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A Sino-American Conflict?

Question: Is Chinese nationalism dangerous?

Mark Leonard:  It’s one of the most nationalistic countries I’ve ever been to in the world.  If you talk to the younger generation, Chinese people in their early 20s, it’s actually quite a frightening experience, because their parents have grown up in very difficult circumstances.  They’ve seen the cultural revolution.  They realize how fragile China’s position is.  But the next generations have known only success.  They’ve seen China grow with double digit figures year on year, become more and more powerful, earning more and more respect from the rest of the world.  And they haven’t seen the sort of dark side, and they haven’t seen any of the negative things.  They tend to be single children, so they’ve been like pampered, and the world tends to revolve around them.  And that leads to a kind of frightening degree of self confidence and fascism.  If you talk to these young, Chinese people about Japan, for example.  Some of them talk with relish about the prospect of war with Japan and how they need to teach the Japanese a lesson.  It’s certainly something which, when it does come out onto the streets, can be a frightening thing.  We’ve seen it recently with the anti-French protests because of what happened to the Olympic torch when it went through France, the people rioting outside French supermarkets.  We saw it a couple of years ago when Japan was trying to get a seat on the UN Security Council, and lots of young, Chinese people took to the streets.  It is something which is frightening, but it is something which the government tries to hold in check.  And so far, because it’s such a controlled country, because the government is so authoritarian, it has been able to do that. 

Question: Do you foresee a militaristic conflict?

Mark Leonard:  I think that you have an incredibly self-aware government that wants to avoid conflict above all else, because they want China to carry on growing, and they realize that a conflict would be disastrous for the country.  But at the same time, there is a structural conflict between the role that China wants to have for itself, and will increasingly want to have for itself as it becomes more powerful in the world, and the role that the United States is willing to cede to China.  And that will need to be managed.  The relationship between the U.S. and China will need to be managed in a very careful way with incredibly well thought through diplomatic stretches on both sides.  And one of the worrying things is that some things are beyond the control of both governments.  It’s always possible, for example, that the situation in Taiwan could escalate and could lead to a military conflict, which would be a total tragedy in the interests of neither the United States, nor China, nor Taiwan.  But it is impossible to rule out.  But I think on the balance of probabilities, I think there probably won’t be a conflict, but it is impossible to rule one out. 

Mark Leonard describes contemporary Chinese nationalism and its consequence.

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