Under the Trump administration, the U.S. has made protecting sovereignty a core principle of its foreign policy and U.S.-China relations. While Beijing prioritizes protecting sovereignty at home, “its actions abroad raise questions about whether it’s interested in protecting the sovereignty of other countries,” says USIP’s Jacob Stokes.
On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.
Tim Farley: We want to spend some time talking about China because we've seen, among other things, the Tiananmen Square anniversary this week. In addition to that, Mike Pompeo has said a few things about China, and we've heard back from the Chinese. They're not particularly appreciative of some of the words said by the Secretary. There is this sense at odds with President Trump on the issue of tariffs.
Tim Farley: And, in addition to that, there's this interesting dynamic where the administration of this particular president has made protecting sovereignty, the idea that states have exclusive right to govern within their own territory, essential principle of both its foreign policy generally and U.S.-China relations specifically.
Tim Farley: We often hear that China will, in the United Nations Security Council votes, respect that sovereignty for other nations, and the reason they often will not get involved in some of these international conflicts is because of that. Whether or not it's the actual motive or not, we want to delve a little into with our next guest, Jacob or Jake Stokes, senior policy analyst in the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace, tweeting @JacobStokes.
Tim Farley: Jake, welcome. Thank you for being here today.
Jacob Stokes: Good morning. Thank you for having me.
Tim Farley: All right. So, the idea of sovereignty, the idea that one exercises personal control, it does seem, at least if we watch U.N. votes and the policy as espoused by China at the United Nations, to be a very much a part of their makeup. Is that something that they really respect? That's the subject, the question you ask in your piece. Let's get in an answer. What do you think?
Jacob Stokes: Yeah, absolutely. There's no doubt that China prioritizes protecting sovereignty at home on its own territory. But, as China becomes more involved in the world, some of its actions abroad raise questions about whether it's interested in protecting the sovereignty of other countries.
Tim Farley: So, give us an example.
Jacob Stokes: Sure. So, I think there's a few areas of action that would sort of raise these questions. So, the first would be China's sort of desire to influence or control ethnic Chinese populations that live outside of China. There is a massive ethnic Chinese diaspora living around the world. And, from the perspective of Beijing, in many respects, ethnic Chinese sort of fall under the mandate of the People's Republic of China.
Jacob Stokes: So, they don't always do that effectively, but that's one of their goals, is to influence the ethnic Chinese populations.
Jacob Stokes: Secondly, through its Belt and Road Initiative, which is China's plan to build infrastructure around the world. Some of the projects, the way they're structured, raise questions about whether China would take over important places, such as ports or bridges in other countries.
Jacob Stokes: And then, third, you've seen a few instances of Chinese intelligence or law enforcement officers working abroad in places that violate the international law that is based on sovereignty.
Tim Farley: How much of this is long-standing Chinese policy? How much of it, would you say, is a reflection of President Xi Jinping? Give us a sense of where this comes from.
Jacob Stokes: Yeah. It has deep roots in Chinese foreign policy. It's been going on for a while. But, what you've see with the rise of Xi Jinping is he's sort of taken the constraints off. He's acting in a much more assertive fashion. And so, you have seen an enhanced version by China under Xi Jinping. And that's really raised a lot of worries in the world because, previously, the Chinese foreign policy was based on a concept called “hide and bide,” which basically meant have a more modest foreign policy.
Jacob Stokes: Now it's much more assertive, much more forwardly. I mean, China's essentially saying, "We're here and we're powerful, and that's a fact you're going to have to live with."
Tim Farley: So, one of the points you make in this piece that we were just referring to is, "China is hardly the only state in the world with overlapping territorial claims. But, Beijing's purposeful definition of sovereignty to include territories it does not currently administer constitutes a unique challenge to the internationally understood definition."
Tim Farley: So, I guess the question is how does the world or the U.S. do something to address that challenge?
Jacob Stokes: Yeah. I think we have to work hard to enforce the international law. At the end of the day, the U.S. is trying to enforce a rules-based system. Because our theory is that the world works better, it's more peaceful, it's more prosperous when there are rules that states have to adhere to. And, whether you're a big, powerful country or a smaller, weaker country, everyone has to play by the same rules.
Jacob Stokes: And, there are specific rules for figuring out who owns a particular piece of territory. What China's trying to do is work around those rules and essentially just grab it by nature of being a powerful state. And, that's especially true in the South China Sea, where we've seen island-building on basically small, little reefs and things that are not inhabitable islands, but China's built with sand and other things on top of them. And then, basically, claimed and said, "These are ours,” even if other countries like Vietnam or Malaysia, there's many places with overlapping territorial claims, they also claim those areas. But, China says, "No, they're ours."
Jacob Stokes: Despite the fact that there was an international tribunal that pretty definitively said that's not the case.
Tim Farley: Jake Stokes with us, senior policy analyst in the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. I want to get your reaction, if I could, Jake. Yesterday, Mitt Romney, Senator from Utah, made his, you know, his inaugural speech, if you will. It was the first speech as a freshman on the floor.
Tim Farley: He had talked a little bit about how he had said in 2012 that Russia was a big threat, and of course people laughed about it. And now, he says, "We've got to watch for China." Listen to what he said yesterday. I want to get your reaction.
Mitt Romney: Today, we mark the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. That day, cries for freedom were brutally crushed. Since then, China has pursued a relentless course to smother the kind of hopes and dreams that filled that square 30 years ago.
Mitt Romney: It is possible, Mr. President, that China might someday experience a discontinuity or another uprising that will change its course. But, barring that, because China's population is almost four times our size, its economy should eventually dwarf ours. And, because economic advantage enables military advantage, China's military could even pass by ours, as well. It's possible that freedom itself would be in jeopardy.
Tim Farley: That is, again, Senator Mitt Romney yesterday. What's your reaction to that, Jake?
Jacob Stokes: Yeah, I think that's a pretty sound logic. I would just add a few caveats. The idea that China's economy would dwarf ours is unlikely. They've had very solid economic growth, astounding economic growth for 30 years, but it's now starting to taper off significantly. And, they have really important domestic problems. That doesn't mean we shouldn't take seriously the China threat. It's absolutely a major challenge.
Jacob Stokes: And, we have to think more, not just about China, but how to build the world around it and work with our allies and partners, both in the region, but also globally, to shape China's behavior through negotiations, if possible, but also through pressure and force, if need be.
Tim Farley: And as we get ready to wrap this up, just quickly, Senator Romney touched on something there, which is barring an uprising, if you will, another revolution within China. Obviously, they do their best to suffuse any foment. They don't want anybody, they watch, make sure people are not protesting. They still, it may not be as overt it was in Tiananmen Square, but it's still whatever they can to make sure that the human or the individual rights are secondary to the rights of the state.
Tim Farley: And, I wonder, is there a possibility that we could see something like that happen in China, or is that a really unlikely future?
Jacob Stokes: Well, China's using very advanced surveillance technologies, including facial recognition and AI and tracking via phones and also biometrics, so kind of looking at faces and things like that, to track their population in their outer-western providence called Xinjiang, where a large minority population lives. And basically, they are suppressing more than a million of them. They're held in internment camps, essentially, some might call them concentration camps.
Jacob Stokes: So, there's a slower version of Tiananmen going on in real time out in Xinjiang right now, so, the Uighur population and other Muslim ethnic minorities. So, I don't think it's a hypothetical. It's actually, this is a real-time situation that's going on. And so, the question then becomes, How do you pressure China to change its behavior, but also make sure that China's model doesn't spread to other parts of the world? There are other authoritarians in Asia, in other places in the world, who look at China and say, "That's a pretty good way of doing business."
Jacob Stokes: And so, the United States has to have a model that presents something that's better and more attractive.
Tim Farley: Jake Stokes, thank you for joining us on POTUS.
Jacob Stokes: Thank you.
Tim Farley: Jake Stokes, senior policy analyst in the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace and he is tweeting @JacobStokes.