Chinese Foreign Policy and Domestic Factors

August 24, 2016
 Chinese Foreign Policy and Domestic Factors
Leah Sherwood
Leah Sherwood Deputy Director of Research
Kiril Bolotnikov
Kiril Bolotnikov TRENDS Research Intern

Chinese foreign policy under the presidency of Xi Jinping has been increasingly controversial, confident and engaged in both the regional and global trends in security and political economy. At a 2014 foreign affairs conference, Xi emphasized that Chinese diplomacy should be conducted “with a salient Chinese feature and a Chinese vision” to safeguard China’s core national interests, while carrying out “‘a distinctive diplomatic approach befitting its role of a major country.” This marks a clear departure from Deng Xiaoping’s cardinal foreign policy principle of “hiding one’s capacity and keeping a low profile when striving for achievement.” Examples of this new vigour include the creation of the China Import-Export Bank, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the formation of the New Development Bank (NDB) with the nations of BRICS, coupled with the communication of its global vision, which includes ambitious construction projects along the ‘one belt, one road’ (OBOR). Furthermore, Beijing has stepped into a new diplomatic era whereby it interacts with the US in the context of Great Power relations while stressing its interests in diplomacy – not just with Washington, but also within its region. As such, Xi declared a strategy of building a community of common destiny through regional diplomacy. Globally, China has been more interactive, not only at the UN, but also at global governance forums such as Asia–Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), the G20, the December 2015 climate talks in Paris and the nuclear security summit in Washington in April 2016, to cite a few examples.  Each of these are significant diplomatic endeavours and exemplify the transformed diplomacy marked by the Xi Jinping era.

China is not only engaging in the regional and international environment, it is trying to shape it through at times worryingly assertive displays of power, coercion and aggression. Examples of this include its November 2013 unilateral declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, its large-scale land reclamation and an increasingly uncompromising stance on territorial disputes in the region.  In the South China Sea, China is unilaterally modifying a decades-old regional status quo of US-dominance by placing military assets on its man-made islands. A recent ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration, finding that China’s claims to territory in the South China Sea have no basis, has led to China reasserting its naval power in the region.  Chinese actions have created distrust and suspicion internationally and especially regionally as its ultimate intentions are shrouded in ambiguity, reinforced by Beijing’s opacity.

In light of these recent actions, it is not mistaken to ask in regard to China’s position both regionally and globally – what is China ultimately seeking to accomplish? Will it use its military to meet these somewhat opaque foreign policy objectives? Is the past and present talk about diplomacy a smokescreen or is it genuine? What is the end goal of Beijing’s extraordinarily ambitious plans? Why is it more engaged globally in some respects, but continuing to stand isolated in others?  Such questions, of course, need extensive treatment to provide even a superficial response.  However, it is certainly possible to identify the fact that culture, and China’s understanding of its culture, has a large role to play in explaining and understanding the drivers of China’s contemporary foreign policy orientation and goals.

The China we see today is the modern iteration of a historical entity composed of a succession of dynasties ruling over a continuous civilization. Some posit that “China” is really a civilizational or cultural term, and less so a political one.  The length, richness and importance of cultural history is a civilizational trait that is enmeshed in Chinese social traits and political self-perceptions. China’s name for itself, Zhongguo, translates to “Middle Kingdom,” which is typically understood as China’s perception of itself as centre of the known world. The term confers a self-perception of being central, elevated, and perhaps superior. China essentially sees its civilizational and cultural history as an unattainable ideal for others outside China.  The Chinese find evidence of the power of China’s pure civilization in the pervasiveness of its influence, the prevalence of its customs, and the depth of its cultural norms.  China’s cultural beliefs and foundations have strong continuity in the relevance of the ancient to the modern era. The extent to which one may understand contemporary China, its rulers, its scholarship, and even aspects of everyday life by learning about the cultural norms of its ancient society is extraordinary.

As much as China praises its past, it seeks modernisation, which has given rise to tension inside China about the degree to which history and past cultural practices and views ought to be included in modern Chinese culture, society and politics. For instance, scholar Chen Jian wrote, “[W]hen Mao and his comrades were posing challenges to the Chinese past, the ideology on which they depended as a lodestar and guiding philosophy for the transformation had to be articulated through the discourse, symbols, norms, and identities that had been a part of the Chinese past.” [1] Even Mao had to give in to the history that still permeates through China today.   China remains heavily influenced by its history in a way that few modern societies are; resulting in new policies being shaped in part by the ideas, practices, and beliefs of the past. There are other states today that carry histories as long as China’s, but it is the continuity and consistency of Chinese culture, coupled with a conscious choice to maintain it, that is relevant to the policy-maker today.

China’s historical record reveals broad patterns in its approach to foreign policy and the use of military force. Firstly, from ancient times to the present, the Chinese have been aggressive and used force only when they felt their physical security was in jeopardy. In addition, they only ever attack when they believe they can win. Chinese leaders have insisted upon operational flexibility, on retaining the option of accommodation, when estimates of the adversary’s strength and determination indicate they have little chance of victory. Certainly under Mao’s China, force was only used when it was believed there existed a moral justification for it, whether in defence of home or family, or in seeking to “defeat American arrogance.” [2] China appears to be highly pragmatic, realistic and innately defensive with a willingness to act for a cause or to defend itself.

Some suggest that China’s behaviour in the Asia Pacific may not be an existential threat to the surrounding states, declaring that China should not be characterized an expansionist power at this time. If this assessment is correct now, it would be a mistake to say that China has been mainly a defensive power in the past. Reviewing thousands of years of history, one sees that China has used military force against its neighbours on numerous occasions.   Military power has been used to maintain Chinese credibility, especially in the face of the Mongols, who were the dynasty’s key threat between the 14th and 16th centuries. During that time, the Chinese believed if they conceded or adopted a defensive posture, it would be interpreted as weakness.

However, today, estimates of China’s willingness to engage in warfare must take into account the historical perspectives, as well as its actual military capability. China may have the largest standing military in the world, but it has not fought in a war since the 1979 ‘Vietnam lesson’. Although continuing to amass immense technological resources, China’s military capabilities are still nowhere near US levels, and “[i]ts military remains untested…officers lack combat experience comparable to their counterparts in the US military.” It has developed anti-access capability and defensive anti-ship technology, but these would be useful only in its immediate region. China does not have basing agreements, nor does it yet have the aircraft carrier technology to compete with certain other powers. This structural fact must be kept in mind with a historical view to China’s approach to disputes.  Research has shown in the period between 1950 and 1985, China answered foreign policy crises with the use of force 8 out of 11 times.  In comparison to other countries this is seen as a far higher proportion of violent response to disputes.  This does not necessarily mean China is permanently inclined toward violence, and it should be noted that the period surveyed began from the shaky founding of the nation and ended before China’s development really kicked off.

In contrast to China’s current military position in the region, the last three decades have also seen China working in terms of peaceful cooperation—especially in the resolution border disputes. In resolving the majority of its border difficulties peacefully and bilaterally, China has, at the very least, simply been prudent, realizing the difficult position it would place itself in internationally if it were too warlike. In certain areas, however, China has been all too willing to maintain tensions regarding border disputes. It disputes the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands because that would expand the Japanese maritime border beyond what China feels secure in. It disputes the border with India because it does not want India to cross the natural protection of the Himalayas. Each of these indicate China’s preoccupation with ensuring its own physical security as a driver of the disputes.

And then there is the situation in the South China Sea.  China’s interests in the South China Sea are because shipping between China and every major port besides those in North America and Oceania goes through those waters, and because keeping that maritime passage not just open but secure pre-empts the possibility of being strategically surrounded. The route is also essential to the economic success of the maritime Silk Road initiative. China is unwilling to risk denial of access to the South China Sea because of domestic stakes regarding the import-export flow of the economy, the prosperity of its people coastally and their ability to subsidize the poorer interior, and correlatively, the legitimacy of the Communist Party itself. Furthermore, China perceives itself as a more powerful nation than before and wants the respect that such a perception ought to confer in reality.

The US’s challenge to Chinese dominance in Southeast Asia in general and in the South China Sea in particular is aggravating Beijing as it is forcing it to put on a show of strength in order to “save face,” another concept of great import to Chinese culture. Certainly, American ships in the region could seem like a threat to physical security, one that could mobilize national sentiment in a moral drive to defeat American arrogance.  According to an international relations theory reading of the situation, in this structural, anarchic world, China will seek to maximize power, and in a zero-sum reading of the situation, any power it gains is a loss of US power. Conversely, if domestic factors are in fact related to foreign policy outcomes, which draws the implication that China may be misunderstood, then it may only be seeking the respect and recognition it feels it deserves internationally and regionally, while also prioritizing its internal economic development needs, both of which factors secure the Communist Party’s rule. Consequently, there is a large role for analysis of Chinese beliefs, identity and culture as a means of contextualizing its worldview, which in turn informs its foreign security and defence policies.  Much more work needs to be done in furthering understanding of China’s culture in relation to foreign policy to make better sense of its actions.

[1] Chen, J. (2001). Mao’s China and the Cold War. The University of North Carolina Press, p. 8.

[2] Chen, J. (2001). Mao’s China and the Cold War. The University of North Carolina Press, p. 14.