China’s foreign policy is premised on its desire to ensure uninterrupted economic growth, while promoting political stability and prolonging the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. For decades, the Chinese Government has deployed both soft and hard power to promote its influence and status overseas, while, at the same time, discouraging foreign interference in China’s affairs.
Yet, China is trying to have its cake and eat it, too, in portraying itself, on the one hand, as a good neighbour and, on the other, making sure its neighbours know who is boss. China cannot have it both ways.
The country’s approach to foreign affairs is linked with its national identity, characterised by its sense of “national humiliation” about the loss of territories it held under the Qing Dynasty. In the 19th Century, parts of Central and South-East Asia, Nepal, Bhutan, Mongolia and the Koreas were considered “tributary” states of China.
Maps from the period portray a confident China with strong regional influence. More recent maps, such as one published in the popular, hyper-nationalist book China’s Road Under the Shadow of Globalization (China Social Science Press, 1999), portray the country as the victim of an international conspiracy to divide its formerly held territories into independent states.
“China now ranks second only to the US in military spending (2.0% versus 4.4% of GDP, respectively) according to the World Bank.”
China’s modern geopolitical psyche is very much linked to this sense of loss and humiliation. It is also characterised in the often-used Chinese saying “hide one’s brilliance and bide one’s time”. China sees its return to global prominence as inevitable, based on its modern history as a global leader in such areas as trade, finance, and industrial production.
China’s global strategy today, and its path to global prominence, is to embrace multi-polarity, while supporting the principle of state sovereignty and self-determination. So, while it engages major powers and increasingly uses foreign aid to enhance its influence, it also uses its veto power in multilateral development banks and on the UN Security Council to get what it wants.
It generally serves Chinese interests to exist in a world with no single dominant power, and Beijing has perfected the art of sitting on the sidelines and waiting for an end-game to emerge, then swooping in and claiming the spoils. A good example of this was the Iraq War, where China did not participate in combat, but aggressively pursued oil contracts, ultimately winning a large percentage of them.
However, the principle of embracing multi-polarity does not apply in Asia, where China clearly sees itself as the dominant power. Beijing views the US “pivot” to Asia as a containment strategy and an effort to disrupt China’s emerging sphere of influence in the region.
Neither Beijing nor Washington has been clear about where their “core” interests lie on this subject. Beijing raised the ante in late November when it declared an air defence zone over disputed islands in the South China Sea. Japan and China claim sovereignty for the islands, which Japan calls Senkaku and China calls Diaoyu. The US remains neutral on the islands’ sovereignty, but it recognizes Tokyo’s administrative control and has stood by its treaty obligations to Japan in its view of the air zone. Still, it remains unknown how the US would react if a conflict with China actually erupted, raising the risk that both sides could cross an unknown red line.
Similarly, Beijing views the gradual remilitarisation of Japan with great suspicion. While, on the one hand, China sees the Japan/US military alliance as a “check” on the notion of Japan’s gradual remilitarisation, through the alliance the US is enhancing Japan’s ability to defend itself. The US has, over the years, provided Japan with early-warning radar, anti-ballistic missile systems, surveillance and anti-submarine airplanes, long-range drones, squadrons of vertical take-off aircraft, and stealth fighters. This is ostensibly “targeted” at North Korea, but, clearly, has multiple capabilities. The Abe government has also raised military spending, hardened its stance on the Senkaku Islands, and taken steps to free the military from constitutional constraints on external military action. From the Chinese perspective, these actions are alarming, particularly given its modern history with Japan.
Beijing is not amused. The Chinese Government knows it has inferior sea and military resources and is concerned about the prospects of a prolonged war with the US. Its military is developing plans for early, swift strikes against US carriers, command and control centres, and even satellites. China is developing large numbers of missiles to target US military assets.
For its part, the US has developed plans to inhibit China’s ability to strike. Known as the “air-sea battle”, the US strategy involves crippling missile launchers, air bases, submarine pens, and command and control centres before they can be unleashed. The idea is to strike with speed, fury, and little warning. Both sides appear to be preparing for the possibility of a war, which should be a cause for concern to countries in the region.
China now ranks second only to the US in military spending (2.0% versus 4.4% of GDP, respectively, according to the World Bank) and inaugurated its first aircraft carrier in 2012, with the intention of having Asia’s largest navy. China has created a stealth fighter, state-of-the art drones, and a new class of submarines capable of being armed with long-range, MIRV (multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicle) missiles. China has invested in ports throughout Asia, including in Burma, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka (which India refers to as the “string of pearls”), and is making it clear that it wants its military power to reflect its economic and political power.
To counter the impression among many Asian states that China is arming itself to the teeth with potentially offensive intentions, Beijing has sought to soothe fears of countries in the Association of South-East Nations by delivering the message that its growing power is not a threat. It has signed a variety of declarations and treaties on codes of conduct and co-operation, and is a participant in a variety of forums, such as APEC.
Good regional citizen
Beijing has committed to collective rules and institutional practices, and says China wants to be a good regional citizen. However, Asian states have memories of China’s support of Suharto’s coup in Indonesia in 1965, its support of Pol Pot in Cambodia in the late 1970s, and its invasion of Vietnam in 1979. Also, China still has unresolved border disputes with a number of nations, including Bhutan, India, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
China also appears to have its own interpretation of some of the provisions of the treaties it has signed. For example, in 2002, it signed the Declaration on the Conduct for Parties in the South China Sea, but has since ignored Article 5 of that treaty, which calls for “self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes in uninhabited islands and reefs”.
Similarly, China ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) in 1996, but, in 2006, Beijing said it would not accept procedures referring to “binding decisions” and compulsory processes under the law. It considers certain UNCLOS rules to be inconsistent with national policy. At the same time, it has chosen to invoke UNCLOS law for its claim against Japan on the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
That China tends to cherry pick the provisions of international treaties it signs does not give the rest of Asia much comfort. China’s tactics seem to involve pushing right up to the boundary of internally acceptable behaviour, briefly crossing that line, retreating, and doing the same again until it establishes a new normal for, what is deemed, acceptable behaviour.
While it has ably influenced the course of global political and economic affairs, it has also clumsily addressed certain regional issues and wilfully violated World Trade Organisation rules. On the world stage, however, this behaviour is not that of a teenager taking a car on a first test drive, but rather that of a shrewd, skilled and experienced negotiator.
China is not a poor developing country with limited resources and a lack of sophistication. It knows exactly what it wants, and how to get it. In fact, it could probably teach the West a few things about the way the world works. Let there be no doubt – this is China’s century and, in time, the country will become more capable militarily in Asia than the US. Its ability to influence the regional landscape cannot be underestimated. China should make up its mind about what it wants to be and to be seen to be – either the good neighbour or the 800-pound gorilla. It cannot be both.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions, a US-based cross-border risk advisory firm, and author of the book “Managing Country Risk”.
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