TSR Interview with Robert Sutter*

June 19, 2014

China’s continual assertive pushes in the South China Sea together with new talks about good neighborliness have kept Beijing’s relations with Southeast Asia in the limelight. Meanwhile, rising popular discontent in Hong Kong with the territory’s political progress has ensured that the Chinese leadership has a full domestic plate as well. Taiwan Security Research’s Kristian McGuire** speaks with Robert Sutter, Professor of Practice of International Affairs at the Elliott School of George Washington University, about China’s perspectives on the recent coup in Thailand, the alignment between Vietnam and the Philippines on the South China Sea disputes, and the public outcry in Hong Kong over the territory’s democratic prospect as well as its implications for Taiwan.

China's "nine-dash line" demarcating the country's territorial claims in the South China Sea. By U.S. Central Intelligence Agency [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
China’s “nine-dash line” demarcating the country’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
By U.S. Central Intelligence Agency [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Kristian McGuire**: Late last month, Thailand’s military staged a coup. Army General Prayuth, the current leader of the country, has stated that an interim government will be formed in August or September at the latest. However, the general has also made it known that elections are unlikely for at least a year. As you follow China’s involvement in Southeast Asia, and Thailand is one of the most China-friendly countries in the region, what would you say are Beijing’s main concerns regarding the coup? And, how do you think Beijing would like to see the situation in Thailand play out?
Robert Sutter: That is a very interesting question. If you follow Chinese media on Thailand, you don’t see a lot of commentary made about the confrontation that we saw in the lead up to the military coup. It seems that the topic was pretty sensitive in China, so they didn’t want to take a position. They want to stay on good terms with Thailand. I think that they will pragmatically work with the government; the interim government under the military rule, and they will work with the government that results from elections in Thailand, whenever those elections are held.

China’s interest in Thailand is stability. They don’t want this kind of conflict that has been going on for about ten years. It is very debilitating and it’s disruptive, so I think China’s interest in this case is political stability.
Kristian McGuire: Recently, we have heard Vietnam and the Philippines speak of joining together to oppose China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. There has even been talk of the countries forming a strategic partnership and increasing their defense cooperation. How far do you think this relationship can develop? Is a security pact between the two countries along the lines of the ones we’ve seen Japan form with Australia and India likely in the near future?
Robert Sutter: I doubt this very much. I think the Vietnamese play a very careful game in dealing with China. They manage this very carefully and they avoid doing things that would derail the game plan that they are following. The rig that the Chinese moved into this disputed area near the Paracel Islands was a big affront to this effort by the Vietnamese. But there are negotiations between senior Chinese and Vietnamese leaders. My sense is that the Vietnamese will want to get this relationship back on track in a way that doesn’t fundamentally compromise their sovereignty, but allows them to live in peace with China.
The gestures to the Philippines and things of that nature, I think, are very secondary in this game and they are not worth that much. Something more worthwhile would be the United States; and so, perhaps an indicator of how serious the Vietnamese are with the Philippines would be seeing how serious they are with the United States. Are they willing to actually cooperate closely with the United States from a security point of view? I am sure that there is some cooperation, but I think they are cautious.

I guess my bottom line here is that I need to see them break away from their game plan that they have been following very meticulously for many years. Brantly Womack has captured this well in his work on asymmetrical relations between Vietnam and China. That is what they are doing and they have been doing that for twenty years now. So I think you will need to see a big change in that before you have this alignment with the Philippines against China.
Kristian McGuire: Then, if this is not a strong alignment, is at least the talk of increasing defense ties between the two countries having a net positive effect on regional security, or do you think that it will simply provoke Beijing and further increase tensions in the South China Sea?
Robert Sutter: I think it will do both. I think it is a good sign. It shows China, somewhat, the costs and dangers that they run by pursuing the kinds of assertive policies that they are pursuing. This is not that serious of a step forward, but it has implications for China. We will need to see a lot more of this kind of behavior involving concrete actions by the United States among others—I think we’ll need to see a lot more of this to persuade the Chinese from actually pursuing this assertive stance. The Chinese seem very determined to pursue this assertive stance and it’s going to take a lot of effort on the part of many actors to show the Chinese that this is not wise, this is not in their interest to do this. I think there will be a cumulative effect. It is going to take time for this to register with China.
Kristian McGuire: Lately, China’s “one country, two systems” constitutional principle has received a lot of attention. In Hong Kong, pro-democracy activists threaten to shutdown the city’s main business district next month, if their demand for citizens’ participation in the nominating process of the chief executive [candidates] is not met. Thus far, Beijing seems to have taken a tough stance on the issue. It warned the U.S. not to meddle in Hong Kong affairs after Vice President Biden met with two of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy advocates in April. And, just last week, Beijing issued a white paper on Hong Kong that emphasized the Chinese central government’s dominion over the territory. In your opinion, does Beijing have a legitimate reason to fear what might happen if it loosens its control of the nomination process?
Robert Sutter: That is an interesting question. Is it a legitimate fear? They have the fear. My sense is that the leaders of China are fearful of internal unrest and Hong Kong relates to internal unrest in China. Is it legitimate? I guess so. I mean I think in their eyes it is very legitimate. They see this slippery slope of accommodation of progressive tendencies leading to the end of the kind of rule that they want to maintain and, in this case, the kind of control that they want to have over Hong Kong. And so, I guess, from their perspective it is quite legitimate. I guess, if you go back to the agreement with the British, I’m not sure if the Chinese—I have to look up the history of this—but I don’t think the Chinese have legally committed themselves to democratic reform in Hong Kong, it’s just something that has been negotiated over time. In that sense, it is legitimate, too–that they are living up to the agreement. So it’s a political question rather than a legal question.
Kristian McGuire: Considering that China has repeatedly offered Taiwan unification under a similar “one country, two systems” arrangement, it seems that Beijing’s handling of the Hong Kong democracy issue will have significant consequences for cross-Strait relations. How might Beijing pursue its objectives in Hong Kong without damaging the already limited appeal of “one country, two systems” in Taiwan?
Robert Sutter: This is a very difficult thing to measure. Off hand, my sense is that opinion in Taiwan has always been negative toward “one country, two systems.” The fact that Beijing would be controlling in Hong Kong is assumed—that that would be the case, and that this isn’t a surprise to anybody in Taiwan when this happens.
It does hurt China’s image with third parties like the United States, the Japanese and other powers. They look at this situation in Hong Kong and that changes the way they see the situation in Taiwan. But as far as the people of Taiwan, I don’t think they have high hopes for the Hong Kong model because they don’t seem to want the Hong Kong model. That it is laid out as ‘the future of Hong Kong for Taiwan’ in an explicit way, I think they object to that. So bottom line, I guess, people in Taiwan don’t expect China to be very accommodating in the “one country, two systems” to the people in Hong Kong for these kinds of aspirations. And so, the overall effect of what is happening in Hong Kong now, in Taiwan, maybe will reinforce the negative feelings that people in Taiwan have toward “one country, two systems,” but I don’t think it’s going to have any measurable effect.
Kristian McGuire: Finally, you just got back to Washington from a trip to the Philippines. Could you tell us about one trend or major change you noticed in the country since the last time you were there?
Robert Sutter: I was there ten years earlier, so I don’t go to the Philippines that often. This was a nice opportunity to do a temperature check on their attitudes particularly toward China and toward the United States.
Obviously the sentiment in the Philippines toward China is very negative and there is a lot of worry in the Philippines that they are really in a very difficult situation. China is dominating them and yet they feel that they have no alternative but to resist rather than to capitulate in the face of Chinese pressure because they fear what China might do. And in their case, they have an alternative and the alternative is to work closely with the United States and the prevailing opinion is supporting that. There are a lot of reservations in the Philippines about the wisdom of close security ties with the United States. But again, right now, they feel that it’s not much of an alternative.
Now, the thing to watch in the Philippines that I came away with was: How long will this last? Is this a feature of politics that is dependent on the president who will serve about two and a half more years, (and then he can’t run again)? If you had a different president would you have a different approach? And that could happen. And so, if I were an American policymaker—and I’m sure American policymakers are doing this—if they wanted to calibrate the closeness of the U.S. alliance with the Philippines, they’d have to take that into account. And I’m sure China is taking it into account as they probably are waiting out President Aquino to see what will transpire with the new president. Perhaps that could lead to a thaw in the relationship, in some way. But up to this point, the Chinese are just building one layer after another of determination and hostility toward China by their behavior, and this makes it unlikely that a significant change is going to happen after Mr. Aquino leaves office. But it is something to watch because the sentiment in the Philippines, business sentiment, they have a lot of ethnic Chinese business people who are heavily influential in the business sector in the Philippines and they don’t seem to want any trouble with China, and they would prefer to get along with China if they could. So there is that sentiment there and it could rise again under other circumstances.
Kristian McGuire: Thank you very much for your time. We at TSR greatly appreciate it.
*Robert Sutter is Professor of Practice of International Affairs at the Elliott School of George Washington University beginning in 2011. He also serves as the school’s Director, Program of Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs.
A Ph.D. graduate in History and East Asian Languages from Harvard University, Sutter taught full time for ten years at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and part-time for thirty years at Georgetown, George Washington, Johns Hopkins Universities, or the University of Virginia. He has published 20 books, over 200 articles and several hundred government reports dealing with contemporary East Asian and Pacific countries and their relations with the United States. His most recent book is Foreign Relations of the PRC: The Legacies and Constraints of China’s International Politics since 1949 (Rowman and Littlefield 2013).
Sutter’s government career (1968-2001) involved work on Asian and Pacific affairs and US foreign policy for the Congressional Research Service of the Library of Congress, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of State, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was for many years the Senior Specialist and Director of the Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division of the Congressional Research Service. He also was the National Intelligence Officer for East Asia and the Pacific at the US Government’s National Intelligence Council, and the China Division Director at the Department of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research.
**Kristian McGuire is an independent, Washington-based researcher. He recently earned his master of international affairs degree from George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. His research interests include U.S.-Taiwan relations, cross-Strait relations, East Asian regional security, and two-level games in alliance politics.

©Kristian McGuire 2016

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