How does China convince international experts it can lead in East-Asia?

Björn Jerdén, former Fairbank Center pre-doctoral fellow and currently Head of the Asia Program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, asks what Beijing needs to do to be considered a global leader.

Xi Jinping at the World Economic Forum. (World Economic Forum / Manuel Lopez)

Is the United States finally starting to lose out to China over the control of Asia-Pacific international politics? U.S. President Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, coupled with events such as Malaysia’s landmark purchase of Chinese naval vessels and Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot toward Beijing, have left some wondering.

Actively pushing for — or even tacitly accepting — U.S. withdrawal from the region, however, would be a remarkable policy shift for not only the United States, but for most of East Asia as well. Many regional elites have long feared that they would not be able to uphold the long East Asian peace, and thus support U.S. military presence as a necessary security guarantor.

This belief has taken on a close to axiomatic quality among many of the practitioners, scholars, think-tankers, reporters and pundits who generate expert knowledge about Asia-Pacific international security. ‘Ideas do not float freely’, however, and in a recent study I try to pinpoint the infrastructure of expertise that underpins this belief.

International security expertise — such as Kelly Sims-Gallagher, speaking at the Fairbank Center’s 60th Anniversary Symposium panel on U.S.-China Relations, with (from left to right) Alastair Iain Johnson, M. Taylor Fravel, Steven Goldstein, and (not pictured) Ryan Hass — does not currently espouse a Beijing-led world view.

There is currently no international expert network of equal standing that espouses beliefs favoring Chinese security interests in the region. If we assume that expertise has non-trivial effects on policy, this absence likely hampers Chinese ambitions for regional leadership. In other words, the internal dynamics in the field of expertise becomes one factor that affects power relations between China and the United States — and one in which the Americans today clearly have the upper hand.

What might then be the conditions for the emergence of an international expert community with activities that benefit Chinese interests and objectives in the Asia-Pacific?

The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a respected community of Chinese international experts, hosts a symposium on think tanks. Image: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Serbia

First, effective expert networks are not uniform in their members’ views. They need, however, one big idea that everyone in the network can agree on. Potential ideas — such as that China is inherently peaceful and that its rise presents win-win outcomes for everyone — have so far failed to convince the international expert collective. In addition to political expediency, a successful idea needs a reasonably convincing internal logic as well as some sort of basis in general theory about international relations.

Second, the development of an internationally competitive field of security studies in China is still a long way from mainstreaming Chinese visions and concerns. Even though Chinese scholars produce much admirable work, as a collective they do not effectively influence international debates about China’s role in the Asia-Pacific. Linguistic hurdles, differences in academic culture, and entrenched politicization of research still present large obstacles for the internationalization of Chinese expertise.

Third, knowledge-based networks revolve around causal beliefs, not loyalty to certain states. Uncritical “friends of China” are thus not likely to make up the majority membership of a hypothetical international expert network that supports Beijing. Implicitly expecting loyalty by condemning — or even obstructing — the work of foreign experts who advance unfavorable views of the Chinese government might therefore hamper Beijing’s long-term interests.

Finally, private foundations and think tanks in the United States and her allies spend substantial resources on fellowships, young leader programs, policy dialogues, and publications in order to shape elite understandings of the international security environment. Chinese state-led efforts are dwarfed both in terms of quantity and experience.

Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, speaks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC. (Image: China Daily)

Factors external to expertise naturally matter a great deal for the outcome of power relations in the Asia-Pacific. Can we even know that expertise has any independent effect whatsoever? The current situation might present us with a natural experiment: If China were to succeed in supplanting the United States as the dominant military actor in East Asia, without a concomitant power shift in the field of security expertise, we could perhaps disregard the hypothesis that expertise plays a crucial role for international security. Otherwise, Beijing will need to do a lot of convincing that it can replace Washington as the leading security force in East Asia.

Björn Jerdén was a pre-doctoral fellow with the Fairbank Center in 2015–2016. He defended his PhD thesis in Political Science at Stockholm University in 2016, and is currently Head of the Asia Program at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs. His article ‘Security Expertise and International Hierarchy’ is available for free download in the Review of International Studies.