Global Times (GT) reporter Chen Chenchen: Some say Washington, although claiming to be neutral, is siding with Japan, while others interpret Biden's China visit as a signal that the US is somehow behaving in a restrained way when dealing with China. What's your view?
Paal: I think this has more to do with overall US foreign policy, rather than Biden's trip. Washington has various interests to balance. It has to reassure Japan, one of its traditional allies, and it also needs to deal with China effectively.
To a certain extent, Washington's policy is in an awkward situation, because as Japan's ally, the US willingly has to choose to side with Japan over disputes with China.
But on the other hand, the US wants to demonstrate calm strength this time on the ADIZ issue.
Washington sent military B-52s into the ADIZ without notifying China, yet the Federal Aviation Administration advised commercial airlines to notify the Chinese authorities about their plans to fly over the East China Sea. It's a different stance from Japan's. The US is trying to balance its interests in this dispute.
As for Japan-US relations, at the current stage, Japan is adjusting its approach to participation in collective defense and modestly upgrading and repositioning its forces. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's diplomacy of increased activism and consolidating alliances with the US is winning support at home. According to the results of a latest poll released by the Japanese Cabinet Office, 80.7 percent of Japanese do not feel friendly toward China, a record high since 1978.
The US is facing challenges in managing differences with its regional allies. But if you look at history, there are difficulties in every alliance. This is very natural. It is never easy to manage ties with allies. I think in countries like Japan and the Philippines, both tendencies — to go closer with the US due to China's rise and to seek more diplomatic independence — will continue to exist. This involves the classic dilemma between fears of abandonment and entrapment within alliances.
GT: Generally speaking, how would you depict the role of the US in China's regional diplomacy? Is it too simple to conclude that US policy is "containing China?"
Paal: There is zero truth in the statement that the US is trying to "contain China." If so, the US would never tolerate a monthly trade deficit as high as $40 billion. There would not be over 235,000 Chinese students in US schools. China is talking about how to construct a new type of major power relationship. The US is also exploring a way to reduce mutual misunderstandings and bring more trade, investment and communication for both sides.
GT: There's criticism that China's ADIZ is another assertive signal that may escalate tension with its neighbors. How do you interpret China's new ADIZ?
Paal: The ADIZ is mainly a move to increase leverage against Japan over the East China Sea dispute, to get Japan to admit there is a dispute. It is also an effort to expand China's influence out to the first island chain without risking overt military opposition.
It is like the game of weiqi, or the game of go, where China asserts itself at points of weakness or less resistance for its neighbors. The concept is similar to building up China maritime administration fleet so as to establish a non-military presence in neighboring waters.
When Chinese President Xi Jinping gave the speech in October about China taking the initiative in its neighborhood diplomacy, I saw that, on the one hand, as a very positive signal.
It means China is going to make more efforts in the next decade to improve relations with its neighbors, and it also means China has realized that in the past few years, especially since 2008, there were serious negative consequences from its tough way of dealing with some of its neighbors, following a decade of more effective diplomacy. This is the kind of peaceful competition we can welcome.
On the other hand, China is adjusting its low-profile strategy away from Deng Xiaoping's taoguang yanghui, or to hide one's capacities and bide one's time. China is going to be more assertive, in ways that we will find both positive and negative.
I've also heard arguments that China should adjust its non-alliance policy. But alliances with whom? North Korea? Pakistan? They're probably not worth alliances. China has 14 neighbors on the land, and six on the sea. China needs to look at the big picture and take into account comprehensive considerations.
Along with the establishment of its State Security Committee, I hope China will respond to territorial disputes and other thorny diplomatic issues in a more systematic way. I hope the Committee will finally bridge the huge gap in China's civil-military communication.
GT: What's the way out of the Diaoyu stalemate in your perspective?
Paal: Both Japan and China first need to proceed with restraint. Japan ultimately needs to find a way to acknowledge the existence of the island dispute. And China needs to avoid overreaching. Maintaining extreme pressure on Japan to admit a dispute will lead to the opposite result.
Take the huge controversy over Tokyo's "nationalization" of the Diaoyu Islands in 2012 for example. It was actually nothing new. The islands ownership had been transferred before without implications for sovereignty. There was no need for China to overreact.
On the Diaoyu Islands issue, I don't see joint governance as a feasible solution. There are precedents in which joint governance was adopted in inhabited areas, with poor results. But as to the Diaoyu Islands, there is no such thing as the division between Chinese goats and Japanese goats on the islands. Japan administers the islands.
A more effective avenue of approach would be to invite independent third parties to assess the fisheries and mineral resources surrounding the islands, and then negotiate sharing access to the resources that will sustain the fisheries for future generations. Both Beijing and Tokyo need to find a way to avoid being dragged into a crisis by the island disputes and focus on ensuring cooperation in their bilateral ties. It's a big test of political wisdom for them.
GT: As to the South China Sea issue, should China take the initiative in promoting pragmatic negotiations, like the negotiations over the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea?
Paal: I agree. The COC is being slowly rolled out by China as it builds up its maritime and military capabilities. It is hard for me to see what concrete benefits China will gain from going slowly.
International arbitrators tend not to award sovereignty and control to those who challenge the ownership of others; that is unfortunately usually only the result of warfare. So a COC that keeps peace and permits economic cooperation seems the way to go.
Norway and Russia spent 18 years solving thorny issues in their fishery collaboration. There were so many obstacles and the two countries were so disproportionate in terms of power and size, but they worked out an effective mechanism. I'm not saying I'm optimistic about the scenario in Asia at the moment, but you do need to set out to focus on solving pragmatic problems, and transfer your attention from intense territorial issues.
For instance, China and its neighbors should work together on how to ensure sustainable fishing. Predatory fishing can quickly dry up fishing resources. You need to bring together the experts, let them sit down on the same table, and work out mature mechanisms to allow both sides to benefit from sustainable fishing. This process calls for lots of expertise, which is readily available. For instance, Australia is very experienced in ensuring marine resources development. Such a mechanism will also invest all sides to engage in orderly, restrained way of behavior.
GT: Some suggest that China should look at the big picture in its neighborhood diplomacy, rather than just focus on territorial disputes. Do you agree?
Paal: Last year Chinese scholar Wang Jisi wrote an article, suggesting Beijing think about "marching west" in its neighborhood diplomatic and economic strategy.
He believes that while too many troubles and obstacles remain in East Asia, there is no resistant power in its vast western neighborhood areas, and great opportunities to develop the region. His idea is very inspiring to me.
Xi's "new silk road" proposal offers an opportunity. It's true that China needs to look at new possibilities and new ways of developing its neighborhood policy, rather than focusing on existing and unresolvable issues.