Cui Tiankai, 60, arrived in Washington, D.C., on April 2 to take up his new post as China’s ambassador to the United States. A fluent English speaker with a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, Cui spent five years as a farm hand during the Cultural Revolution before entering Shanghai Normal University. During his extensive diplomatic career, he has also served as China’s ambassador to Japan and vice minister of foreign affairs. He spoke with Foreign Affairs managing editor Jonathan Tepperman in China’s new I. M. Pei–designed embassy a few weeks after presenting his credentials to President Barack Obama.
Having just arrived in Washington, what’s your assessment of the state of U.S.-Chinese relations?
For the last four years or so, relations have been moving forward steadily, although we sometimes wish they could move even faster. President Hu Jintao and President Obama met 12 times in the last four years. This is quite rare, even between the U.S. and its allies; it’s certainly rare for China’s relations with other countries.
Now that we have a new leadership in China, we have to spend time on the transition. President Xi Jinping and President Obama had a very good conversation on the phone [shortly after Xi took office] and reaffirmed that they will make every effort to have a cooperative partnership.
What are your priorities as ambassador?
First, I have to make sure that the frequency of the high-level contacts continues and the mechanisms that we have set up between the two countries also continue and, where necessary, improve.
Many people seem worried that the relationship is drifting. President Xi has come up with what sounds like a new paradigm, what he calls “a new type of great-power relationship,” to address this. What does he mean?
I think there is a clear mutual understanding between the two governments about the need to have a constructive and steady relationship — to base our partnership on mutual respect and mutual benefit. This is our goal. As for the concept of a new type of relationship between our two countries, that is also our goal. But of course, this is a long-term goal, which means that we have to give more substance to it.
In the past, when one big country developed very fast and gained international influence, it was seen as being in a kind of a zero-sum game vis-à-vis the existing powers. This often led to conflict or even war. Now, there is a determination both in China and in the United States to not allow history to repeat itself. We’ll have to find a new way for a developing power and an existing power to work with each other, not against each other.
Scholars sometimes distinguish between status quo and revisionist powers, arguing that problems arise only if the new power is the latter and wants to change the rules of the game. Which is China?
It is an oversimplification to put China and the United States in the same category of power. The U.S. is still much more developed, much stronger. China is huge but still a developing country, whether in terms of the economy, science and technology, or military power. In many respects, we still have a long way to go before we can really be seen as on par with the United States.
As for whether we are trying to change the rules of the game, if you look at recent history since China reformed and opened up, there has been a clear integration of China into the existing global order. We are now members of many international institutions, not only the United Nations but also the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. We have joined the World Trade Organization. We are taking part in many regional mechanisms.
So we are ready to integrate ourselves into the global system, and we are ready to follow the international rules. Of course, these rules were set without much participation by China, and the world is changing. You cannot say that the rules that were set up half a century ago can be applied without any change today. But what we want is not a revolution. We stand for necessary reform of the international system, but we have no intention of overthrowing it or setting up an entirely new one.
What sort of rules does China feel need to be adjusted?
For the last few years, we’ve had the G-20. This mechanism is quite new. It’s different from the G-7 or the G-8. The G-20 has all the existing powers and also countries like India, Brazil, South Africa, Russia. China is also a member of the G-20, and we are playing a very important role in it. For the first time in history, these countries are sitting together around the same table as equals and discussing major international financial and economic issues. This is the kind of change we want to have.
Americans sometimes wonder whether China is really willing to help solve key international problems. Take Syria: the U.S. government is trying to build an international coalition to deal with the civil war there, and it feels that China has not been very cooperative.
If we are really serious about building a new type of relationship, we have to have mutual accommodation and mutual understanding. It’s not that we are just helping the United States, or that the United States is just helping us. We have to help each other. We must make efforts to see issues from the other guy’s point of view.
We certainly don’t want chaos and civil war in Syria or anywhere in the world. We understand there are political differences in the country. But we always follow the principle that the affairs of a particular country should be determined by its own people, not by us, not by outsiders. It’s not up to China or the United States to decide the future of the country.
But under the “responsibility to protect” doctrine, which most UN members have endorsed, when a leader is slaughtering his people in large numbers, the international community now has a responsibility, or at least a right, to intervene. You say the Syrian people should determine their own form of government. But the Syrian people have tried that, and their government is killing them.
To be very frank with you, this kind of theory has not always proved successful. When the United States started the war in Iraq, people were also talking about the responsibility to protect the Iraqi people, or to eliminate weapons of mass destruction, but the end result is obvious. Who is protecting whom, and who is protecting what? This is still open to debate.
Both Beijing and Washington want the Korean Peninsula to be peaceful and nuclear free. Yet China and the United States don’t seem to be cooperating as closely as they could there. Why not?
China and the United States have many common interests on North Korea, but we might also have slightly different approaches on how to reach our common goals.
As far as China is concerned, we have three key elements to our policy on the Korean Peninsula. First, we stand for stability. Second, we stand for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Third, we stand for peaceful means. These three elements are interrelated; you cannot have one at the expense of the other two.
It seems that Beijing has recently become more frustrated with Pyongyang and more willing to put real pressure on it. Is this true, and is China starting to distance itself from North Korea?
We just cannot distance ourselves from North Korea geographically. That’s our problem — it’s so close to us. Any chaos or armed conflict on the Korean Peninsula would have a major impact on China’s national security interests. We have to keep that in mind all the time.
And our influence over the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] may not be as real as what is reported in the media. Of course, as neighbors and long-standing friends, we do have some influence there. But the DPRK is a sovereign state. It could choose not to listen to us. It could decline whatever we might suggest.
But China has unique ways of putting pressure on North Korea, for example by turning off its energy supplies.
We provide, and are still providing, humanitarian assistance to North Korea. That has a lot to do with the Korean people and has almost nothing to do with [the leadership’s] ambitions, particularly the nuclear program. We are against that. They know this quite clearly. They know China will never accept their nuclear program. We are against their nuclear tests. That’s why we voted in favor of un sanctions in the Security Council.
So will China be prepared to take stronger measures if North Korea continues to act in an aggressive way?
We’ll do whatever is necessary to achieve our goal of denuclearization and stability. But we have to think about how whatever we do serves our long-term goals. If we do something that leads to an escalation of the situation, it would defeat our own purposes.
Yet China is so much more powerful than North Korea.
Well, the United States is even more powerful, and has it managed to change North Korea’s behavior? I don’t think it has been very successful so far.
Do you think Washington’s “pivot” to Asia actually represents anything new, and is it damaging U.S.-Chinese ties?
The United States has a long-standing interest in the Asia-Pacific. Maybe in the last decade or so, the United States focused so much on the Middle East — on Iraq and Afghanistan — that some people in the United States came to believe it was done at the expense of U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific. But the United States never removed its bases from the region, so it doesn’t need to pivot. It’s already there.
But some in the United States argue that talk of the pivot, sending U.S. troops to Australia, working out a new trade partnership that excludes China, and so forth have been a mistake, because these moves will create the impression that the United States is hostile to and is trying to encircle China. Do the Chinese feel that way?
Some Chinese do have this view. But today’s China is a much more diversified society. You can find all kinds of views.
Over the last year or so, there has been a serious effort on the U.S. side to try to elaborate its Asia-Pacific policy in a more comprehensive way. Visiting U.S. officials to Beijing always try to explain to us that what you might call the pivot, or “rebalancing,” is not against China and that China will be an essential part of this new approach. We listen to these statements very carefully. But of course, we have to wait and see what will happen in reality. For instance, we are following the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations very closely, but it’s too early to come to the conclusion that the TPP is against any particular country.
America’s top military official, General Martin Dempsey, went to Beijing recently to talk with his Chinese counterpart about cyberspace, which has become a big source of tension between the two countries. Americans feel that China is either not doing enough to stop cyberattacks aimed at the United States or is actually directing those attacks. Is China willing to shut them down, and if so, what would it want in return?
Cybersecurity is a new issue for the international community at large. First of all, the technologies are new, and the attacks are invisible. Traditionally, if you perceived a threat, it could be seen. It was physical. But not in cyberspace.
Second, very few international rules have been designed for these kind of problems. So we have to work out a new set of international rules for everybody to follow.
Third, if we look at the development of IT and at the industry itself, the United States is much more advanced than China. So logically, I think the weaker should be more concerned about the stronger. The stronger is in a better position both to defend itself and to maybe go on the offensive against others.
Yet U.S. commercial and military computers are attacked all the time from abroad, and many of these attacks seem to be coming from China. The New York Times traced a number of these attacks to a specific building in Shanghai that is connected to the Chinese military. So many people have concluded that the Chinese government, or some forces within it, is involved in these attacks.
I don’t think anybody has so far presented any hard evidence, evidence that could stand up in court, to prove that there is really somebody in China, Chinese nationals, that are doing these things. Cyberattacks can come from anywhere in the world. Even if you could locate a computer, you cannot say that computer belongs to the government of that particular country or even that the people who are doing this are nationals of that country. It’s very hard to prove.
A huge number of Chinese computers, Chinese companies, and Chinese government agencies have also been attacked by hackers. If we trace these attacks, maybe some of them, or even most of them, would come from the United States. But we are not in the position to come to the conclusion that these attacks are sponsored or supported by the U.S. government. This is not a very responsible way of making such claims.
So do you deny the American accusations?
I think if they make the accusation, they have to give us proof, hard evidence. Nobody has done that. What is important is for the two governments to sit down, work out a new set of rules, and find out ways that we can work together to prevent such attacks from happening again.
Relations between Japan and China are in a very dangerous downward spiral at the moment. Armed Chinese ships have started regularly confronting armed Japanese ships surrounding the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, risking a violent confrontation. China and Japan share close economic ties, and yet neither country seems to be willing to resolve the issue. Why?
This issue has a long history. These islands were originally Chinese territory, but at the end of the nineteenth century, because of the war between China and Japan, Japan took action to put these islands in its own territorial jurisdiction. When the United States returned Okinawa to Japan [in 1972], it also included the Diaoyu Islands. We were against that and made it very clear at the time. So there has been a consistent Chinese position on the sovereignty of the islands. There is no doubt about that.
On the other hand, we also understand such issues will take time to resolve, and we are not in a hurry to resolve them overnight. When China and Japan normalized relations with each other [also in 1972], the leaders of both countries decided to put such disputes aside. And I think that was a very wise policy. We had tranquility over these islands for many years, until the Japanese government decided to nationalize the islands last year.
But they only did that to prevent a bigger problem, which was the nationalist governor of Tokyo buying the islands himself to build on them.
Well, it’s quite clear Japan’s decision will lead to very serious consequences under international law — even more serious than whatever the governor of Tokyo tried to do.
So China has strong historical claims. Japan also says it has strong historical claims. At a certain point, doesn’t it become necessary to say, OK, history is history, but we live in the present, and we have to think about the future. Can you see a solution here that both countries can live with?
What you said is very wise, but no side should take action to upset this kind of balance. The legal action taken by the Japanese government really provoked everything.
I think the two sides have to engage in very serious negotiation. We approached the Japanese side last year. But I don’t think that they were quite prepared at that time. Now, they have a new ruling party — the new old ruling party. The LDP [Liberal Democratic Party] is back. But I don’t see any serious efforts by them to sit down with us and start very serious talks.
Is China concerned that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s history as a nationalist will make resolution of the issue even more difficult?
It will depend on his choices. We know his political attitudes. But on the other hand, when he was prime minister last time [in 2006–7], he made the right decision not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine Hell Heaven. So he could do the right thing here.
China and Japan have enormous common interests, economic and otherwise. There is a huge potential for close cooperation, but we have to remove the political obstacle.
Is there a role for the United States to play?
The most helpful thing the U.S. could do is to remain truly neutral, to take no side.
What about helping the two sides communicate? Sometimes, a third party can be a useful mediator.
If that happens, I think it would be welcome. But it would really depend on how the third party acted. Is it really fair? When the United States talks to us, they say they’ll take no side, but sometimes, when they talk to the Japanese or when they make public statements, we hear something different.
Some have argued that as the United States is pivoting east, China is pivoting west, getting more involved in Russia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. Could this someday threaten American interests?
The United States is lucky: it has only two neighboring countries and oceans on both sides. We have over a dozen neighboring countries, and we have a long and complicated history with them. So China really has to take care in its relations with its neighbors. It’s not just in one direction, east or west. We certainly want to develop economic cooperation in all directions, because we need more trade, we need to export more and import more, and we need to have more sources of energy. I don’t think that we are pivoting in any particular direction. And I don’t think whatever we are doing will hurt U.S. interests, because if we can have mutually beneficial relations with all our neighbors, that will help guarantee the stability of the region.
Let me ask you about those neighbors. For about ten years, China worked very hard to convince the whole region, indeed the world, that it was interested in a “peaceful rise.” Then, in the last year or so of the Hu Jintao administration, it seemed to start behaving more aggressively, which made a lot of its neighbors nervous. What happened?
We never provoked anything. We are still on the path of peaceful development. If you look carefully at what happened in the last couple of years, you will see that the others started all the disputes. We did not start them, but we had to respond because these issues concern China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and there is strong public sentiment on these issues.
So why then is there this perception that it was China that was assertively pressing its territorial claims?
As I said, we never started the incidents. We only reacted to them. China has to safeguard its interests. In the meanwhile, we have been calling for dialogue. China always promotes the principle of “shelving differences and seeking joint development.” We did a lot in the past years to implement this principle, and I hope that others will do the same.
How has the United States changed since your last posting here?
I was posted in New York at our UN mission from late 1997 until early 2000. This was before 9/11, so I see a big difference. There seems to be a strong sense of insecurity in America, although I do not fully understand that, because if the most powerful country in the world feels insecure, how can other countries feel secure?
But on the whole, I don’t think there is fundamental change in the United States with regard to its strength, vitality, or its status internationally.
If you look at the world, you see the emergence of what people used to call new poles, or the rapid development of countries like China, India, and so on. To some extent, you could say — and only in relative terms — that the United States is not as powerful as before, but this only means that others are trying to catch up. It does not mean that the U.S. is declining.
But it seems to many people that the American political system is broken, or at least deeply dysfunctional. How does that look from a Chinese perspective?
We have our own problems. Yes, there are big problems here, and in politics, people go to the extremes. But still, I believe America is capable of resolving these issues and moving forward. There is no evidence that because of [domestic] problems, the United States is losing its position globally.
You spoke a moment ago about American insecurity. What about China’s? China has now been on an incredible growth path for over 30 years; in many ways, it is the envy of countries all around the world. Yet China still seems to feel insecure. Can you imagine a time when China acts more like a “normal” country, one that has arrived, as opposed to a country that is still striving to become and is battling with its past?
I think normal people always have things to worry about. So I think it’s only normal for countries to worry, too. Besides, China still faces mountains of problems. Some are historical legacies. Others might be the byproducts of our rapid development. We have to move forward and make great efforts to respond to these challenges so that the whole Chinese nation can modernize. This is a long-term process. We still have a long, long way to go. Maybe sometimes it’s even good for individuals or nations to have a certain sense of insecurity. This can turn into motivation to work hard.
Reprinted by permission of FOREIGN AFFAIRS, July/August 2013. Copyright 2013 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc. www.foreignaffairs.com