Foreign Policy of China
Salient Features and Challenges
Aftab H. Wahla
Mao Zedong ruled China from 1949 to 1976 and remained the chief architect of his country’s foreign policy during that period. Given his revolutionary nature, US’ military and economic assistance to Kuomintang (nationalist government) during the civil war, socialist underpinning of his political thoughts and decolonization process, he was convinced that the US was a neo-imperialist and neo-colonialist power. Consequently, he pursued ideologically-driven foreign policy so as to preempt imperialistic powers gaining foothold in newly-independent countries.
In addition, Mao, owing to ideological proximity and material assistance provided by the Soviet Union, developed bonhomie with the USSR. But that did not last long. Soon, the question of leadership of socialist bloc, alleged poor transfer of technology by USSR, China’s condemnation of Soviet role in Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and suppression of popular uprising in Czechoslovakia deteriorated the relations. US President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 further plunged the ties between the two socialist countries. Mao also attempted to position China as the leader of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), but failed to achieve that objective as differences with India and Indonesia made him eschew taking any active role in the organization. Objectively speaking, Chairman Mao could not position China as the leading player of the world due to hostile relationships with then-superpowers, persistence of thorny issues with NAM countries and largely antagonistic attitude of the major powers. Succinctly, Mao-led foreign policies resulted in isolation and insignificant role of China in the development of international norms, standards and procedures in various realms.
Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution proved disastrous for Chinese society as it ignited a civil war-like situation. Moreover, the consumption of state resources in the subsequent rehabilitation and recovery process further decreased popular support for his adventurous and ideology-driven foreign policy.
After Chairman Mao, Dong Xiaoping, the person often considered father of modern China, adopted an inward-looking approach. Learning from past mistakes, Dong orchestrated the policy of “hiding one’s capabilities and biding one’s time.” The policy emphasized on the concentration of energies on China’s own development, avoiding unnecessary foreign entanglements and maintaining favourable and benign regional atmosphere for smooth growth and development. Through this cautious and passive foreign policy, Deng endeavoured to cash in on strategic opportunities to enable China to strengthen its national capabilities before embarking upon aggressive foreign policy to resolve its territorial or trade-related disputes. Consequently, Deng pursued pragmatic and internationally-accepted realistic foreign policy. It established diplomatic relations with the United States in 1979, improved bilateral ties with USSR (and later with Russia), explored opportunities for trade and financial cooperation with India and other regional countries and, most importantly, launched economic reforms at home. Ping introduced a unique socialist market economy retaining one-party rule and deregulating the economy. Through his SME model, Deng sought amalgamation of capitalistic economic tools with socialist political system. Although the Communist Party of China (CPC) maintained absolute control over Chinese military, domestic security services and propaganda apparatus, markets were deregulated, offering lucrative business opportunities to the Western business enterprises. The policy proved tremendously successful. With this policy, Chinese economy continued to grow at around 10% annually. This growth rate helped push 800 million people out of poverty, the highest figure in human history. At the end of the Cold War, China emerged as a fast-growing economy—as well as a formidable military power—that was increasingly becoming confident about its inevitability in the international political and economic landscape. After Deng’s death in 1997, his successors successfully maintained spectacular economic growth and continued to use economic diplomacy as China’s major thrust in international relations throughout the turbulent first decade of twenty-first century. Deng’s dictum remained an unchallengeable guiding principle for Chinese foreign-policy makers till then.
The World Financial Crisis of 2008-09, and successful hosting of the 2008 Beijing Olympics made China confident of its global economic prowess. That self-realization helped ignite the debate on pros and cons of shifting to a proactive and an aggressive foreign policy. Although the debate ended in favour of carrying on with Deng’s philosophy, it paved the way for President Xi Jinping to pursue a bold and hawkish foreign policy in subsequent years.
A watershed moment in the history of Chinese foreign policy came when President Xi Jingping was elected president in 2013. With multiple initiatives in global finance and trade, as well as in diplomacy, President Xi successfully transformed Chinese role in international economy and politics. On the strength of institutional reforms that he spearheaded, the 19th Congress of Communist Party of China, which was held in 2017, unanimously voted to include Xi Jingping’s thought in the constitution, and also abolished the two-term limit on presidency, thereby making him the greatest Chinese leader after Mao and Deng. Given the wide-ranging consequences of his policies, signature initiatives of President Xi in the realm of foreign policy have been discussed in the following paragraphs.
There is no denying the fact that China is one of the biggest beneficiaries of the current liberal world order. Its long term interests are inexorably linked with the survival of the legal, political and financial global frameworks. In this background, China launched various initiatives to fill the gaps left by established institutions. Establishment of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Development Bank, which provides developing countries with an alternative source of funding, helping them avoid ruthless structural adjustment and brutal conditionalities of IMF and the World Bank, is one such initiative. President Xi also sought to expand global clout of China through BRICS. Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) is another such financial institution, through which China has emerged as leader in global finance and development. With 56 members and $100 billion in subscribed capital, AIIB is quickly emerging as a rival to the World Bank. President Xi has also employed AIIB as a foreign policy tool as it has helped create the dependency of other countries on Chinese investment and finance, thereby building favourable international opinion for its core security concerns. Both AIIB and BRICS signal the growing confidence of China vis- à-vis its place in international politics and finance.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a signature project of President Xi, should also be seen as an indication of growing domestic demand to restore pre-Opium War status of China. The $1.3 trillion worth infrastructure development initiative, which has extended its footprint to Eurasia and Africa, will help improve road, railways, fiber optics and maritime connectivity of Asia Pacific, Central Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe and even western hemisphere. The sheer magnitude of the project is enough to underline the proactive foreign policy being pursued by President Xi. The proposed investment under BRI is 12 times higher than the Marshall Plan of the United States for Europe, and is set to influence the foreign policies of more than 60 countries having a population of around 4.4 billion. Though BRI is inherently economic initiative, its most pronounced impact is the growing global influence of China. China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a flagship project of BRI, is expected to witness China’s westward expansion (Afghanistan and CARs), provided the Afghan Peace Process culminates in political stability there. In this regard, President Xi’s upcoming visit to Pakistan has assumed renewed significance as it is expected to formalize the process of transformation of CPEC into a vehicle of regional connectivity.
Multilateral diplomacy is another area where President Xi has pushed for a greater, leading role of China. The underlying objective of aggressive multilateral diplomacy is to strengthen the voice of China within existing international political, legal, financial and trade-related institutions. Trump-led retrenchment of the United States in various global platforms has created a void that China is vigorously seeking to fill. President Trump has withdrawn the US from UNESCO, Paris Agreement, UN Human Right Council and JCPOA (US-Iran Nuclear Deal). Trump’s decisions of cutting US funding to the World Health Organization in the aftermath of Covid-19 and paralyzing the Appeal Court of World Trade Organization have further undermined the rule-based liberal world order. Contrary to this, President Xi has always advocated for multilateralism, and criticized the unilateralism and protectionism being pursued by Trump. In his Davos speech from the World Economic Forum in 2017, he said: “We must remain committed to developing global free trade and investment, and promote trade and investment liberalization.” His words earned widespread laurels and he was termed by many as a steadfast defender of free trade, globalization and economic openness. Environmental conservation is one such global arena where China has effectively become a global leader, spearheading global efforts for combating climate change, mobilizing resources to mitigate the impacts of ecological deterioration and conducting research in devising technological and institutional means to adapt to global warming.
Establishment of increasingly closer ties with Iran is another of President Xi’s bold foreign policy initiatives—it is a clear deviation from Deng’s stated policy of maintaining peaceful diplomatic relations with superpowers. In spite of the fact that any strategic or economic outreach to Iran is set to attract toughest US sanctions, President Xi has reportedly signed a $400 billion worth agreement with Iran—being dubbed as Lion-Dragon agreement. Under this agreement, as reported by New York Times, China will invest in Iran’s banking, transport and development sectors and will receive, in exchange heavily-discounted, uninterrupted supply of Iranian oil for the next 25 years. Viewed together with Iranian decision of dropping New Delhi from key railway project of Chabahar, the agreement signals new geopolitical alignment in Asia being nudged by China. This budding partnership is likely to have far-reaching ramifications for the regional geopolitics and economy. In terms of consequences, Chinese will be able to extended their influence across the length of Arabian coast and expand their control over the Strait of Hormuz, one of the seven key maritime chokepoints (other choke points are: Danish Strait, Turkish Strait, Suez Canal, Bab el-Mandeb Strait, Strait of Malacca and Panama Canal). Furthermore, with already stronger footprints of China in Gwadar and Djibouti, a Sino-Iranian partnership will augment Chinese position in the Indian Ocean, thereby undermining Bahrain-based US Fifth Fleet and ensuring the security of sea lines of communication (SLOCs), which are, no doubt, lifeline for its energy security.
Since the outbreak of the Covid-19 from Wuhan, Indian and Western media have been blaming China for using this pandemic as a cover for its aggressive foreign policy. To substantiate, they refer to establishment of two administrative districts in South China Sea; the bloody India-China stand-off in eastern Ladakh, and the imposition of National Security Law in Hong Kong that effectively abrogated semi-autonomous status of the city, thereby violating 1997 Sino-UK agreement. The objective analysis of these developments however, reveals that this distraction theory holds no water. Every move that China has taken has its own logical and convincing underlying reasons, which are completely distinct from the pandemic. The immediate trigger for the Ladakh standoff was provided by Indian construction of road infrastructure that could have put China in a disadvantageous position in terms of rapid mobilization of troops in any future conflict. Neither the construction of roads was a new phenomenon, nor was China-led aggression to stop that infrastructure-development activities—in fact, Line of Actual Control (LAC) has seen multiple face-offs since 2017.
Enforcement of National Security Law recently was the culmination of a long struggle. The law is meant to restore political stability, strengthen the hold of mainland China and enhance the capacity of the HK police to thwart any future mass protests against China. The increased patrol of the US navy in South China Sea, which China considers a direct challenge to its maritime claims, prompted China to build administrative units. Conclusively speaking, recent ostensibly aggressive Chinese moves were offshoot of China’s long-term foreign policy goals. They were neither opportunistic actions, nor reactionary ones to exploit the obsession of the world in Covid-19 disease management including recovery and rehabilitation responses.
Like any country with ambitious foreign policy objectives, China is also struggling to cope with multifarious challenges. The fullest realization of BRI through smooth execution of various projects has become an uphill task for China. Despite investing huge political and financial capital, President Xi is finding it hard to execute the BRI projects. Sectarian violence, political upheaval, legal obstacles due to hodgepodge of national laws, entrenched corruption, populist blowback due to apprehensions regarding debt unsustainability and now Covid-19-caused disruption in economic activities are impediments to the realization of BRI potential.
Though Trump-led isolationism has shrunk America’s role in international affairs, it still enjoys unchallengeable dominance in global finance and politics, which necessitates a better working US-China relations. Avoiding a complete breakdown with the US while safeguarding core financial and security interests is another major foreign policy challenge for President Xi. Ongoing trade war that has been expanded to include banning of Chinese tech giants like Huawei, TikTok, WeChat, tit-for-tat closure of consulates, deepening Indo-US strategic partnership and allegations and counter-allegations surrounding Covid-19 are serious irritants in the US-China ties. Trump’s falling popularity due to mismanagement of Covid-19 and his strategic manoeuvring to blame China for the pandemic to avoid Trump’s defeat in November election are set to further deteriorate the Sino-US relationship.
The third major challenge is a stable periphery that is establishing peaceful relationships with neighbouring countries to avoid containment or encirclement by the US. China’s territorial conflicts with India and Southeast Asian nations and strained ties with South Korea and Japan could potentially strengthen US efforts under its ‘Pivot to Asia’ policy. Growing unpopularity in Taiwan and increasingly louder pro-democracy voices in Hong Kong are serious hurdles in achieving the ultimate dream of President Xi: unification of China. US sanctions on Chinese officials and US Health Secretary Alex Azar’s recent visit to Taiwan—Washington’s highest level engagement with Taiwan since its switching of diplomatic recognition to China in 1979— have further plunged their ties to historic lows. The damage control regarding the origin of Covid-19 pandemic in China and avoiding the ‘imperial overstretch’ are also significant challenges that President Xi is coping with.
China’s ascendency to the world stage is an irrefutable reality, but the apprehensions that China is undermining the rule-based world liberal order are, however, ill-founded and carry no weight. China will not challenge the existing world architecture; it will attempt, nonetheless, to tweak global norms and standards to make the system inclusive for a multipolar world. Multilateralism, inclusive global governance, institutionalized world response to emergencies, coordinated ecological preservation and impregnable anti-proliferation safeguards warrant a proactive role of China, and it is heartening to see that China is offering effective leadership to meet all these challenges.