Dr. Lionel Vairon is a seasoned French diplomat, journalist and expert on international relations. In his new book “China Threat? The Challenges, Myths and Realities of China's Rise,” he discusses the propensity of the West to engage in “China-bashing campaigns.”
Vairon talked with International Business Times about China’s supposed threat to the West, China’s current political climate, and why China’s rise should not be feared. “China Threat? The Challenges, Myths and Realities of China's Rise,” was published by CNTimes Books in July.
Q: What is the “China Threat” from the Western point of view?
A: First, "the West” is two things – the United States, and Europe. Regarding what is happening in China, we don’t have the same views.
For Europe, China is mainly considered an economic threat. Europeans are concerned about the economic slowdown in China, because they believe it will make things more difficult for them.
For the U.S., China represents a geopolitical threat. The U.S. is not satisfied with the rise of China in that respect. But economic-wise, a lot of people realize that China is not only taking jobs, but it is also creating wealth through the trade exchange.
Q: What role do the media play in this perception of China?
The media is also different in Europe and in the States. I read media from all over the world, and I think especially concerning China, the American media is more objective than European ones, much less ideological. They are trying their best to understand what’s going on in China.
In Europe we face more ideological differences. We saw that a lot in 2008; a lot of journalists just reported what they wanted to report, and not what they see, and sometimes they don’t even understand what they see.
The media have a strong influence on the public opinions. Generally speaking, both in liberal democracies and in China, public opinions are a prisoner of the media. Media has an important role to play, which is why I believe it would be good to have a more balanced media on China.
Q: Could you elaborate on the ideological differences?
A: If we take Europe, it’s more about the political system. I would say liberal democracy vs. China’s one-party system.
And in the United States, it’s more about concepts like human rights, and using that almost as a tool or a gun against China or any other countries. It is one of the top guns against China. It’s less about communism than it is about the lack of human rights and democracy.
Q: With the fall of the Soviet Union, we saw that the U.S. government was overhyping a threat. Is that what is also happening to some degree with China?
A: This is largely what I am trying to shed light on by writing this book. Mainly the threat is built up. In 1991, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the United States all of a sudden has no enemies any more. So they found a new one, which in 1991 was already China. But then came 9/11, which changed the priorities. But they understood terrorism is an unfortunate, but transitory phenomenon, while China could be a long-lasting potential enemy.
Q: You do not believe China poses a threat?
A: China is not a threat by nature, but it could be a threat by reaction. We cannot say today that China is not a threat, but a threat to whom? It depends on where you look at things, and China certainly considers the U.S. a threat.
I don’t consider China as a threat provided the U.S. and the Europeans open the global field to China. China wants to be a power, and it’s normal, considering its history and its potential. And given its size, it will be a great power. So we just have to open the discussion about that. We can no longer say, you will do what I ask you to do, which is what we have seen for the last 10, 15 years, starting with China’s rise in 1995. That is the main point of conflict.
China can become a threat in 20 years, if we don’t give China enough space to breathe. It’s a big country; it needs space, which of course does not mean invading the neighbors, but it means being able to control a minimum of security.
If you look at the history of the region, there was something like three wars in six centuries in Asia, before the arrival of Western powers. That’s quite an achievement. After the Western powers arrived, there was a period of chaos. So we have to look at history. Why was it working at the time? How did they find a way to live together?
What if Americans leave Asia, will it be a chaos? I wonder whether it would be worse with the U.S. in the region, or without. If we are talking about Korea, it’s obvious that China doesn’t want North Korea to invade South Korea. Maybe in the '50s, but not today. China would not allow that.
Maybe we should say, for five years, American troops should just leave Asia. I cannot see it will be worse. It’s an adjustment of power between Asian countries. You cannot say the Philippines is as powerful as China, but this is the problem of the United Nations, putting nations on the same footing. Because in reality is not like that. Greater powers are always manipulating the smaller ones. So why not in Asia?
We have Japan, China and India, and then maybe the other countries would have to adjust their policies to the local environment. But that doesn’t mean war. It means you have to give a little way sometimes because you want to live peacefully and have economic development. Is it worse than having American troops on your side and having always to be frightened of what North Korea is going to do? I think it’s a big question mark.
Q: So there is a threat from the point of view of the smaller nations in the region?
A: Yes, of course. There is some difficult history in the region, but once again there are foreign nations facilitating power plays. This was especially clear with China and India. In 2004, the Bush administration came into the picture and said to India, you should be frightened of China. Before then relations between New Dehli and Beijing were improving. That’s not very constructive.
Q: With China’s recent economic slowdown, is another kind of threat from China imminent?
A: Paul Krugman said China’s slowdown is not a problem, because it’s a very small part of the global trade. But I think it’s always dangerous to only consider economy in international relations. If China is slowing down, it’s not only an issue of trade. There is also an impact on domestic issues in China, therefore on China’s foreign policies. I think for the time being, the Chinese authorities are in control of the economy. I was always struck by that in China, that they are always fine-tuning the economy, that they have all kinds of people working on that. That is one of the advantages of their system.
Q: What about China’s internal threats, namely Tibet and Xinjiang?
A: To Beijing, Tibet is not really a threat, but Xinjiang is.
In Xinjiang, they face terrorism, not just cultural differences. The Islamic movement in Xinjiang is linked to the global Islamic movement. The problem with many American analysts discussing the Xinjiang movement is that they say these people are freedom fighters. But of course in Beijing, we say they are terrorists. I am always wondering why China is the only country that does not have its rights to have terrorists. We are talking about terrorism everywhere today, in Africa, in Europe, in the States, and all of a sudden when it’s China, it’s not terrorism, they are freedom fighters. That is quite a bias.
For Beijing, their risk in territorial security is coming more from Xinjiang than Tibet. In Tibet the issue is over. There will not be an independent Tibet – they have to get over the idea. It’s a matter of national interest. Tibet has always been more a construction of the Western public opinion. It would be best for Beijing to discuss with the Dalai Lama for the end of his life, but conditions brought by both sides four years ago were not acceptable, including that they don’t want ethnic Hans in Tibet anymore, which constitutes an ethnic cleansing.
The interview has been edited for accuracy without altering the meanings of the answers.