Editions : January-March 2016


For decades, it has been fashionable to quip that China doesn’t have a foreign policy. It may be on the way to getting one. A debate has begun that challenges basic assumptions about China’s role in international affairs. Deng Xiaoping’s “hide our capabilities and bide our time” strategy is being re-examined. This could lead to a re-evaluation of the fundamental interests that shape China’s participation in the existing order.

The government that was constituted three years ago was thought to need the customary year or more for a shakedown period, as it cautiously learned how to wield the power of office. That turned out to be dead wrong. Xi Jinping consolidated his control with breathtaking speed, rolling out an anticorruption campaign that includes unprecedented reach into the senior-most ranks of government. The anticorruption campaign is not just a political housecleaning. It also serves to chasten anyone – journalists, reformers, intellectuals – who imagine that they are safe, or that thought experiments are welcome. Adversaries and friends alike are off-balance, reminding many of a classic Maoist device. What remains unclear is whether these tactics are the result of supreme confidence or uncertainty and a lack of direction in the face of a changing economy and the rise of new media.

Against this new domestic backdrop there is an emergent international security theory for China. While not yet policy, it is being discussed among leaders and commentators and test-driven in several new initiatives. It was previewed by President Xi at his November 2014 Foreign Affairs Work Conference speech, with an emphasis on activism and security: maintaining and protecting China’s legitimate rights, and developing a community of interests with Asia-Pacific countries that will, in the future, look to China for leadership

It turns on a question: Is it best for China to continue to try to shape the Westphalian model of global power, or should it start now to create its own version of the world order? For students of China’s foreign policy, this seems an impossibly ambitious notion. Hasn’t China been a major beneficiary of the World Trade Organization’s disciplines, the predictability and risk mitigation afforded by Bank/Fund membership, and the no-cost stability provided by the US security presence in Asia? Certainly. The debate now under way is unlikely to produce a clear choice to reject all features of a system that has so well served Chinese interests. Still, there is a serious conversation beginning about the future gains from playing inside structures that Beijing did not create, and may be unable or reluctant to reshape.    

What experiments are under way? The move to create an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and set up other development assistance banks like the BRICS and One Belt, One Road Banks are but three data points. China’s aggressive increased use of cyberattacks is another. The declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone in North Asia and the manufacture of islands on scant coral reefs in disputed waters in the South China Sea has denied Chinese diplomats the ability to say that their government has never acted to inhibit sea lanes and never militarized a territorial dispute in those troubled waters.

For the partisans of this new approach, the justification for reshaping global rules starts with a very simple syllogism: American, European and Japanese policy may claim to tolerate and accommodate the Chinese government, but it is committed to undermine the totalitarian principles and control of the Chinese Communist Party. In this narrative, over the next five years the CCP faces a period of unparalleled challenges to its sole source of legitimacy: economic progress while managing down the risk of instability. Therefore, the United States and its allies are poised in the fragile period ahead to use the global system they created to undermine China’s growth and delegitimize the Communist Party.

The theory is unromantic about how China is viewed in Asia. It accepts that, while China’s economic miracle is admired, no other nation wants to be China. China does not offer an adaptive social or political model that any neighbor emulates. So who are its friends? “China’s most important international relationship may be with America, but its best relationship is with Russia,” according to one Chinese expert. Xi Jinping has met with President Vladimir Putin more often than with any other world leader. For the time being, Beijing’s interests in an alternative to the American order are served by doubling down on a relationship that, for most of their shared history, had little in common and with a leader whose interests – destabilizing Ukraine, trying to recreate Soviet control over the countries of the former Soviet Union, bringing down NATO and inserting itself into the Syrian crisis – may well be at variance with China’s own.

Proponents of this theory believe, as does the Russian leadership, that the United States is committed to fostering “color revolutions” around the world. The United States encouraged the ouster of one-party regimes in Iraq and in the Arab Spring, and it is doing the same from Myanmar to Ukraine. The argument has it that the United States deals with China through a policy built on precepts that include “contain, isolate and divide.”  

For Americans, this logic is baffling and contrary to the evidence of our actions and the consistent goals of American policy since relations with China were normalized in 1979. US policy says and behaves as if China’s development is a source of global growth and regional stability. As President Obama’s 2015 West Point speech made clear, the Obama administration is far less ideological than its predecessor. There is a recognition that America alone cannot call all of the shots in the global commons.

For six decades, US foreign policy fostered and tolerated one-party regimes all over Asia and Latin America, content to let South Korea, Japan, Taiwan and Mexico evolve into authentic pluralistic systems when economic progress allowed. The Arab Spring was about human dignity and opportunity more than democracy, and Americans were observers more than participants. A failure of the economy and of governance in China would add unthinkable complexity to a global system already awash in that commodity, with no imaginable benefits to US interests.

President Xi’s recent visit to the United States, including extensive private talks with President Obama and key security officials, may have helped clarify American intentions and achieved some success in right-sizing Chinese perceptions of American policy. But the behavioral changes that have increased risk in the region did not originate with any changes in American policy, and China’s intent to change facts on the ground – and in the water – can only reduce both its stature in the region and trust in its vision of the future.

To be clear, the one/two-world debate and the resultant theories seem to be, at this point, simply one construct about how China should manage the current act in the drama of its emergence as a world power. Like Russia’s testing of wills in Ukraine, it is the product of holding two fundamentally irreconcilable ideas at the same time: belief in a lack of American willingness to follow through when presented with a challenge, while at the same time fearing that the United States and Japan remain committed to challenging China’s determination to play a greater role in the region. In any case, China is today creating the military capability that will allow it to play an instrumental role in the region and redress past humiliations.   

But perhaps most troubling is that this foreign policy narrative seems to be derived from, and supports, a domestic polity that is a strange mix of nationalist confidence and profound doubts about the quality and durability of the Chinese model. China’s economic slowdown is the product of a policy choice to realign the economy and move to consumer-led growth and the creation of a broad service sector. But managing overheating is easier than orchestrating a slowdown. The recent collapse of China’s equity markets and uncertainty over exchange rate policy raise legitimate questions about economic competence.

It is true that nothing about the next five years will be as easy for China’s new leaders as the achievements of the recent past. Knowing that growth must slow while job creation accelerates, and that demographics and the environment will limit options, some in China may be seduced into believing the answer lies in this reimagined global role. If it prevails, this model challenges the assumptions that have supported US-China policy for half a century. The fact that 2016 is an election year in both Taiwan and the United States guarantees that this internal Chinese policy debate will become election politics in both places. 


Kevin G Nealer is an adviser to the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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