The world’s two biggest economies have been eyeing each other warily lately. Like two heavyweight contenders angling for a match, the U.S. and China have been managing a hugely productive economic relationship — two-way trade hit $590 billion last year — all the while trying to figure out who runs the world.
The two nations have forged common ground on big-ticket items such as climate change and concerns over nuclear proliferation in North Korea and Iran. But there’s been tension over China’s moves to secure disputed territory in the South China Sea, and accusations that recent large-scale hacking of U.S. government computers had a Chinese fingerprint.
Both nations are hurrying to lock in separate Pacific trade agreements that stand to give them a powerful foothold in commerce across Asia.
More than 400 Chinese officials are in Washington this week for talks aimed at making progress in a relationship regarded by almost everyone as vital. On the eve of the talks that began Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the Los Angeles Times in Beijing as part of a delegation hosted by the New York-based Asia Society. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You have emphasized that China and the U.S. are “not competitors, much less adversaries,” but what about the allegations of computer hacking that the U.S. administration makes against China? Was China behind the hacking of the federal Office of Personnel Management computers?
The position of the Chinese government is very clear: The Chinese government opposes any hacking activities or the theft of commercial secrets. This is the set policy of the Chinese government, and we have very strict regulations.
I wonder if there is any foundation for the accusation. In this Internet age, it takes cooperation and mutual understanding to create healthy, stable, open and fair cyberspace in the world. We should not have irresponsible finger-pointing at each other.
As a matter of fact, China has suffered from hacking. Every day, China is subject to more than 300 large-scale hacking activities, and every month, more than 10,000 Chinese websites are changed by hackers, and 80% of the government websites are attacked. We have evidence to show that many of these hacking activities come from the U.S. We cannot say who inside the U.S., but these attacks come from U.S. soil.
So we think that China and the United States should have equal-footed and candid dialogue on this. The United States is a mature, major cyberpower, while China is also emerging fast as a major cybercountry. We hope that cyberspace will become an area of further cooperation between our two countries, instead of a source of friction.
What do you say to those voices in the U.S. who are saying that 40 years of efforts to engage China have not produced results, and it may be time to consider that confrontation makes more sense than engagement?
I don’t think this is representative of mainstream public opinion in the United States. This only comes from a handful of people. I think the United States will stick to the path that it thinks is right, and also the path that enjoys the support and endorsement of the American people.
If the engagement policy of the United States is designed to turn China into another United States … I think that is impossible. Because our two countries have very different history, cultural backgrounds, and we are also at very different levels of development. But if this policy is designed for mutually beneficial and win-win outcomes, then we can choose to cooperate with each other; we can respect the differences and we can look for areas where our interests converge.
In the past 10 years, what do you think is the biggest mistake the U.S. has made in its relationship with China? And vice versa, what is the biggest single error your government has made in its relationship with the U.S.?
I’m afraid you have too pessimistic a perception in raising this question. Instead of thinking of the mistakes and errors, why not think of the achievements?
An important agreement that we reached between our two countries in recent years is to work together to build a new model of a major-country relationship.
Some argue that it will mean a world of G2 [in which China and the U.S. jointly tackle the world’s problems], but China does not subscribe to this view — in the first place, because we do not believe that world affairs can be decided by one or two countries.
The second inaccurate contention we hear is that China is seeking parity with the United States. This is not true. Because the United States is the biggest developed country, and China is the biggest developing country. We still have a very big gap between us.
Our goal is that by the centenary of the founding of the People's Republic, that is, by 2049, China will become a medium-income developed country; and even by then, there will be a big gap between China and the United States.
Others argue that China is trying to keep a low profile in order to avoid conflicts with the United States, so that one day it can replace the status of the United States. This is totally groundless.
The original purpose of having this new model of major country relationship between us is really simple. That is to avoid a repeat of the historic pattern in which an emerging country is destined to have conflict with an established power.
To have this new model of a major country relationship, we need to have three things. The first element is nonconflict, nonconfrontation. Second, we need to have a win-win cooperation, and we need to reject the thinking that winner takes it all. And third, we need to have mutual respect. Some American friends may have misgivings about this mutual respect. They find it hard to accept, because they think it means the U.S. has to accept all demands from China. This is an inaccurate interpretation. Mutual respect means, in our view, not to impose one’s will upon others.
China has drafted a law on regulating nongovernmental organizations. Some in the government warned that the spread of “Western ideas” could lead to instability. What are those ideas that you would prefer not be spread? And if the U.S. is behind this, what’s its agenda?
China is an open society, and there are a large number of NGOs in China, but China is yet to have a dedicated law that can provide for rule-based regulation of NGOs. The development of this draft law is part of our effort to rule the country according to law, and also part of our effort to align China with the international community. So we think we deserve understanding and support for this.
I think for those NGOs who are dedicated to promoting exchanges and cooperation with the Chinese people in accordance with Chinese laws, this draft law will not bring about any obstacles to their activities, but rather it will only facilitate their work and give them better support and guarantees.
But indeed all countries have their different national conditions, so foreign NGOs need to respect the national conditions of those countries and also respect their local laws and regulations.
For instance, the constitution provides that China is a socialist country with the Communist Party of China as the ruling party. So if anyone wants to challenge this, if anyone calls on others to oust the Communist Party of China, then he has broken the law. Because this is so written in the Chinese Constitution.
As far as I know, many foreign NGOs have worked very hard to benefit people’s livelihood in China, and also work to promote social harmony, so we have a high degree of recognition of these things.
China has recently announced that it has halted some controversial construction work on one of several disputed islands in the South China Sea that have been the object of friction involving China, its neighbors and even the United States. Is this work stoppage a response to international criticism?
Yes, the ministry has just released this news because the relevant construction project is nearing completion. We have anticipated comments from the media saying that China had to stop the construction because of pressure from the U.S. Well, this is totally not true. But we cannot simply go on with construction work forever, simply because we are afraid of such comments from the media. At some point we have to stop because the construction plan is completed.
Incidentally, I want to tell you that construction on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea did not start yesterday, and it was not started first by China. We need to be very clear about this. Vietnam and the Philippines started large-scale construction work 20 or 30 years ago on islands they had illegally occupied. And China has all along exercised great restraint.
I think there is one basic fact that the international community has to learn, and that is that the islands and reefs of the Spratly Islands we are talking about are Chinese territory. I think the U.S. knows better than anyone else about this. Because at the end of the Second World War, China retook the sovereignty over these Spratly Islands from the Japanese troops which occupied these islands, and it was a joint operation between China and the United States. The Chinese retook the sovereignty with the support of U.S. military vessels.
Even into the late 1960s, there were never any objections from Vietnam and the Philippines about China’s sovereignty over these islands.
But as you know that after that, there was a 10-year Cultural Revolution in China, a period of great turbulence here, so China was kept too busy here to look after those islands and reefs, and it gave other countries some opportunities. Another element was at play, in that there was some wild speculation about rich oil and gas reserves in that part of the world, so the neighboring countries started to occupy those islands and reefs one by one, and that is the source of the current status quo, the claims led by five countries or six parties. China has sovereignty over these islands and reefs, and our sovereignty has been seriously infringed upon. This is the basic reality.
But despite all this, China is still for a peaceful settlement to the disputes, through dialogue and consultation. We will remain committed to this, and there will not be any change to this position.
You mentioned that the world can’t be ruled by a G2, but do you worry that China’s actions in the South China Sea create a binary equation in the rest of the region — that you’re either with China, or you’re with the United States? It has been suggested that one of the reasons 20 countries in the region wanted to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership proposed by President Obama was that they wanted to be with America.
I don’t think we should run the risk of oversimplifying this by interpreting the situation like this. As I mentioned earlier, China and the United States are having cooperation at various levels and in various fields. So if China and the United States are cooperating, then there is no question of asking those regional countries to take sides with one or the other.
President Xi said the Pacific Ocean is vast enough for both China and the United States. China is not only a major land country, but also a major maritime country, because we have a long coastline.
And as the Chinese economy continues to grow, and as China has closer economic interactions with other countries, it is only natural that China has closer links with the sea. So under this context, it is time for China and the United States to sit down and explore maritime cooperation.
Now, between China and the United States we have this military-to-military engagement. We are talking about a code of conduct for sea or air encounter. This is mainly a preventive act, but I think what is more important is that we sit down and explore cooperation.
As for TPP, I see it as an economic and trade treaty. We don’t want to overpoliticize it.… Rather, we hope that the TPP will not affect the free trade regime under the World Trade Organization mechanism. Now some American friends may think that now that there is a TPP, the U.S. can do without [the World Trade Organization]. So I think more thinking is needed on whether this kind of thinking is good for the U.S. or not.
On North Korea: A lot of people are puzzled as to why China, which is clearly the senior partner in that relationship, is unable to exert more control over the regime in North Korea.
Both China and the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] are independent countries. So the relationship between us is a state-to-state relationship, not a relationship between a senior and a junior. Of course in dealing with the DPRK, China has to follow the norms of international relations, including noninterference in internal affairs. Of course, as the DPRK’s neighbor, we want to see a DPRK that enjoys social stability, economic growth and better lives for their people.
We have been telling this to the DPRK that their pursuit of nuclear weapons will not bring safety or security, but rather it will bring a danger, and it does a disservice not only to the DPRK itself, but also to its neighbors and the entire region.
But what the DPRK has been telling us is that it is facing a real and immediate military threat from the U.S. So the DPRK has attributed the purpose of its nuclear program to one thing, and that is to counter the immediate military threat from the U.S.
I think you can perfectly understand this. China cannot settle or resolve this. So we hope that the U.S. and the DPRK can have face-to-face talks. We can provide whatever facilitation you need. If this problem is solved, and if you have normalization of the bilateral relationship, then China is more than ready to provide guarantee for the security and peace in the peninsula and also the region, because we count this as our obligation and our responsibility.
You used the phrase win-win outcome a couple of times. We’re only a few months from President Xi Jinping's visit to the United States in September. Are there a couple of examples you would regard as win-win outcomes?
Both China and the United States have started preparations. The strategic and economic dialogue ... to be held in Washington next week will be a very important step for preparations. We already have nearly 100 deliverables upon which consensus or agreement already has been reached. Of course, we expect more to come. This testifies to the all-encompassing cooperation that we have.
Just to give you a few examples from the areas of your concern or interest: the Bilateral Investment Treaty.... We hope that by the time our President Xi makes his visit to the United States, there will be substantive progress in the BIT negotiations. This will be a big piece of good news for the U.S. economy.
And on climate change, last year the two presidents issued a joint announcement on climate change, and in September, we’re going to have another statement on cooperation.
And also on military-to-military cooperation, we need to have a mutual trust mechanism between the two militaries, and this will serve as one of the major cornerstones. Both sides have shown great enthusiasm about this, and we are having intensive consultations.
But the most fundamental task of all is to have strategic mutual trust, or to put it another way, to solve the problem of strategic mistrust.
It has been repeated many times that the U.S. welcomes a prosperous, strong and growing China. We do hope that reflects the real mindset of the United States. That is, that the U.S. will treat China as a partner, rather than as an adversary.