China, Career Advice, and a Little George Kennan: An Interview with John S. Van Oudenaren

Headshot of John S. Van Oudenaren, China Brief Editor-in-Chief and China
Program Manager at The Jamestown Foundation
Provided by Grant W. Turner

By Grant W. Turner

Realist Review Writer Grant W. Turner sat down with John S. Van Oudenaren, the China Brief Editor-in-Chief and China Program Manager at The Jamestown Foundation, to discuss China and career advice for young scholars.

Prior to joining Jamestown, Mr. Van Oudenaren was Assistant Director for Political and Security Affairs at the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR). He has previously worked at the Center for the National Interest, the Asia Society Policy Institute, and the U.S. National Defense University. He has published articles on the international politics and security dynamics of East Asia in Asian Affairs: An American Review, ChinaFile, The Diplomat, The National Interest, Parameters, and other publications.

Mr. Van Oudenaren holds a Master’s degree in Asian Studies from the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and a Bachelor’s degree in History (minor in Chinese) from St. Mary’s College of Maryland. He has lived and worked in Mainland China for several years.

What resources should a China watcher follow regularly to understand the nation’s policies?

China’s activities are so expansive, and its policies are so complex that Sinologists now increasingly specialize in different policy areas. Someone focusing, for example, on military affairs would be looking at a different set of bureaucracies than someone who is trying to understand energy or environmental policy. Still, I’d say, in general, there is no substitute for official, authoritative sources. Read what Xi Jinping says and writes. Read the current five-year plan. Read work reports and State Council White Papers. Read People’s Daily—especially articles under eponymous homophonous pen names such as Zhong Sheng, Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Dangjian (party-building magazine), Qiushi, Xinhua; for foreign/defense policy, read FMPRC, MFA, PLA Daily, and China Military Online. Watch CCTV’s Xinwen Lianbo, China’s equivalent of the nightly news. 

As far as secondary sources go, China Leadership Monitor (formerly of the Hoover Institution) is a useful source, as is Hong Kong University’s China Media Project. I’d also like to think the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief, which I edit, is a great resource. Willy Wo-Lap Lam’s observations on elite politics remain must-reads. The Center for Advanced China Research’s (CACR) newsletter is a good get-smart quick go-to. On military, the Center for Study of Chinese Military Affairs, Naval War College, and China Aerospace Studies Institute are great resources. 

As far as books, if I was teaching a class on the CCP and could only pick one book, it would be Rethinking Chinese Politics by Joseph Fewsmith. 

Is there such a thing as a Chinese theory of international relations, and if so, how much attention should be paid to it?

I would not say there is a single Chinese theory of international relations. Rather there are multiple schools of thought influenced by contemporary Chinese Marxist-Leninist ideology, classical Chinese Thought, and Western international relations theories. 

The official line of thinking on international relations is encapsulated in Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy. It is important to remember here that in addition to being the leader of the country and party, every People’s Republic of China (PRC) leader is also the party’s chief theoretician, as a result, their thinking forms the paradigms for the acceptable range of thought on domestic and foreign policy. The premise of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy is to weld a worldview predicated on the Marxism of contemporary China, Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, with great power diplomacy. Despite their many differences, one similarity between China and the USSR is that as Marxist-Leninist states aspiring to global leadership roles, the modus operandi of both is the pursuit of what, in their view, is a utopian objective with realist means. In the CCP’s case, this is achieving the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation” at home and a “Community with a Shared Future for Mankind” (AKA Community of Common Destiny) abroad. 

In terms of key strains of thought/ influences, classical Chinese thought, particularly Confucianism, remains influential in Chinese thinking about IR. The key idea internationally, or the ideal, is “humane authority.” This is a different model, less about raw power and more about respect, influence, and authority. Contemporary Chinese IR thinkers admit that even in Chinese history, “hegemony” and not “humane authority” have been the norm, but it is still an ideal to aspire to. Daoism is also a secondary influence. For example, some scholars detect elements of wuwei (action through inaction) in Deng Xiaoping’s taoguang yanghui  “hide and bide” strategy, but of course, that has been replaced by Xi’s fenfa youwei “striving for achievements” approach. 

In terms of Western IR thought, in addition to Marxist-Leninism, realism is the dominant influence. The most famous scholar in China of this school is Yan Xuetong, whose “moral realism” emphasizes the importance of the first of Kenneth Waltz’s three images, the leader, as the critical variable for a state to achieve international success (Yan was Waltz’s Ph.D. student at Berkeley). Some selective borrowing from liberal internationalism, particularly on the importance of effective global governance and a sustainable international order, continues to also influence some aspects of CCP thinking on international affairs. 

Are there any questions about China that people are not giving adequate attention to?

It is not so much a question but an issue, which is ideology. Many Americans still assume that Deng’s old maxim, “It doesn’t matter what color the cat is, as long as it still catches mice,” still governs Beijing’s actions. But under Xi, it matters very much what color the cat is. Ideology is back with a vengeance under Xi (it never really went away, of course). 

What are your thoughts on the restraint community and some of their stances towards China?

China is where the post-Iraq alignment between realism and restraint breaks down. Put very simply, the restraint-oriented community assumes that China’s international and even regional ambitions are limited, whereas realists do not. The problem is the prevailing view in the restraint community, while appropriate to describe the PRC’s international ambitions a decade ago, is now inaccurate to characterize China’s global ambitions under Xi. There is no evidence that Chinese foreign policy under Xi aspires to anything less than global leadership. The real question (and it is a question) is, does China seek global dominance? Given this, I think some of the fundamental assumptions of the restraint community, not just about China but about contemporary international politics in general, should be re-examined.  

What career advice do you have for those beginning in the foreign policy world?

It’s very difficult to do in the era of COVID-19, but there is no substitute for spending time and getting to know the regions you are interested in working on. You have to get that experience early on. Of course, you maybe need to be more creative about doing it than I was 22 when I moved to China without much of a plan other than taking some Mandarin classes and hanging out with friends I’d made studying abroad there the previous year. 

I’d also remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint. It’s really easy to get discouraged or give up in this field, and it’s very competitive, so it requires hard work to stand out. 

Finally, I think for analysts, the hardest thing is to take your own emotions out of it to the best you can. You can go home and almost be floored by what you learned about something you learned about in, say, Xinjiang or Eastern Ukraine that day, but that does not necessarily give you the capacity to explain it. So, when I write about the PRC, I try to explain the context for its actions within the system and CCP ideology. 

It’s Realist Review, so if you’d forgive me the indulgence of working in my favorite quote from George Kennan, which I think is still good advice for today’s observers of Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia: “Distance, necessity, self-interest, and common-sense may enable us, thank God, to continue that precarious and troubled but peaceful co-existence which we have managed to lead with the Russians up to this time. But if so, it will not be due to any understanding on our part of the elements involved. Forces beyond our vision will be guiding our footsteps and shaping our relations with Russia. There will be much talk about the necessity for ‘understanding Russia’; but there will be no place for the American who is really willing to undertake this task.” Kennan goes on to lament that all that the best scholar of Russia “can look forward to is the lonely pleasure of one who stands at long last on a chilly and inhospitable mountain top where few have been before, where few can follow, and where few will consent to believe” they have been.

Follow John S. Van Oudenaren‘s work at the China Brief and The Jamestown Foundation, where he is the Editor-in-Chief and China Program Manager, respectively.

Grant W. Turner is currently interning at The Jamestown Foundation while pursuing his second master’s degree, a MA in Statecraft and International Affairs at The Institute of World Politics.

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