Thursday, March 3, 2011

Three Competing Strands in Chinese Foreign Policy

The following essay represents my attempt to understand some of the contradictory elements that have emerged in Chinese foreign policy over the last several years. It is based on talks given at the Kokoda Foundation in Australia in November 2010, at Singapore Management University in January 2011, and at the Finnish Institute of International Affairs in February 2011. I thank friends and colleagues at each institution for their comments and suggestions.


China’s foreign policy today contains many contradictory elements. The Chinese navy is working with others in trying to suppress the pirates operating off the east coast of Africa, but also is asserting its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. Beijing is launching an international cable news channel, broadcasting in English around the world, at the same time that it is harassing foreign journalists who are trying to cover street protests in China. Chinese firms are increasing their investments abroad, even as the Chinese government continues to limit foreign investments in China.

How can we understand these contradictions in China’s approach to the world? I will suggest that they all reflect a commonly held objective – the quest for great power status – but also embody competing strategies for achieving that goal. I will conclude with some thoughts about how the balance among these competing strategies may shift over time, but why the main objective of competing for relative power is unlikely to change.

The competitive quest for great power status: China’s basic orientation toward international politics

Most Chinese believe that competition among great powers is, and will continue to be, the essence of international politics, as it has been since the emergence of the nation-state system. Chinese leaders and analysts acknowledge the emergence of other actors (international organizations, MNCs, NGOs). They recognize that a growing number of transnational issues require cooperation between and among national governments, and are increasingly willing to engage in that kind of cooperation themselves. But they continue to assume that the rise and fall of great powers remains the basic narrative of international history, and that competition among the powers lies at the heart of international politics. In line with that view of history, China’s goal is to become a great power once again.

The extent of that general ambition remains unclear. Some Chinese leaders certainly believe that China can and should become a paramount power, if not globally, then at least in its region. But most realize that this can be at best a long-term objective and, equally important, one that should not be expressed openly for the time being. For one thing, most Chinese assume that, given the competitive nature of great power politics, the United States and other established powers will attempt to slow or block China’s rise, especially if they think that China will be a threat. Expressing ambitious objectives simply exacerbates that risk. Better to engage in what some have called the “hiding and biding” strategy, after Deng Xiaoping’s injunction that China should “hide its capabilities” and “bide its time.”

Moreover, the outcome of China’s quest for great power status cannot be guaranteed. One crucial factor will be China’s power relative to others. Although China is seeking to build up its “comprehensive national power,” the success of its efforts cannot be forecast with any accuracy or confidence. Even more uncertain is the future levels of comprehensive national power that will be available to other major states, particularly those that exist in close strategic proximity to China: Russia, Japan, India, and particularly the U.S.

However, in the short run, most Chinese leaders and analysts seem to believe in the desirability of pursuing a more limited but still significant objective, mainly having to do with how China is perceived and treated by others. This more limited goal is defined in three interrelated ways:

  • China now deserves to be treated as an equal, even by other major powers. The days in which others sought to lecture China on its domestic and international behavior, even if done out of good intentions, are over.
  • While China will demand to be equal, it will also seek to be different. China will go its own way, seeking its own model of political and economic development. In many ways, many Chinese believe, its model is already proving to be effective and even superior to the models promoted by the United States, including early democratization in politics and the implementation of the “Washington Consensus” in economics.
  • China has made many changes in its domestic economic structure and international behavior to conform to “international standards” so as to integrate itself into the international order. This represented China’s accommodation of that order, and was appropriate at the time. But as China becomes more powerful, and as its development path proves its worth, that pattern of behavior will be at least partially reversed. The time has come in which, as one Chinese scholar recently put it, “the rest of the world is going to have to adapt to China.”

To become a great power, especially a paramount power, China needs to seek and achieve power on all three dimensions: economic, military, and soft power. Chinese believe that, although they are still in many ways a poor country, they have made significant strides along the first two of these dimensions. Although gaps remain between China and the established powers, China will be able to narrow if not fill those gaps over the next twenty years and more, at least in aggregate if not per capita terms, by taking advantage of the prospect that growth rates in the United States and the advanced West will slow. The “growth gap” that so many Western analysts anticipate – the difference between slower growth rates in the advanced economies and faster growth rates in emerging markets such as China – will work to China’s advantage. China’s military capabilities will also increase, and China will seek to develop asymmetrical strategies for using its military power in ways that will further redress the imbalance between China and the United States.

China is also attempting to develop its soft power, but is finding it difficult to do so. It has traditionally espoused its own set of norms to govern international relationships – the five principles of peaceful coexistence -- but they embody the Westphalian concepts of absolute sovereignty and therefore appear dated. Beijing seeks trust, but does not yet appear to understand that trust can only be earned, not just demanded. It asks for understanding, without promoting that understanding through candor and transparency. Above all, China remains preoccupied with its own rise and its own interests. And until it begins to stand for more than itself, its attempts to acquire soft power will fall short.

However, as with the harder forms of power, China will try to narrow that gap. Already, Beijing has been able to delegitimize Western models of finance, development, and governance. It is trying to promote the study of Chinese language and the appreciation of both Chinese traditional and modern culture abroad. It will try to develop new, more attractive concepts of international relations, starting with the ideas of a “harmonious world” made up of “strategic partnerships.” And it may begin to act in more altruistic ways as its resources and self-confidence grow. China’s quick dispatch of relief workers to New Zealand, following the devastating Christchurch earthquake, is but one recent example of this latter trend.

Three strands in Chinese foreign policy

Although this is the basic direction of contemporary Chinese foreign policy, there appears to be considerable difference of opinion in China over the details. I see three competing strands of thought – three different tendencies -- in discussions of Chinese foreign policy, the balance among which will be a key variable in determining the country’s future international course. These tendencies are distinct, but not mutually exclusive. They can be, and are, combined in various ways at various times. But the balance among them varies over time. One reason for this is that each of the tendencies has shortcomings and poses dilemmas. As those shortcomings appear, other tendencies may seem to offer attractive alternatives – at least until the dilemmas associated with those alternatives themselves become apparent.

Defensiveness: Chinese leaders believe they are passing through a middle-term period of domestic vulnerability, and thus they remain highly insecure and suspicious as they face the rest of the world. China’s economic performance is essential to domestic political stability, and yet Chinese leaders know that their country’s investment- and export-led growth model needs to be revised in favor of greater domestic consumption. There are significant societal grievances over issues ranging from corruption to environmental degradation, without a responsive and accountable political system that can adequately absorb them. Chinese leaders see dangerous separatist tendencies in Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet. Foreign observers sometimes find these perceptions to be unnecessarily pessimistic, given China’s economic successes. But Beijing’s highly sensitive reaction to the recent protests and revolutions in the Middle East shows the influence of this line of thinking.

At the same time, as China’s power and footprint grow, the world makes more and demands on China: to allow greater religious freedom, to open its markets to foreign trade and investment, to cease censoring the internet, to revalue the renminbi, to reduce carbon emissions, and so forth. Chinese leaders suspect the intentions behind those demands. Many believe that foreign powers (especially the United States) are seeking to exploit China’s domestic problems in an attempt to block or delay China’s rise. This perception is intensified when – as is often the case – the demands are regarded as hypocritical: when they involve changes in China’s economic and environmental policies that other countries are not prepared to make themselves.

The combination of internal vulnerability and external pressure produces the first strand in Chinese foreign policy: a defensive desire to evade foreign threats or demands that might be disruptive to domestic economic and political stability. I associate this defensive tendency above all with the top Chinese political leadership, whose main concern (or “core interest”) has been candidly defined as the preservation of the leading position of the Chinese Communist Party. “Avoid trouble” might be the paramount concern of this first group. Supporting this strategy would be those sectors of the Chinese business community who want protection from foreign competition, supported by those leaders who can be persuaded that such protection is a necessary part of a national security policy. “Avoid competition,” would be the slogan I would associate with this second group.

The dilemma for China is that this defensiveness contributes to the international perception of China as a “free rider” – a country that seeks to benefit from its integration into the international community, but not to take on many domestic or international obligations in return. Unable frankly to admit its weaknesses, China instead falls back on the increasingly unpersuasive argument that it remains a poor, developing country that cannot be expected to do too much, or the even angrier response of accusing the rest of the world of unwarranted intervention in its internal affairs.

Assertiveness: Other Chinese perceive that the balance of power has shifted in China’s favor in recent years, particularly as the combined result of the global financial crisis, which has weakened the major advanced economies; the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have drained the United States of both hard and soft power; and China’s sustained double-digit growth, which has greatly enhanced China’s economic and military capabilities. These developments have given China the opportunity to advance interests it has previously had to compromise, and even to renegotiate some arrangements (formal and informal) that it previously had to accept.

China’s resulting assertiveness has taken many forms, some of which have been more widely accepted outside China than others. China has sought a greater voice in international financial institutions, including the World Bank and the IMF, and support the idea that a broader grouping in which China is included – the G-20 – should supplant the narrower one whose membership is restricted to traditional advanced economies (the G-7/8). These are widely regarded as reasonable demands, reflecting China’s increasing role in the global economy.

But other examples of China’s assertiveness are less broadly acceptable. At various times, Beijing has taken a more assertive approach to its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, demanded that foreign governments reduce or terminate their contacts with the Dalai Lama, insisted that the US stop arms sales to Taiwan, requested that it announce its support for Taiwan’s peaceful unification with the mainland (as opposed simply to a “peaceful solution”), and above all tried to push American naval patrols and reconnaissance activities away from China’s coasts, especially those that occur in China’s exclusive economic zones.

This strategy is associated not only with the military, which views the promotion of China’s security interests as its core responsibility, but also with what are variously called Chinese “netizens” or “angry youth”: the highly nationalistic internet users, usually young men, who also are extremely attracted to the idea that China’s increasing national power gives it the ability to overcome past humiliation by greater assertiveness. “Our time has come,” “it’s China’s turn,” and “China can say no” are all ways of summarizing the thinking of the supporters of this second strategy. The influence of these two groups challenges two familiar assumptions about the nature of Chinese politics: that the party controls the army, and that the state controls society. Instead, it illustrates that, in a more pluralistic China, even the authoritarian party-state is influenced by interests that are either powerful (as in the case of the PLA) or numerous (as in the case of the “netizens.”)

The dilemma here is that many instances of Chinese assertiveness have counterproductive consequences. They give rise to exactly the perceptions of a “China threat” that Beijing has sought to avoid and, in so doing, are leading more and more countries in Asia to form some kind of soft balance against China. As one Japanese scholar recently put it, China has unintentionally been engaged in a process that amounts to “self-encirclement.” In the future, China may have enough relative power to compel bandwagoning – to force others to accommodate its demands. At present, however, the rest of the region can still engage in a form of balancing. This discourages overly assertive Chinese behavior, and in so doing promotes the third tendency: integration into a broader international community.

Integration: China’s quest for comprehensive national power has involved a high degree of integration into the international system. At first, the motivation for this integration was almost entirely economic: to attain access to capital, markets, advice, and technology abroad that would facilitate China’s economic reform and development. Increasingly, however, Beijing has seen additional benefits from a policy of international integration. By joining free trade arrangements, China not only gains more secure access to those same foreign markets, but also introduces greater competitiveness into its home market and provides greater choice for its consumers. By joining cooperative security arrangements in Asia, China may reduce the suspicions about its growing military power. And by joining international organizations more generally, China may build trust and increase confidence that its rise will be governed by international norms and thus not be a threat to others.

The strategy of integration also reflects, to some degree, a departure from the purely realist approach to international relations that still dominates most Chinese thinking on the subject. Chinese increasingly accept the logic of globalization: that, alongside its benefits, globalization is producing or exacerbating a wide range of transnational problems that affect all societies that are integrated into the emerging international community; and that those problems can only be dealt with by collaboration with other members of that community. China’s response to the challenges of global climate change, terrorism, and the global financial crisis shows an increasing realization that China’s self-interest requires a degree of international cooperation. China has shown greater willingness to work together with other countries on all these issues, as well as playing a more active role in addressing the problem of North Korea’s nuclear program and in combatting piracy off the coasts of Africa. It has also taken the initiative in creating global and regional institutions that fill in gaps in the international structure or address new international needs, such as the G-20, the ASEAN+3, and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.

The strategy of integration is supported by a coalition of interests that either benefit from it directly, or else are convinced that it serves China’s broader long-term economic and geopolitical interest. These include, most notably, the more internationalized sectors of China’s business community, China’s more cosmopolitan urban elites, and liberal academics. Unfortunately, the political base for this third tendency is probably the weakest of the three – at least so far.

Moreover, as with the other two tendencies, this strategy generates its own dilemmas. Even as China becomes more integrated into the international community, its essentially realist approach to international relations makes many Chinese suspicious of international institutions that Beijing did not create and international rules that it did not write. This reinforces the assertive tendency noted above – the desire to increase China’s participation in these organizations, to participate in the drafting of responses to new issues, and, to some degree, even to rewrite existing rules in China’s favor.

In addition, the more integrated China becomes, the more demands it brings upon itself, especially when the solutions being applied to international problems fall short. This can trigger the defensive tendency: to reject demands that China do more on the grounds that China’s capabilities are limited.

And, once again, the issue of reciprocity emerges. As China’s integration increases, it begins to act in ways that challenge the policies toward others. China’s economic integration, for example, now involves outbound, as well as inbound, foreign direct investment. And this is triggering, both in the US and elsewhere, concerns that Chinese investment in certain strategic areas threaten the security interests of the host country. China’s integration into international energy and commodity markets raise questions about whether China is trying to “lock up” supplies or even “take them off the market.” Its increasing foreign assistance programs are sparking concerns that China is giving aid that is tied to resource deals and is insufficiently conditioned on good governance and sound economic policy. Beijing understandably asks whether it is being held to the same standards as others and, even if it is, whether those standards should be open to challenge. This reaction to integration can take the form of a more assertive Chinese approach to its international relationships.

The balance among the tendencies

These three tendencies are not diametrically opposed or mutually exclusive, but can be blended in complex and sometimes contradictory patterns. One reason for this is that all three tendencies reflect core Chinese interests – indeed, interests that are shared by many other states: defending against threats to domestic stability, advancing national objectives interests that remain unfulfilled, and achieving the benefits of integration into the international community. Many of China’s recent foreign policy initiatives can be seen as pursuing some of these goals simultaneously. Beijing’s quest for “strategic partnerships” with other countries, for example, reflects a combination of defensive and integrative strategies, in that it seeks both to reduce criticism and advanced cooperation with other key nations. China’s desire for a more prominent role in the new global financial structure is a blend of assertiveness and integration.

Another reason is that, as already noted, each of the three tendencies has significant bases of support within China. Although China’s current political system is in not democratic, it is a form of consultative authoritarianism in which powerful domestic interests are at least partially accommodated. This suggests, as a general rule, that none of these three tendencies will ever become entirely dominant, but that elements of all of them will be blended into Chinese foreign policy, albeit in different proportions at different times.

What, then, changes the balance among these three tendencies?

In the short run, the changing balance among the three tendencies results from the fact that the dilemmas inherent in one tendency may trigger another. In particular, the international demands generated by the strategy of integration can contribute to Chinese defensiveness and assertiveness; and the negative foreign response to an overly assertive Chinese foreign policy can lead to a renewed emphasis on integration as a way of reassuring others of Beijing’s intentions. The global financial crisis, for example, played a major role in moving Chinese foreign policy in more assertive directions through most of 2010. The sharp foreign response to that development promises to make integration a more prominent theme in Chinese foreign policy in 2011.

In addition, specific developments inside and outside China clearly make a difference. Major domestic events (particularly Party Congresses or sensitive anniversaries) lead to a marked increase in defensiveness. In particularly, that can be expected in the run-up to the next Party Congress in 2012. Conversely, some major international events (particularly state visits to major powers) usually generate a more cooperative approach, so that the visit can be declared to be a “success.” That may help explain the more accommodative attitude to the United States taken on the eve of Hu Jintao’s trip to America in early 2011.

But what about the longer term? Here, much speculation has centered on the looking political succession. And yet, I believe that the succession process has become highly routinized, and that China’s collective leadership structure makes it not only possible, but highly likely, that all three tendencies will be reflected in the post-succession leadership to some degree. As a result, the succession is unlikely in itself to produce big changes in China’s foreign policy.

Instead, more enduring changes in the balance among the three tendencies are more likely to be the result of larger trends and forces outside the leadership. Specifically:

  • Domestic problems in China will certainly reinforce tendencies toward defensiveness. But in addition, will they also promote assertiveness? The proposition that governments seek foreign adventures abroad to distract their citizens from problems at home has a long standing in both scholarly and popular literature. In the case of China, however, I think that today there an equally powerful case can be made that Chinese leaders, while certainly blaming foreigners for any domestic problems, will not seek to exacerbate the risk that foreign governments will try to manipulate them. I would suggest that greater integration (in the sense of greater cooperation) is more likely in such a situation than greater assertiveness, but that both are less likely than greater defensiveness.
  • The international situation will also play a role in determining the relative weight of these three tendencies. A robust balance of power – as we have seen this past year -- will discourage assertiveness and encourage integration. On the other hand, a shift in the balance in favor of China, and particularly a power vacuum in any area peripheral to China, will encourage greater assertiveness. And, as we have seen recently, anti-authoritarian or pro-democracy movements in countries that leaders in Beijing see as presenting parallels to China will trigger a defensive response.


Most foreign countries – especially the other major powers with interests in China’s strategic space – prefer the integrative strategy, oppose the assertive strategy, and can tolerate, although not welcome, the defensive tendency. But whatever their preferences may be, Chinese foreign policy is likely to show a shifting balance among these three themes, depending on the international and domestic factors outlined above. Still, other major powers, especially the United States, can influence the relative weight of the three tendencies. Expecting China to play a constructive role in the international community, and rewarding it when it does, will strengthen the integrative tendency. Providing a firm counterweight to assertive Chinese behavior that challenges international norms or threatens the interests of others will weaken the assertive tendency. And, although China has the principal responsibility for managing its domestic situation, clear indications that the other major powers will not try to sabotage China’s economic development and international stability, even as they compete with it economically and urge domestic political reform, will help reduce Chinese defensiveness.

But what about the main continuity that runs across all three tendencies: China’s quest for great power status and its realist approach to international affairs? There is some hope that, over time, the realist approach will weaken in favor of more liberal outlooks. This may occur if the perception grows that there is an emerging international community, governed by international institutions, and facing common problems and opportunities. The coexistence of liberal and realist perspectives on international affairs reflects the fact that the international system itself contains both the traditional elements of anarchy and self-help (on which realism is based) and growing institutions of international governance (in which liberalism is rooted). The changing balance between these structural features in international politics will have a strong influence on Chinese perceptions of international affairs, although the realist tradition in Chinese thinking is so powerful that it will be difficult to completely overcome.

But even if this should occur, it is unlikely that it will alter China’s desire to become a great power. That, too, is an enduring theme in Chinese thinking about its role in the world. And it does not depend on a realist perspective. Many decades ago, Anatol Rapoport identified three forms of competition in human affairs in his book entitled Fights, Games, and Debates, published in 1960. In a world of anarchy, the principal form of competition is the fight, and realist theories try to explain and predict how countries prepare for such fights, try to deter them, and how to win them. But competition does not end in a more orderly world; it simply takes a different form. Countries will have different interests, and will continue to seek advantage in pursuing them. Even in a global community with international governance, better understood by liberal analysis than by realist models, there will still be competition, but it will take the form of economic and cultural competition (a form of game) and diplomatic and possibly ideological competition (a form of debate) rather than by military competition (preparation for a fight). China will then change its strategies, but it will remain determined to be an effective and successful competitor.