized and stowed away their notes, and snapping pictures as Professors Emmerson and Wang, their heated disputes for the moment set aside, and with a few self-conscious glances at the cameras that made it possible, mimed a handshake from across the Pacific.
About the Author: Luke Babich is a junior at Stanford University, currently pursuing a major in Political Science through the Research Honors Track. Luke has been active in his state and local government in Missouri, and is a proud alumnus of the Structured Liberal Education program at Stanford. In Autumn 2014, he participated in the Stanford Program in Beijing, where he took courses at Peking University, collaborated with fellow FACES officers from the PKU Chapter and met up with FACES alumni in Beijing.