From Sunnylands to APEC: An Interview with Chris Johnson, CSIS

Recently I had the opportunity to talk to Chris Johnson, Senior Adviser and Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, DC. Established in 1962, CSIS is one of the most preeminent think tanks in the world, advising senior policy officials and conducting cutting-edge research on a range of topics including security, regional stability, trade, and international relations.  As the Chair of the China Studies Program, Mr. Johnson oversees CSIS’s work to provide regional expertise to policymakers, businesses, and the public on China and East Asia, while also providing a forum for foreign policy debate. Mr. Johnson served the U.S. government for two decades in the intelligence field, working as a senior China analyst at the CIA. He played a crucial advisory role during the 1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis, the 1999 accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and the 2003 SARS epidemic. The UCSD alum and I talked about challenges to U.S.-China Relations, Xi Jinping’s Anti-Corruption Campaign, as well as advise for aspiring China hands.

Q: When Presidents Obama and Xi met at Sunnylands, they proposed to establish a “new type of major country relations” between the US and China. What do you think this means?

A: Well, I think both sides are trying to answer that question themselves. It hasn’t really been defined that well. I do think that on the Chinese side there are certain implicit elements that they see in it. One is this mutual recognition of core interests, one is the acceptance of the governance system of the other side, which is basically the US acceptance of the Communist Party. Then, this sort of greater role, or more interaction for the Chinese in the shaping of global rules and norms. So at his press conference in March, Wang Yi kind of laid this all out. The problem with that kind of definition, of course, is that it takes into account all of China interests, but it doesn’t say anything about U.S. interests. [For example], freedom of navigation or operating according to recognized sets of global rules and norms. There is this impression that the concept is too heavily weighted towards Chinese interests.

So there has been a real debate, I think, on the U.S. government side about what do we do with this thing and how do we then avoid the Chinese side defining it for us. But unfortunately when Vice President Biden went over in December and endorsed that particular phrasing as the Chinese said it. On the Chinese side their view was, ‘Okay, now we have an agreement that that’s the catch phrase. And how we define it has been accepted by the US.’ I think since then you’ve seen the US side sort of trying to walk away from that a little bit, through a number of measures. One [is] through no longer using that phrase directly with some actions in response to perceived Chinese provocations in the East and South China Seas, etc. So I think what we need to look for coming out of the summit is, is there a new agreement that a) is the frame we want to use to describe the relationship and b) what are some of the steps we are going to be taking to put [some of the US interests into the definition].

Q: And how do you assess the success or failure of this concept a year later?

A: Well, my feeling is that it is a work in progress. So both sides have notionally accepted the concept as stated, I think the Chinese have a more specific meaning of what it implies when they use the term “xinxing daguo guanxi” (“a new type of great power relationship”). The US side, up until the Biden comments, sort of said, ‘we welcome a new type of relationship between the two sides’, [while] studiously avoiding this new type of, well, [what] the Chinese now choose to translate it as major country relations, but the Chinese [meaning] is still ” great power”, “daguo” (大國) relations. So I think it is an issue that is still in contention, and how you operationalize it as a concept, that’s where we’re stuck. So that’s why to me it is still a work in progress.

Q: What are the biggest challenges for US-China relations ahead of the November APEC meeting in Beijing?

A: I think there are several. Obviously these persistent security issues are still troublesome. The US is engaging in its traditional messaging and cueing behavior, especially in regard to this maritime stuff, and the Chinese aren’t reacting in the way that they would traditionally, or more importantly, the way that we want them to. And so I think there is a discussion on the US side at this stage, to think about what does that mean? How should we, if at all, be recalibrating our approach, thinking through how we might be able to start responding… to some of these moves by the Chinese that are hard to react to in a direct manner, because a lot of these things are these long and slicing tactics, right? Reclamation of islands, and doing donuts around other people’s planes, and things like that. So that piece, I think, is persistent, as is the cyber [element], that’s all there. But I think that the the bigger issue in terms of challenges is that there is just a lack of energy in the relationship. It is all very pro forma. I don’t get a strong sense of any kind of personal chemistry between the two leaders, which is generally pretty important in the bilateral relationship. If you compare it to Xi’s relationship with Putin in Russia, they definitely have a sort of “simpatico” thing, and that’s just not there with President Obama.

It’s at a point at which they kind of decide, ‘Well, we’ll keep the relationship correct. We won’t cause any trouble, and so on, but we won’t invest in it either. Until there is somebody on the other side that is worth investing in the relationship with.’

So I think we will have a key challenge of how do we prevent the relationship from just drifting. And I think the APEC summit really is the last best chance to get it back on the rails given the perceptions about the direction of the Obama administration. I mean, he’ll be going over there just after the midterm [elections] are just completed. If they lose control of the senate, he is going to be going in, in a very weakened position. I’m already hearing from Chinese contacts that it’s at a point at which they kind of decide, ‘Well, we’ll keep the relationship correct. We won’t cause any trouble, and so on, but we won’t invest in it either. Until there is somebody on the other side that is worth investing in the relationship with.’ So it doesn’t mean the cause is lost, but our side should be thinking very creatively about what kind of deliverables can come out of the summit to re-inject some energy. One of the issues I have is that if the relationship were operating normally, you would have seen the strategic economic dialogue in July act as some sort of policy springboard at that level to start shaping the agenda for the summit. And instead we got a pretty vanilla outcome, and the issue is that from that time in July until APEC, is really only about 100 days to get yourself ready. And we have DC summer, they have Beijing summer, we have our midterms, they have a party plenum, so by the time the two sides look up, get their head out of the dust, there is going to be precious little time to really come up with something substantial. So we will just have to wait and see on that one.

Q: Are you expecting any significant breakthroughs in the legal and political areas of reform in the upcoming 4th Plenum of the 18th Party Congress?

A: We are definitely at a sort of inflection point. What I’m worried about is how they are going to define this “rule of law”, or I think a better translation for the Chinese would be “rule by law”. They understand full well that the term “rule of law” is a very pregnant term in a Western context, and I think that they’re translating it in English that way deliberately because they are trying to signal this reform intent. And so I think [what] we are going to get is probably a heavy dose of Zhou Yongkang and that case wrapping up [as] being a part of this sort of “rule of law”. In other words, nobody is too high to be untouchable.

What I’m worried about is how they are going to define this “rule of law”, or I think a better translation for the Chinese would be “rule by law”.

I hope in addition to a heavy dose of that, we are going to see some modest hinting of a door opening on broader judicial reforms. They’ve put out this 5 year plan on judicial reforms recently. This is a big focus of generally what we think of when we think of the Third Plenum, but there is very sweeping legal and judicial reform also proposed in there. And I think they’ve realized that over time you can’t do some of the more technical economic reforms like liberalizing deposit rates… if you first haven’t fixed some of these governance structures. So right now you have that situation where local judges are assigned, evaluated, and paid by the local provincial administration; so guess what, they don’t tend to rule against the local provincial administration too often, haha. There are these efforts to think about [shifting] the reporting chain upward rather than sideways. And it sounds minor, but it would be a huge fundamental change in the way that they operate their judicial system. Those kind of things are was I’m looking for. More broadly, obviously it’s not an economically focused plenum, there is this notion of “party-building”.

Fourth Plenums, often you see personnel [change], there’s a lot of rumors swirling around. I do think Xi Jinping intends to do something fairly bold on the military side, in terms of putting in some of his own people or people that are closer to him on the Central Military Commission. And that will be a good indicator as well of his strength going into the fall. Because one of the things they are focused on right now is that the plenum is set against the backdrop, or in the context of, this very clear debate we have now over economic trajectory; whether it’s going to tilt towards reform or tilt back towards stimulus. And with the numbers coming in not where they want them to be, and now rumors that Zhou Xiaochuan might be removed… there is clearly a cat fight going on. Does Xi Jinping, in order to achieve some of his political objectives have to give a bit on slacking back on reform? All these issues are in the offer and are related.

Q: Can Xi Jinping successfully get two birds with one stone by improving the CCP’s public image when it comes to corruption while also purging his political rivals with this anti-corruption campaign?

A: Yeah, I think that’s certainly his goal. I think too often in the China watching community and in the commentary and so on, we see this notion that the anti-corruption campaign is just politics by another means basically, as it has been in the past. But I think if you look at more broadly what’s been going on, it is serving these other purposes. There is the focus on tigers, which is obviously quite political, but the focus on the flies, the lower and mid-level officials, is really the meat of the program. It’s designed to ameliorate the public’s lack of sort of loyalty or interest in the party. They see the rapacious local official everyday blocking traffic, buying different Rolexes, they want to address that because they do feel that the party’s survival and its rule really is at a key inflection point right now. Xi is very much about trying to reinvest that.

So many things that Xi does, there really is what I like to call a “multi-layered cake of motivation”. He’s got a bunch of different things that he’s doing in parallel. Another piece of the anti-corruption campaign is to have it serve as a support for these broader governance reforms, which will be opposed because they are going to cost a lot of people their money basically, or authority, or power, or whatever. So my own sense is that he’s certainly trying to use it for multiple purposes. One thing that is making that more difficult for him is that on the political side, people who are “leaving” for lack of a better term, and are risked in this push, they’re trying to put out this whisper campaign message that, indeed, Xi Jinping is a power-mad megalomaniac, and that this is only about personal aggrandizement, and so on. But my own sense is that there is more to it than that, but that the proof will be in the pudding in terms of how they do that. And if you just run around lopping off heads, and you don’t address some more fundamental political and structural issues, then it’s only going to be so effective.

Q: So do you feel that by lopping off these heads, that he’s trying to potentially pave the way towards implementing more reforms, but it’s just not clear if that will lead to more enmity that could actually put a stop to progress with the reforms?

A: Yeah, I mean, this is another theme that is sort of circulating out there. This idea of prepare for the immune response and so on. That’s always possible and it’s certainly possible that he will overplay his hand, but I think if we watch carefully what he’s been doing, he’s kind of doing it in a very systematic manner. It’s clear to me that he knows where the true red-lines are. And he’s used the campaign very effectively to box some of these people in quite tightly. The Jiang Zemins of the world, etc., many of whom do have problems in either their immediate family or their “guanxi” one [the all-important network of friends and business relations individuals have], and are more extended with corruption, so this is an issue where I think Xi Jinping is managing it thoughtfully. I don’t see him as reckless.

There is a theme out there that he’s pursuing this in a very reckless manner. That’s not my impression. Whether or not he intends to pursue the appropriate social, judicial, and economic reform that we all know needs to happen to transform the system, is a totally different question. What I don’t subscribe to is this sort of goofy theory that he has been turning left to turn right. That he’s been going in a more traditional direction, and then will have a huge breakout as even more liberal. I don’t think he’s wired that way. But there is no doubt he has a sense of what he wants to accomplish, and the feel that you get is sort of a “man in a hurry.” He’s leading very aggressively on a number of fronts at all times. That’s my impression really.

What I don’t subscribe to is this sort of goofy theory that [Xi Jinping] has been turning left to turn right. That he’s been going in a more traditional direction, and then will have a huge breakout as even more liberal. I don’t think he’s wired that way.

Q: What are some CSIS China studies projects that the scholars and policymakers ought to pay more attention to?

A: We just completed a large study on the new foreign policy direction of the new leadership under Xi, where we look at this notion that they are moving towards a “great power” approach for foreign diplomacy. And the focus there is on looking at how the foreign policy direction has very clearly changed from Deng Xiaoping’s long standing injunction to bide your time, hide your capabilities, “tao guang yang hui” (韜光養晦), over to something that is something else. Exactly what it is, is still being defined, but it’s this idea that no longer should we be bound by this thought of ourselves as isolated and weak, and [as if] we have to keep our profile low. We already are a great power, and we should start acting like a traditional great power. I think we see that in Xi Jinping’s multi-directional foreign policy that he’s undertaking very robust moves towards Russia, towards Europe, Africa, Latin America, and I think we are going to see him now kind of swing back to the more difficult pieces of US-China relations, China-Japan relations, etc. Another study that we’re [doing] that is in the foundational phases right now is looking at this issue of whether Xi Jinping is a transactional leader or a transformational leader. And it really does have a huge impact for policy in regard to what are the policy consequences of that judgement.

Q: It sounds fascinating! Is it already up on the website?

A: The policy one is. The Xi Jinping one we are still trying to get somebody to pay for it, haha. But I have a good feeling that it will get funded.

Q: What is the one piece of advice you can give to aspiring China hands at UCSD?

A: That’s a good question, haha. I’d say do what excites you with regard to the topic and follow your passion. There is a lot of emphasis I think in the field these days on kind of hyper-concentration if you will. Trying to focus very narrowly, and I think actually what the field needs is some very solid broadly read, broad-minded, good critical thinking, analysis of the whole picture. We are all [this way at] CSIS, but as the Chair I kind of have to do everything. And I think that’s a critical thing that’s missing. I mean, I get lots of interns cycling through my program, and so on, and sometimes there is just too narrow of a focus. So I’d like to see more emphasis on a broader political-economic, foreign policy, security approach, rather than looking at as much emphasis we’ve seen on social issues, climate change, what we are coming up against is a real need on both the government and the corporate side for people who just know the place well.

Learn more about Chris Johnson’s work as the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies here.

Featured photo from Flickr of Mr. Johnson in the middle flanked by US Representatives Charles W. Boustany, Jr. and Richard R. “Rick” Larsen in June 2013.

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Marika Heller

is a second-year MPIA student at IRPS with International Economics, Management, and China concentrations and Editor-in-Chief of the China Focus blog. She holds a B.A. in Political Science with a minor in Chinese from Middlebury College, and an M.A. in International Policy Studies from the Monterey Institute. She lived in Chengdu, China for two and a half years where she worked at a sustainable development NGO doing micro-finance and earthquake relief, and also at an international marketing and entertainment company.

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