By Emre Tunc Sakaoglu
While climbing the steps of global prominence, the new Chinese leadership which took seat on November 15 after the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) will have to deal with various challenges in its foreign policy, including contentious issues concerning security. The gigantic economy of the rising country dazzles the rest of the world in addition to creating a feeling of fear and respect regarding the former’s considerable achievements and surging defensive capabilities, which emerged over only a couple of decades. But there is still great ambiguity from the perspective of the global community about what China’s essential intentions in the international arena are and what motivates China’s drive of rapid modernization efforts in various fields including increased military spending.
In today’s world order, economic interests, political motives and security agendas of major powers are usually intertwined, although zero-sum rivalries are still valid on many occasions of political friction. In addition, China’s administrative tradition has brought its own fears, dreams and specific definitions of interest from centuries back to this date and synthesized these elements into what we refer to as its contemporary foreign policy perspective. Therefore, a balanced evaluation and foreshadowing of China’s intentions and interests would require the recognition of a scale of dynamics that interrelate or diverge, and are candidates to determine China’s path to increased international assertiveness. Being shaped by region-specific, sometimes egotistical, but still cooperative and consensual motives as well in various contemporary circumstances, all these factors should be placed by relevance in the right order on the colorful spectrum through which the dragon views the world.
In order to shed light on the new outlook of China’s foreign policy from the “inside,” the 4th Xiangshan Forum is organized bi-yearly by the International Military Branch of the China Association for Military Science (CAMS) under the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Between November 16-18, 2012, the foremost international event aimed to elaborate in depth on the security and foreign policy agenda of the Asia-Pacific region. It took place right after the 18th Conference of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and the election of Xi Jinping to succeed Hu Jintao as the new president of China by the Central Committee of the CPC. China’s security concerns, and the sources of friction as well as prospects of security cooperation between major and resident actors in the Asia-Pacific region from the perspective of China’s foreign policy-makers, comprised the main focus of the panels and conferences conducted under the umbrella of the 4th Xiangshan Forum.
Preserving while reforming the international system
Beijing’s foreign policy principles can be summarized as equal sovereignty, creating a win-win environment, non-alignment with any revisionist or ideological camps, and non-confrontation except for “national causes” regarding China’s close neighborhood. Hence, while cooperative partnerships and an emphasis on stability are brought forward, intervention in domestic politics or the territorial integrity of any state is frowned upon by Chinese foreign policy authorities.
Decision-makers in Beijing also complain about the remnants of the Cold War mentality, and the influence of ideological prejudices within the international community which lead to misapprehensions regarding Beijing’s quest for international stability, investment-friendly markets and mutual interests. Hence, Chinese officials are eager to establish diplomatic and economic ties, as diverse as these could be, with various countries of the world. Beijing puts forward that this quest is persistently pursued to overcome prejudices and relevant multilateral initiatives that may form in a way to confront or at least to exclude Beijing’s prior efforts in an overtly-realistic manner, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) led by the United States.
According to Chinese military authorities as well as its foreign ministry circles, international norms and laws which are the basis for liberal theory, should be preserved as they are, indeed more essentially by powerful actors such as the U.S. and China through bilateral and multilateral tools. Moral obligations and material interests of the global community converge to a certain extent today, and the degree of international trustworthiness and density of diplomatic ties inclusive of China, like any other country, rely on the preservation and reproduction of the modern norms put forward initially by the United Nations in a systematic manner.
A proactive diplomacy and networking
As a result of Beijing’s abovementioned concerns and priorities, it strives to maintain regular military exchanges, bilateral agreements as well as multilateral diplomatic proactivity in the international arena to introduce itself to every corner of the globe “accurately” as a responsible and reliable partaker. Many examples of successful diplomatic endeavors on the part of China include either the creation or expansion of platforms such as the ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, ASEAN+3, ASEAN Regional Forum, Six-Party Talks mechanism, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the East Asia Summit. China also became a member of the World Trade Organization in 2001 and took part in various United Nations peace-keeping missions up to now in various continents. China’s main focus has been formulating confidence-building measures (CBMs) within such different platforms in order to assure its partners of the reliability and long-term vision of its peaceful, respectful and win-win conduct.
Also, the strategic exchange of motives and ideas with the help of enhanced communication through both official as well as civilian levels (via tourism, business and specialist forums for instance) is a consequent element of Chinese decision-makers’ world-view. For instance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) were both founded on these grounds with the initiatives of Beijing at the outset. Nevertheless, China persistently opposes the idea of translating the latter, special forum into a Group of Two (G-2) within the G-20 on the grounds that multi-polarity, instead of Cold War style bi-polarity, will be determinant in the future course of global power balances.
However, Beijing still preserves the idea that China constitutes the chief figure for emerging markets and developing countries and the United States for industrialized developed countries. Therefore China spares special focus for its bilateral relations with the United States as the “primus inter pares,” or the “first among equals.” At the same time, China’s other bilateral ties as well as multilateral initiatives target mainly practical cooperation with the developing world, similar to the one with the United States. Beijing views economic integration and practical cooperation as the main ways to counter multi-faceted security threats, instability and ideological polarization that may altogether emerge between major actors of international relations, which would be the worst scenario for Beijing’s interests and decades-long efforts in image-making.
Getting into the dragon’s mind
Chinese authorities usually give voice to an argument and examples around a common mistake in the reasoning of many thinkers and scholars regarding China’s rise today. These circles’ “illusion” can be referred as an example of post hoc ergo propter hoc. This phrase is used to articulate that the rising economic and political power of states did not necessarily end up with increasing military spending and war in history.
Actually, the inverse is more accurate to claim according to Chinese policy-makers. Hence, China is no threat to global security, as its military capabilities are still very limited when contrasted with its economic capability and its military spending which only followed its priority of economic development, not the other way around. And such a path of “rising” is not reconcilable with theories classifying China’s future intentions together with what Germany before and during WWII, the Roman Empire during its rise, or the Mongolian empires of the 13th and 14th centuries chose to do.
It is important to notice that the dragon does not view the world in terms of Western statehood or the experiences of only a couple of centuries. Indeed, Chinese foreign policy revolves around the concept of the “theme of the times.” As a matter of fact, Beijing’s interpretation of wider areas in history defines its stance and motives to reach the core targets of the sovereignty, independence and unity of the historical Chinese “dominion.”
China has its own “China-centric” worldview which attaches more importance to symbolic domination and respect for Chinese motives rather than directly asserting its quest for recognition and material interests through brute force and military might. Hence, while it is totally reasonable to assume that China, like any other state entity in a realist world order, aims to become a primary and assertive power, this does not inevitably lead to hegemonic ambitions as we perceive them.
Chinese decision-makers believe that the theme of the times before the 1960s and 1970s was revolution and a heavy-industrial military makeup. However, in the contemporary global system, war is not a preferable option that can overwhelmingly settle international disputes and avoid more wars.
Nuclear proliferation and the emergence of asymmetrical warfare both served to prove this reality. The wars in the last couple of decades that occurred in Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Palestine, Afghanistan and Africa can be identified with the dynamics of this new theme, namely developmentalism and international inter-connectedness. In order to establish sovereignty and prosperity, a state has different but powerful tools today, such as incentives and deterrence through soft power as well as economic imperatives.
Historical experiences beneath Chinese perceptions
After the voyages of Zheng He in the early 15th century when this Chinese admiral discovered and received tributes from various African, Middle Eastern and Indian peninsular realms littoral to the Indian Ocean, China suddenly turned inward-looking and avoided any policies of discovering or conquering distant lands. Indeed, the principal belief of Chinese rulers has been, since centuries preceding Zheng He, that others (all those external to the Chinese domain, i.e. barbarians) should seek and find Chinese civilization and ask to take advantage of it, not the inverse.
China’s rulers never made special efforts to spend their financial resources and energy to find alternative domains or assert full hegemony beyond the country’s periphery. They were neither forced to adopt European-style colonialist measures, nor to seek direct control of lands that were not that qualified to become part of the “Mandate of Heaven.”
But with the advent and agitations of European powers along the shores and later on the domestic groups within China’s “mandate” in the 19th and early 20th centuries, the giant awakened to a new reality. The “theme of the times” finally transformed into something that the Chinese emperors, intellectuals, bureaucracy and commoners were too unfamiliar with, namely military industrialization and colonialism. This new “reality” was to shake Chinese perceptions of the international system from the roots, and reshape China’s tools and means to reach the same ends as always, defined through a prism of centuries and even thousands of years of ethno-cultural accumulation.
The Chinese public as well as the CPC today firmly believes that China, as a nation and a civilization, was bullied and belittled by European powers and Japan in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Middle Kingdom, at the center of the universe and the home of international harmony according to Chinese political thinking, was first and once for all shockingly put in a secondary, subjugated situation as the rise of the “West” placed China within and even below the ranks of its former tributaries such as Korea, Central Asia, Vietnam and Japan (although Japan constitutes a distinct place in this “hierarchy”). This traumatic interpretation of international relations was what truly motivated the initial, pre-reform era of communist rule throughout the country since the CPC came to power in 1949.
The CPC’s initial goal after establishing itself as the sole ruler of China in the aftermath of a civil war with the nationalist Guomindang (KMT) was survival, as Chinese government officials describe it. Until 1978, when Deng Xiaoping initiated the reform stage in the economy, politics, popular discourse and legal system of China to a certain extent, the country was passing through a challenging and somehow traumatic phase. China was supporting revolutionary movements all around the world and it was confronting the essence of the international system by proposing a communist, revised world order.
However for the last thirty years, China has clearly deviated from its pre-reform policies in various fields with its economy and foreign relations at the outset. Nevertheless, China’s policies of non-alignment, emphasis on national sovereignty and ties with the developing world kept their significance as principles or ends, to be accomplished through different means and a novel perception of a transforming “theme of the times” up to today.
Deng Xiaoping successfully convinced Chinese policy-makers to follow his path acknowledging that China had to carry out international cooperation, and not confrontation, in line with the new theme of the times. He explained to the public his vision as fulfilling the country’s need to avoid looking inward, in order to step forth into the flourishing developmental stage of the Chinese regime and guide the successive administrations to consistently reformulate the needs and means for the country in a new era.
In a similar fashion, the recent report published by the CPC in the immediate aftermath of the election of the new leadership on November 15, 2012 underlines the core principles for China’s recognition as a political and sovereign center as well as its economic interests. Furthermore, the report sheds light on the reformulated means and perceptions of China, such as building mutual security and integration networks for the benefit of China’s coexistence with its neighbors, and rivals as well, in relative harmony.