Glimpses Into China’s Foreign Policy – Analysis


By Bhaskar Roy

The 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party(CCP) mapped out the skeletal structure of China’s foreign policy. Outgoing CCP General secretary Hu Jintao in his political report (Nov.08) to the Congress expressed willingness to cooperate, but was also emphatic that not an inch will be given to outside pressures where China’s sovereignty, security and development interests were involved.

As the official China Daily (Nov. 09) put it, Hu signaled the foreign policy for next five years when Beijing’s influence on international affairs brings not only greater responsibility, but also frictions with neighbours and some developed economies due to their unease with China’s rise and competition.

Unlike India, which won its independence through peaceful civil movement, the People’s Republic of China came to being through armed revolution. In the initial two decades at least generals and Marshalls who fought the war held civilian posts. In the 1980s Deng Xiaoping tried to mould the people’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a professional army. But after Deng, the effort gradually slid back under Jiang Zemin and his successor Hu Jintao. Neither had any military experience, but required PLA support politically. That support had to be bought. It was under Hu Jintao’s leadership that the PLA gained most in power in contemporary China. There was rise in adventurism among PLA ideologues. Assertiveness grew from 2008 but in particular from 2010.

The fact that the PLA does not have any representative in the Party’s Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) is not a real indicator of power. Power flows from the Central Military Commission (CMC) and a disproportionately high representation of over 20 percent in the party’s Central Committee. It now has an important if not dominant say in psychological warfare, media warfare and legal warfare, popularly known as the “three warfares”. Its new strategic planning division under the General Staff Department (GSD) which interacts with civilian ministries.

It is the PLA’s responsibility to secure China’s overseas resource centres providing input to development like oil, gas and other natural resources.

The Party still holds the overriding final say. But the PLA, as a party institution, is inseparably knit into foreign policy as it is not only responsible for the nation’s physical security but also safeguarding resource centres abroad and retrieving claimed territories. The party, therefore, has to compromise with the PLA. In the last three years it was evident that the PLA exercised a substantial say in not only threatening but exercising in small punitive measures against the Philippines, Vietnam and Japan on territorial issues. This is unlikely to diminish soon.

Hu Jintao’s report made it clear that no effort would be spared to make the PLA much more capable to engage the enemy not only beyond China’s territorial waters but take the battle to the enemy’s heart through unrestricted warfare. Full mechanization and major progress in full military Information Technology (IT) application by 2020. The goals include winning “local wars in an information age”, meantime, space and cyberspace security are strategic tasks to work.

Paramount at this time is winning local wars, that is, winning back disputed territories the Chinese consider as their sovereign territories. Currently, the biggest conflict is with Japan over the ownership of the Senkaku/Diaoyu island, which could have major global strategic and economic fallouts. The other is the conflict over the Spartly islands in the South China sea which is not a localised problem much as Beijing may claim. Following China’s international (rather the western camp) isolation after the 1989 Tienanmen Square incident, Deng Xiaoping implemented his strategy of “hide your strength, bide your time”. In the last decade, a resurgent section of Chinese strategic experts have pushed the theory that China has become both a military and economic power and there is no need to hide its strength any longer.

One of the proposed theories was that countries east of Suez including part of Africa to Asia Pacific Region (APR) should be under a kind of Chinese suzerainty. This swath includes south Asia and India. This was propounded from around 2004. The other more recent push was to make South China Sea an area of China’s “Core” interest. This basically means China would control the South China Sea which is a water for major international shipping.

Both ideas required American support, something which was not forthcoming. Many such ideas came into being in China due to an insidious propaganda inside the country that said the Washington consensus (on political and economic ideology) had given way to Beijing consensus, and that the US was a declining power and China was the rising power. Such perceptions in recent years have been backed by China overtaking Japan’s economy last year, and predictions from, among others, International Monetary Fund (IMF) that China will overtake the USA in the next five years.

Such predictions are both bewildering and misleading. They do not take into consideration the population which determines the per capita power, internal social situation including growing income gap, environmental degradation and catastrophic projects like the much vaunted ‘Three Gorges’ dam, and external dependency for energy and raw materials. Such dependency is huge and inevitable, and could become the proverbial “Achillies heel” in China’s foreign policy.

Beijing was quietly following its agenda in the APR with the USA engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan. But with the Iraq war over and the Afghanistan intervention drawing to a close Washington refocused on the APR. That is President Obama’s Asian “rebalance” otherwise known as the ”pivot”.

From World War-II and the Korean war the USA sacrificed heavily on the lives of its citizens and also financially to turn its back on the region and hand over to China. As Mr. Obama said, the US had interest in the security, stability and economy of the region and create jobs for Americans. Washington has made it clear that it will not let down its allies like Japan and South Korea, push Australia to be more proactive on security issues of the regions relative to China, reactivate its military agreement with the Philippines, and craft a new alliance with military connotation with old enemy Vietnam.

China is watching the USA moves very closely including President Obama’s visit to Thailand (Nov 18), Myanmar(Burma) on Nov19, and Cambodia for the ASEAN security meet. China perceive them as countries that should be subservient “Middle Kingdom”, but has carefully avoided reacting adversely.

The US has also been very discerning at every step, careful to avoid a posture leading to provocation. Status quo and withdrawal of Chinese threatening behaviour in the region dousing a local war is preferable to Washington. Unfortunately, China is preparing for short strike local wars. It is not yet clear if the threat is to cow down the opponent and win a war without fighting a war is the philosophy. The grounds are uncharted yet, but tensions are palpable.

To be a major power, a country requires strong and dedicated allies. The US has any number of them from the NATO powers, many Arab countries, and in the APR like Japan et al. By that standard China’s allies include North Korea, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Iran. The comparison does not generate any excitement.

Two different thoughts in China was illustrated by Prof. Li Wei, a lecturer in the Renish University in February, this year. Two sides indentified by him were the “internationals” and “realist”. The international disapprove use of force, urge self-restraint, advocate compliance with international norms among others. The realist favour strong military power and demonstrations of strength to the international community. Both groups have discarded Deng Xiaoping’s policy (see “China’s Foreign Policy Debate”, May 17, 2012, SAAG paper No.5038)’.

The new leadership of China are now standing at the edge of a cliff from which they will either fly and soar, or break a leg when jumping. There is no third option. Internal development in this globalized world is intrinsically related to foreign policy. Discarding Deng Xiaoping’s philosophy at this point of time to force nighbours to submit could be a difficult road.

Asia and especially the APR regime, the water ways, airways and space cannot be controlled by a particular country. Countries from outside the region have equal interest in keeping these international passages open.

In an address to the CSIS on Barack Obama’s Asia trip covering Thailand, Myanmar (Burma), and Cambodia (to attend the ASEAN summit), President Obama’s National Security Adviser Tom Donillon laid out (Nov.15) much more clearly America’s “rebalance” or pivot in Asia.

While Donillon assured China that the US will not take sides on issues in South China Sea and East China Sea, he made it clear that the “ASEAN” was at the core of their Asian policy, would support economic openness, peaceful resolution to disputes, democratic governance, and political freedom. Advanced security alliance with Japan, South Korea, Australia and the Philippines was reiterated, an alliances across Asia have to be more furthered strengthened. Finally, Washington put unequivocal support on the formation of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) in trade, which has now expanded from its initial seven members to include Vietnam, Malaysia, Mexico and Canada. Japan has expressed interest to join it. China has been cautious.

China was projected both as a partner and competitor. China, however, will be persuaded to assume global responsibilities commensurate with its global influence and impact. This is something which China’s new leadership has realized and accepted.

It is very likely that President Obama will forcefully follow up his Asia ‘rebalance’ strategy which he unveiled late last year. More so, because he does not have to worry about a re-election, and his Asia policy is to stabilize the region and create jobs for Americans.

China’s foreign policy towards India, and India’s understanding and response are critical for the region. Donillon’s talk, which is the White House officially stated position on Asia, included a paragraph on India. It reiterated India as a strategic partner for the 21st century, welcomed India’s ‘Look East’ policy, and supported India playing a larger role in Asia including in the Indian Ocean.

There was nothing new in the positions on India, but from the Chinese point of view the reiteration in the context of USA’s Asian rebalance assumes significance. Beijing has been watching very closely growing India-US relations especially in the military and strategic areas. They have conveyed through their official media that they suspected India was collaborating with the US as well as with Japan, and to a certain extent with Australia as well, to encircle and counter China. India’s Look East policy and oil and gas exploration with Vietnam have been perceived negatively by China.

Beijing, however appears to have drawn a temporary truce with India. This truce does not mean non-action. In fact, in the garb of promoting friendship an operation to change Indian people’s views have been launched.

At the same time, it does not suit China to create an unstable South Asia at the moment. Pakistan has been advised more than once not to provoke problems with India. At the same time, Pakistan is regularly armed with improved Chinese weapons and systems, and aircraft for another day.

Will the Sino-Indian border issue be resolved soon? Very unlikely. But it makes good sense for India to keep talking on the issue. But to argue trade will wipe away the problems would be wishful thinking. These are much larger issues. The current India-China trade helps China in every way. India receives shoddy Chinese goods, thanks to Indian small traders. But India has to guard on much bigger issues – protection from information Technology and Cyber penetration. India just does not have the technology and wherewithal to detect Chinese penetration as the USA and some western countries have.

Notwithstanding all the above, India shares a 4000 Kms (Chinese say it is 2000 Kms) border with China. China is styled as a super power, India a growing power. Geography cannot be changed and both have to live with each other. Leaders of both countries have said there is enough space for both in Asia and the world. If, however, Chinese strategic thoughts are anything to go by, New Delhi must take cognizance.

A new Chinese leadership has taken over in a new global atmosphere. It will be their responsibility to ensure Asia, especially China’s eastern seaboard does not explode and Indian Ocean is not militarized. Rest must be left to the ingenuity of each individual stakeholder to take their respective stands. Asia is heading to an interesting future.

(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst. He can be reached at e-mail [email protected])


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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