Issue 2, June 2008
|Special Section: China in the World - A Foreign Policy Overview|
China is in a period of intense transition in terms of how it relates to its neighbors, developing countries around the world, fellow powerful nations, regional entities, and the international community as a whole. Broadly, China’s current foreign policy orientation can be said to have three main catalysts:
The Peaceful Rise
China’s official stated foreign policy doctrine is that of a “peaceful rise,” a concept that has its roots in Deng Xiaoping’s 24 Character Strategy in the 1990s: “observe calmly, secure our position; cope with our affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile, and never claim leadership.” In the early years of the 21st Century, the term “peaceful rise” was officially coined by an advisor to President Hu Jintao and summed up by his Premier Wen Jiabao in 2004 when he proclaimed that China’s rise “will not come at the cost of any other country, will not stand in the way of any other country, nor pose a threat to any other country.” President Hu Jintao said himself that the “peaceful rise” is comprised of Three Nos – “no challenge, no exclusion, no confrontation.” The term has since been semantically tempered, and the policy is now officially called China’s “peaceful development.” It basically seeks to assure the international community (and the United States in particular) that power dynamics in the China Era will not be a zero-sum game. See Key Foundation Documents for more elaboration of this policy.
The motivation for this atypical doctrine in international relations is interesting. Historically, changes in the balance of geopolitical power and the rise of a new power in the world has had a de-stabilizing effect as other countries scramble to balance its disproportionate weight. The new power has also tended generally towards aggressively asserting power on the global stage, often in a menacing way. Classic examples of this include the rise of Germany, Japan, and the USSR in the 20th century. Thus far, however, it cannot be said that China has acted in an aggressive or menacing way, or that a major movement is underway to contain or balance its power.
Most foreign policy experts agree that China has not embarked on this path of aggression as it has accumulated extraordinary strength, due to many factors:
How China Pursues its Peaceful Rise Doctrine: Soft versus Hard Power
How China protects and manages its interests and ascent to power has largely been described as the practice of soft power (versus coercive power). The term soft power was first coined by historian Joseph Nye and refers to cultural and ideological power and influence that derives from “the attractiveness of a country’s culture, political ideals, and policies.” China’s "peaceful rise" has epitomized soft power, accompanied by a concentrated effort to downplay or obscure flaws and discontent within its system. Its objectives, as described by researcher Rumi Aoyama and quoted by Joshua Kurlantzick in his book, Charm Offensive, consist of “publicizing China’s assertions to the outside world, forming a desirable image of the state, issuing rebuttals to distorted overseas reports about China, improving the international environment surrounding China, and exerting influence on the policy decisions of other countries.” Most agree that China has been moderately successful in this endeavor, not only among the developing world, but also in developed countries such as Australia:
Parag Khanna has remarked that if you were to come up with a metaphor for how the United States and China are “navigating the tricky waters of globalization,” the US symbol would be a military aircraft carrier, and the Chinese symbol would be a merchant ship. As more countries around the world become disillusioned with what they perceive is the adventurist, cynical, and increasingly ineffective US military means of persuasion, more countries are wooed by and are gravitating toward China’s “peaceful rise.” International opinion polls conducted by the BBC, Pew Global Research, and others have recently ranked perception of China’s role in the world more positively than that of the United States, particularly among China’s neighbors.
Rebuttals to the Peaceful Rise Phenomenon
There are many others who believe China’s popularity to be overstated and the United States’ influence to be unfairly downgraded. While experts on the American political right and left differ on China's international perception, as do experts around the world, most do agree that China’s strong showing on the international stage is a relatively new phenomenon, and that they are experiencing a “honeymoon” period that will eventually subside. Most experts predict that China will not enjoy its current position with soft power indefinitely. The protests surrounding the Olympic Torch show that this is beginning to happen in the developed world and some believe other countries aren’t far behind in re-evaluating admiration for China.
Others believe not only that China’s soft power is bound to wane, but also that it was never very "soft" in the first place. These critics point to cut-throat capitalism with a state-provided accelerant, and to China’s relations with “rogue nations.” Since China must aggressively pursue natural resources to keep its economy humming, and the “peaceful rise” doctrine honors a non-intervention policy in dealings with sovereign nations, this often involves China in partnerships viewed critically in the global community. Recently, this has included regimes widely viewed as some of the worst offenders of international law in the world, from Zimbabwe, Sudan, and Congo to Iran, Burma, and North Korea.
The vast commodities markets in these countries are largely closed to Western competitors because of punitive economic sanctions. China has used this opportunity to steadily build up lucrative contracts for natural resources needed to power its vast economy. In the process, considerable assistance is often provided to these unsavory partners that, some believe, protects them from what would otherwise be the demise of their regimes or states. International outrage over these alliances detracts from China’s soft power among other nations. There are times when Chinese non-intervention has been viewed as obstructionist when international bodies attempt to address aberrant behavior in these rogue regimes, as happened with proposed United Nations actions against Sudan, Iran, and North Korea.
China has not neglected its capacity to use hard power, though. From 2000-2005, the PRC has increased its military strength by aggressively overhauling training and technology to create a “smarter,” more responsive army and navy. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is the largest standing army on the planet and is increasingly more tech-savvy, better educated, and better equipped for modern warfare, including cyber-warfare. Although China’s overall military expenditures increase by double-digit percents each year, they are still dwarfed by the United States. Yet the PLA is becoming increasingly stronger in the Taiwan Strait, throughout Asia and even beyond.
The Responsible Stakeholder
In 2005, US Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick formally acknowledged China’s rise (peaceful and otherwise) and issued a groundbreaking missive to the PRC. Zoellick welcomed China into the international community, and asked it to step up to the attendant responsibilities of its global power and influence. The term “responsible stakeholder” has now become the corollary to the “peaceful rise,” and implies that China must look beyond self interest to act in ways that are commensurate with its status in the world. Recently, UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband echoed this sentiment, introducing the term “responsible sovereignty” as it pertains to China’s actions in the world. An implicit bargain was put on the table: the US and West will accommodate China’s rise as long as China begins to play by the rules expressed in international laws and norms. See Key Foundation Documents.
This is an example of another aberration in traditional power dynamics in international relations: current powers accommodating, rather than attempting to balance, deter, or contain, a rising power. Whether this strategy will work remains to be seen – will the West honor its stated friendly intentions, and will China truly "play by the rules?" Aas John Ikenberry points out in his article “The Rise of China and the Future of the West,” globalization provides a powerful incentive for everyone involved in this grand bargain, and China really only benefits by coming in under the tent of the international community. Ikenberry writes, “Today’s Western order, in short, is hard to overturn and easy to join.”
Modern China’s foreign policy record to date would indicate that CCP leadership understands this reality. With the exception of Taiwan, China has peacefully settled most boundary disputes, has not overtly threatened neighbors, has limited use of its significant veto power on the United Nations Security Council (except cases related to Taiwan), has joined international organizations and numerous regional ones, and has generally pursued a multilateral foreign policy. Despite years of obstructionism on behalf of its partner in oil, Sudan, China is now on-board with the current United Nations/African Union Peacekeeping force in Darfur. China has a generally good record with respect to United Nations Peacekeeping activities, sending more personnel to missions worldwide than any other permanent Security Council nation. For the first time in history, a Chinese Major-General will assume command of a UNPK force, in the Western Sahara.
Likewise, Western powers understand that there are enormous benefits to be gained from China’s involvement as a responsible member of the international community. Beyond the economic benefits associated with China’s involvement, some have noted that China’s ties to unsavory regimes could be put to benevolent use. As anti-Americanism rises in the wake of the Iraq, Afghanistan, and counterterrorism campaigns worldwide, the Chinese may have the ear of leaders in countries who have tired of Western domination. Some of the countries that have caused considerable angst - North Korea, Iran, Burma, Zimbabwe - enjoy close ties to China, which could be leveraged to address some seemingly intractable geopolitical problems. As Christopher Hill, the US envoy to the Six Party Talks on North Korea, has said, “China has become the first stop for any American diplomacy.” In North Korea, Hu Jintao has already balanced George W. Bush’s more aggressive stance with respect to Pyongyang.
If China does in fact continue to step up to be a responsible stakeholder, including productive participation in the UN, the WTO, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), at a minimum, these international institutions could grow to provide solutions to larger problems of the global commons and the establishment of basic standards of living for all the world’s citizens. Chinese manpower, know-how, and sheer size could re-invigorate these institutions and possibly even lure fence sitters on important issues and treaties.
There are numerous contingencies that could potentially derail this more optimistic view of the new world order. There are events and trends that could cause China to act aggressively and counterproductively with respect to international relations, provoking containment and balancing initiative by other nations against China’s rise. This alternative and more dangerous scenario to the “peaceful rise” could realign the world into camps split between China and the West, and work against global problem solving. See What Next section for details.