Anthony Cordesman, Bourke Chair in Strategy at Center for Strategic and International Studies
Li Shaoxian, Vice-President of China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations
Wang Jisi, Dean of Peking University School of International Studies
Date: August 30, 2011
Wang: Receiving our interview today, are two very distinguished analysts and scholars from the United States and China. Professor Anthony Cordesman is a very distinguished analyst and strategist and he is now working in the CSIS, the Center for Strategic and International Studies based in Washington D.C. And he is the Bourke Chair of Strategy. Professor Cordesman has served as a policy adviser to various administrations, and he plays a very significant role in shaping the ideas and strategies of the United States in the Middle East, in many parts of the world, he travels around the world many many times. He has published over 60 books and is very influential in the US think tanks and scholarly community. And Professor Li Shaoxian is Vice President of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations. And he also serves as a policy adviser and his institutes is by far the largest and probably the strongest think tank in China in International Studies. And he is a Middle East Specialist, but he also knows a great deal about Africa, about Central Asia, and about international relations at large. So we are very happy to have them speak for us. The first question for both of you is that both of you have attended just now the conference on the Potentialities of cooperation between China and the United States in the Middle East and Central Asia. What are your impressions of the conference, what have you learned from this?
Cordesman: I think the conference was very useful in showing the areas where we can cooperate, in highlighting issues like the need to cooperate and insuring the flow of energy and the stability of both Central Asia and Middle East, to achieve that. And we share the common need to deal with the threat to Islamic extremists and terrorism. It also highlighted the areas where we need more dialogue, better mutual understanding and trust. Areas like dealing with the problems in Iran, the Arab – Israeli peace process, groups of specific regional issues, like what happens when the US withdraws from Afghanistan.
Li: I agree with Professor Cordesman. In my perspective, I think the conference is very meaningful, and I’ve learned a great deal from it. I’ve discussed the following three aspects with some Chinese scholars over lunch and I think they concur with me. The first aspect is that the US and China scholars have increased the understanding of each country’s interests in the Middle East and Central Asia. Secondly, both sides agree that we share common interests in this region, which is why we need to maintain the stability and development in Middle East and Central Asia. Thirdly, we have discussed the potentialities of cooperation between China and the US. That’s why I believe this conference is very significant. That being said, personally, I think there are places where we can improve on. I think the duration of the conference can be extended next time, and increase discussion on the cooperation aspect of the issue. We can also be more specific and elaborate in pointing out which areas we can potentially cooperate.
Wang: Thank you. Now we all understand that there are many many important interests of the United States, and also of China in the region in what we call the greater Middle East. What do you think are the similarities and differences of these strategic interests and goals of the two countries? Professor Cordesman?
Cordesman: I think when we talk about the Middle East, what we both need to have, is the smooth flow of energy exports, whether it’s oil and gas. They have to be available at world price, so everyone gets the share in the same way at the same rate. You need to make sure there are no more military events, crisis, you want this to happen without acts of terrorism. And you want the people and the countries involved that are exporting believe that they’re getting fair revenues, fair deals from the companies that are exporting the oil. More broadly I think we have to remember that we’re talking about hundreds and millions of people. These people for the first time in decades have the opportunity to really develop. A set of political changes will give them fair opportunities, better incomes, more hope for the future. And that’s critical to stability, to eliminating we don’t have or reducing the risk of proliferation. But above all ensuring we don’t have more wars and more conflicts.
Wang: Well then, could you say these interests are shared by the United States and China together? How do you think they are also differences of interests?
Cordesman: Well no two countries ever perfectly agree on the interests they have. When you talk about the broader strategic interests: stability, peace, development for the people. And above all, the global dependence on energy. Not just the dependence on China and United States. These are common interests. Do we have the same views on the Israeli peace process? I think the meeting showed that perhaps China is more concerned with the Palestinian side, the United States with Israel. China has energy deals with Iran. We see Iran as a power under this regime: moving towards nuclear weapons, long-range missiles, creating a major military force inside the area of the Gulf. I think these are significant differences, but when you really listen to Chinese and American scholars and experts, you discover that each of them, regardless of countries, also differs on how you should deal with the given problem. And often the problem we really had is the lack of communication and the lack of trust, simply because we haven’t had the time and the opportunity to really communicate with each other.
Wang: Professor Li, what do you think?
Li: I agree with most of what Professor Cordesman had said. Professor Cordesman had already talked elaborately about common interests between China and US. A lot of changes have been happening to the Middle East and the situation is in chaos. China and the US have many aspects of common benefits in this region. However, honestly speaking, there are also some obvious differences, which cannot be denied. In my opinion, these are the several major dissimilarities due to the different stances of the two countries. First of all, China is against external interference, especially military intervention. I think this kind of position derived from the history and past experience of our country, so we believe that usually nothing positive will come out of external military intervention. But at the same time, China believes that the revolution in the Middle East holds great significance. If the Middle East weathers through, great hope may arise. But China still believes that the democracy should grow from its own course. It might not be very beneficial to the development of the democracy if being rushed by external forces. Now, moving onto Iran’s nuclear issue, we also have some differences. While China also absolutely opposes the development of nuclear weapons in Iran, the two countries have different attitude and understanding on how to stop this process. From the Chinese point of view, sanctions or suppressions cannot achieve expected result.
Wang: Thank you. Both of you mentioned a wide range of issues in which the two countries can cooperate with each other. For instance, anti-terrorism, and the dealing with the chaotic situation in the Middle East, especially in the Arab world, and so on and so forth. What specifically would you suggest to promote such cooperation? Professor Cordesman mentioned the need to increase the communication, what else do you think we can get together to cooperate?
Cordesman: I think some of the issues that were raised are not simply for the Middle East, but Central Asia, with the need to see if we can cooperate on the kinds of economic aid, aid in governance, aid in developing the basic capacity of countries now that they’re undergoing this much change in politics regime and economics. I think cooperation in discussing how to develop energy, working with the countries in ways that benefit them, but also expand their infrastructure, the capabilities to export, the way they can reach out to other countries’ markets. Talking about counter-terrorism is one thing, but I think that it is clear that if we can cooperate in finances, in blocking the money that goes to terrorists, in ensuring that they can’t cross international boundaries, in making sure that we know who really is guilty of acts of violence, in cooperating in these cases with things like intelligence. All these measures are just a few of the things that we can explore. But I think one thing we also discovered, things do vary by country, they vary by area. And we need the kind of dialogue that goes from sort of general discussion of issues to areas in the future where we can get to much more specific. Discussions of where we can cooperate and what that cooperation should be.
Li: I think there is a lot of room for China-US cooperation in the Middle East. In the past, our cooperation in the Middle East has been limited which is why there are a lot of potentials we have yet to explore. In the past, the Middle East region has a nurturing environment for extremists. This is because many countries in the region have failed to develop economically. That’s why we always emphasize that to let the countries develop is the prerequisite of perishing extremism and terrorism in the region. Nowadays, drastic changes are happening in the Middle East. China wants to help these countries develop and I believe China has an edge in doing so. For example, right now, the US is suffering economically, but China is quite stable in that aspect, which makes China’s price range quite suitable for the Middle East regions. I think that China will be able to help the Middle East in a lot of aspects. But of course, China and the US will need to develop better mutual strategic trust. Just like what Professor Cordesman said right now, lacking of trust is a big problem. This trust issue means that US counterparts need to give more room for China to be involved in the Middle East region. Among the Chinese scholars, we have a united view that the US is playing a dominant role in this region. Even though conceptually the regional issue should be negotiated by the US, Russia, European Union and United Nation together, but reality is that US dominates its influence over the other three. Actually, China has formed its policy towards the Middle East since long time ago, which is a very special case in China’s foreign policies. Our special envoy has worked very hard in the region to promote peace. So I think US needs to give space to China, including letting China more actively involved in the regional affairs as well as the regional mechanisms. I think it is the time.
Wang: Professor Li you just mentioned the leading role of the United States played in the Middle East. When we look at the Central Asia, the situation probably is different. And the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is playing a more active role. And what do you evaluate the role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Central Asia?
Li: SCO is playing a very important role in Central Asia. There are mainly three domains. The first is to attack terrorism, religious extremism and separatism. The second domain is to maintain peace and stability; the last domain is to push economic development in the region. The SCO started with the second domain: Peace and Stability and it slowly extended to economic cooperation, which helped immensely under the shadows of the financial crisis. I remember during the financial crisis, China provided great help to Kazakhstan, a country which is in serious financial trouble. We provided one million US dollars of financial aid to Kazakhstan and other countries to help them overcome the crisis. Many people are skeptical about SCO’s economic usefulness due to Russia’s reluctance to the economic cooperation. But I don’t think so. Not long ago, at the SCO Summit, China and Russia reached important consensus on promoting the economic cooperation among the member states. Moreover, Russia even agreed to create a development bank of SCO. So I think the future of economic cooperation is quite bright. Of course, the SCO cannot take on everything. In other words, it is impossible for this mechanism to solve all the problems in this region. It still relies on the coordination with the other countries of this region as well as regional mechanisms, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States, the South Asia, etc.
Wang: Professor Cordesman, Professor Li just mentioned the SCO, and the United States is not part of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. What role does United States play in Central Asia and what is your view of the role of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization?
Cordesman: I think that from an American perspective, obviously we play a role in the Central Asia through the embassies, through USA to the countries involved in some cases there’s limited military assistance although it’s very limited. But for us, Central Asia includes Afghanistan. And Afghanistan inevitably ties us to Pakistan. The United States will be removing its troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2014. And the problem now becomes: can Afghanistan stand on its own? At the same time, you see the situation in Pakistan. And unfortunately what you have in Pakistan is steadily rising pattern of violence, of ethnic divisions, of growing sectarian and religious divisions, a government which is political weak and military, which frankly lacks unity and effectiveness. That’s going to remain a problem for all of us. It is not simply a problem of Central Asia in a classic sense. But how do you deal with Pakistan and Afghanistan and Central Asia? Where each of these countries need help, needs investment, but also lacks the capacity to absorb aid effectively. And in many cases the government frankly do not use their resources either effectively or for the benefit of the people. These countries differ sharply, so I hate to generalize. But I think the SCO is a very useful form as part of this. The Asia Development Bank is another form, the World Bank, depending on which country, how wealthy it is. Individual aid projects that develop capacity to use aid and to develop the economy. And it is almost certainly true that if we coordinate better, between the United States and China, and with Russia, and within a broader context the countries that are donors, we can probably make that aid more efficient, and deal better with the problems to come. But frankly I think as we see in the greater Middle East, we should not assume that these problems are going to go away in a year or two. The instability, the divisions within these countries are too deep, so when we talk about cooperation and development, we’re talking five to ten years. Not something that is simply just one period of brief cooperation between the United States and China.
Wang: Now Afghanistan and Pakistan are both neighbors of China, and people now are increasingly concerned about the situation there as you just mentioned there is a lot of violence, chaotic situation and ethnic tensions and so on. And how can the two countries, the United States and China coordinate and communicate with each other in Pakistan and Afghanistan? Professor Li? This is my last question.
Li: Evidently, there is a serious need for China and the US to increase cooperation in the Middle East and Central Asia. However, obvious stand point differences often divide the two countries, such as the anti-terrorism efforts. China believes that military efforts can only cure the situation temporally, but cannot completed root up the problems. Terrorism is like weed, if you don’t cut off its roots it will soon sprung again. From the Chinese perspective, we should find the permanent resolution to smash the terrorism. And the permanent resolution lies in the economic development, which may lead these countries onto a path of modernization and prosperity. I personally think that China and US can cooperate more on helping to develop the region’s economic capabilities, because most nations in the greater Middle East region have failed to develop economically, like Pakistan and Afghanistan. But like what Professor Cordesman said, these countries have rich resources. In Afghanistan, there is an abundant of mineral resources, and in Pakistan, they also have mineral resources, agriculture and textile industries. We can help them further develop these areas and improve their industries. At the same time I agree on what Professor Cordesman said about the training. We need to train not only their military and police, but also their officials on how to govern its country, how to manage the finance, how to plan for the nation’s future, etc. Thirdly, it is important to build up a good external environment for these countries. For example, to reconcile relations between India and Pakistan and to build up mutual trust between Pakistan and Afghanistan. I emphasize this point because bad foreign relations will limit a country’s development. I believe these are the areas China and US need to work on together.
Wang: Professor Cordesman you have the final comment.
Cordesman: I think we both agree we just heard some very important points about what needs to be done. I think if there’s any caution I would give, it is we too have been addressing the roots now in places like Afghanistan for ten years. And what we’ve found is how limited the capabilities of the governments to actually absorb the aid. There are massive problems in Pakistan and Afghanistan as they are in some of the other Central Asian countries, with corruption. There are power brokers, there are fights and tensions between ethnic groups. There’s growing pressure in Pakistan between Suni and Shiite, and this is going to require a level of patience and time which sometimes the international community is not particularly good at. And it is absolutely true, we need to develop the capacity of the governments, of the economy, to help the businessmen to help the infrastructure. But I frankly think too, we need to remember that most of these governments today are not yet ready either to absorb aid or to use it honestly. And that means it’s going to require a lot of judgment and care to really help the countries and help the people, as distinguish as help the governments to get more money.
Wang: Thank you both very much.