Thursday, April 3, 2014

Assessing China's (hard? soft? normative? discursive? pervasive? comprehensive? blocking?...) Power

After "ping-pong diplomacy", China could be associated with "ping-pong academics": on Wednesday, I attended a nice game at the Asan Institute - or rather a whole marathon, featuring CHUNG Jae-ho as The Middle Umpire.

Asan China Conference 2014 aims at producing another stellar scholar bestseller next year, this time under the theme "Assessing China's Power" (14 chapters covering economy and soft power, military power, global, regional, and Chinese perspectives), with a focus on a comparison with the US, and projections for 2025.

Each contributor was asked to present their work (in various stages of progress) and to review / challenge a colleague's chapter, some shots landing on the referee's lap. As the editor, CHUNG Jae-ho welcomed all constructive remarks, but quite rightly declined the suggestion to set common key definitions because precisely, differences in definitions are essential when you want to grasp China's complexity.

This starts, of course, with the definition of "power". We've heard all the classic debates about hard, soft, normative, or comprehensive power, but I liked CHEN Zhimin's reference to a "blocking" power, which could also echo the technical yet crucial veto right at the UN, go game strategies (where blocking paths is as important as crossing bridges), or even inertia inherent to a continent-country where maintaining unity and a pyramidal power in highly evolutive times and networked societies remains a daunting challenge.

In general, CHEN's inputs were among the most stimulating at the strategic level, and like Evelyn GOH, I wish he shared more of his own views. An unleashed Shaun BRESLIN could venture much further into the wilderness, adding a fun factor to the journey (and along with Francois GODEMENT, potential new catchphrases). 

As a 3G War Veteran, I was very interested in Scott KENNEDY's focus on standardization, and I'd like to hear about his predictions for 5G, where I expect China to play a potentially disruptive mode. To remain in go game territories, I don't expect Chinese players to win, but at least to position more than a few stones here and there. And to prevent single rivals from ruling, even if that means destroying the whole revenue model. Which doesn't mean that China can't work hand in hand with the US, particularly within the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) - thank Snowden for small mercies?

And beyond standards, I'd like to read more about challenges in Research and Development: China's rise is truly impressive, but many foreign companies are reluctant to build centers there (an opportunity such neighbors are Korea keep leveraging). Right now, China is still more trusted as a collaborator or a competitor than as a coopetitor.

If by (chapter) construction, we lingered more on Northeast Asia and Southeast Asia (or even the Arctic), India was mentioned a couple of times. Yet not necessarily about the potential wake up of that other sleeping beauty. By 2025, China shall remain more populated, but I'm curious to see how both giants will cope with a different, 250 M strong Pakistan. And I'm not just talking about Afghanistan or Jammu and Kashmir...

Naturally, there are no definite answers, and predictions remain very tricky in this transitional period. So making sure that all the right questions are being asked is probably the book's greatest challenge. In any case, CHUNG pledged to avoid the half-full half-empty glass trap, and judging by the work in progress and the remarks raised by reviewers, it will be a very interesting read.

As far as China's own ideation dynamics are concerned, I'm still torn between the opportunities borne by the combination of the end of ideology / rise of pragmatism with China's love for strategy and long term vision, and the risks of the losing nationalism-materialism game.

Around CHUNG Jae-ho: KIM Hankwon, Scott KENNEDY, Francois GODEMENT, Shaun BRESLIN, ZHAO Suisheng, CHEN Zhimin -

Assessing no China's military capabilities: Andrew ERICKSON, Michael CHASE, Kevin POLLETER -

Perception of China power at Asan China Conference with Evelyn GOH, David KANG, Shaun BRESLIN -

Seoul Village 2014
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Asan China Conference 2014 - “Assessing China's Power”:
  • 09:45 - 10:00 Welcoming Remarks (Hahm Chaibong, The Asan Institute for Policy Studies), Introductory Remarks (Chung Jae-Ho, Seoul National University)
  • 10:00 - 11:40 Session I - China's Economic/Soft Power:
    • Presenters: Francois Godement (European Council on Foreign Relations), Scott Kennedy (Indiana University), Kim Hankwon (The Asan Institute for Policy Studies)
    • Discussants: Shaun Breslin (University of Warwick), Zhao Suisheng (University of Denver), Chen Zhimin (Fudan University)
  • 13:00 - 14:40 Session II - China's Military Capabilities:
    • Presenters: Andrew Erickson (US Naval War College), Michael Chase (RAND Corporation), Kevin Pollpeter (University of California, San Diego)
    • Discussants: Linda Jakobson (University of Sydney), You Ji (East Asian Institute, Singapore)
  • 15:00 - 18:00 Session III - Global, Regional and Chinese Perspectives on China's Power:
    • Session III-1 (15:00-16:35) Global and Regional Contexts: 
      • Presenters: Shaun Breslin (University of Warwick), David Kang (University of Southern California), Evelyn Goh (Australian National University)
      • Discussants: Francois Godement (European Council on Foreign Relations), Scott Kennedy (Indiana University)
    • Session III-2 (16:35-18:00) Chinese Perspectives:
      • Presenters: Zhao Suisheng (University of Denver), Chen Zhimin (Fudan University)
      • Discussants: David Kang (University of Southern California), Evelyn Goh (Australian National University)
  • 18:00 - 18:10 Concluding Remarks (Chung Jae-Ho Seoul National University)

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