What Does China Want?: Understanding Beijing’s Foreign Policy
Is China intent on challenging the United States for global supremacy? Is a military clash between these two great powers inevitable? Research Fellow Bonji Ohara ponders these and other questions in the light of recent developments in Chinese foreign policy.
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The National People’s Congress, China’s national legislature, convened for its annual spring session on March 5 and closed on March 15. The NPC, which the Chinese constitution designates as the highest organ of state power, is where the course charted by the Communist Party of China becomes official state policy. The business of the most recent session was to approve the policies forged during the fourth plenary session of the 18th CPC Central Committee, held October 20–23, 2014. And since the theme of the plenary session was the “rule of law,” this was also the nominal focus of the policies submitted to and adopted by the NPC.
Judging from the content of the Report on the Work of the Government delivered by Premier Li Keqiang, China’s leaders are preoccupied above all with the economy and the need to pursue reforms.  The emphasis on the “rule of law” is in essence a call to abide by the CPC’s leadership in these matters by complying with the relevant laws and regulations. It carries with it an admonition to vested interests to accept the coming reforms, however painful, as well as an implicit warning to negligent and corrupt officials.
In his report to the NPC, Li Keqiang announced a comparatively low economic growth target of 7% and stressed the government’s determination to implement structural reforms. A similar thrust was apparent in remarks by Yu Zhengsheng, Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, who highlighted the theme of the “new normal” and called for a steady rate of growth in the midst of structural reform. (The “new normal,” or xin changtai , is an expression coined by President Xi Jinping in reference to the government’s policy of stabilizing economic growth at a moderate rate while pursuing economic reform.)
Even as the Chinese economy slows, however, military spending is posting double-digit growth. At the NPC, the government reported a 10.1% increase over the previous year, most of it accounted for by spending on the navy and the air force. One Chinese scholar has noted that while the air force budget has increased dramatically, the largest portion goes to the navy. The implication is that China sees its navy as in need of substantial expansion and modernization to support a growing presence overseas. The navy has accelerated its construction of aircraft carriers and other large warships, most likely with the aim of deploying them strategically around the globe. What are the implications for the international order and global peace?
Foreign Minister Wang Yi addressed foreign policy questions during the NPC spring session at a press conference on March 8. Asked by a foreign correspondent if the Xi Jinping government’s Belt and Road Initiative (see below) was not simply a strategy for furthering China’s own geopolitical and military interests, Wang responded, “The vision of this initiative is common development, and the goal is win-win progress through cooperation. If I may use a musical metaphor, it is not China’s solo, but a symphony performed by all relevant countries.” 
The Belt and Road Initiative encompasses two plans, the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, aimed at building a modern land and sea transportation network to support a vast economic zone extending from China all the way to Europe. The Belt and Road Initiative is how Xi Jinping’s government plans to go about implementing the so-called March West strategy, first articulated by Peking University professor Wang Jisi in October 2010. In his thesis, Wang Jisi stressed the strategic importance of expanding westward to pursue China’s economic and political interests, claiming that such a policy would help “build a balance between China and the United States” and foster “strategic trust” between the two powers. 
Wang Jisi’s thesis reflects China’s deep concern over what it perceives to be America’s overwhelming dominance in almost every region of the world. In speaking of the need to “build a balance between China and the United States,” Wang gives voice to Beijing’s ambitions of achieving parity with American power. At the same time, the emphasis on fostering “strategic trust” reflects an awareness of the need to avoid any direct clash with the United States in the process.
As originally set forth by Wang Jisi, the March West strategy also stressed economic development of China’s interior. But Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative focuses almost exclusively on external relations. Through this grand strategy, China is steadily expanding its influence not only in Central and South Asia but also in the Middle East and Europe.
What Is China After?
China’s expanding influence derives from a combination of economic and military might. Direct investment is the main tool by which it exerts its economic influence. It is also a means of advancing China’s own economic interests. Investment in port facilities and high-speed rail—both integral elements of the Silk Road initiatives—will yield dividends by facilitating the transport of energy resources from the Middle East and from South and Southeast Asia and by promoting the export of Chinese goods to every region between China and Europe.
Particularly valuable from China’s viewpoint are those projects that give it jurisdiction and usage rights over port facilities. With such ports as hubs, China can bypass national borders and secure direct access to European markets—one of the key advantages to maritime transport. Beijing is counting on Greece, it would seem, to give it a foothold in Europe. On February 19, 2015, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras attended a New Year’s reception aboard the Chinese warship Changbaishan at the port of Piraeus. Tsipras hailed Piraeus as a key gateway for the delivery of Chinese goods to Europe, according to Xinhua News Agency.  Athens has also signaled its enthusiasm for Chinese infrastructure projects that would eventually link Greece with Eastern Europe via high-speed rail, providing a direct link between Europe and the modern Silk Road envisioned by China.
Chinese investment doubtless seems like an economic godsend to crisis-ridden Greece. In addition, media reports have suggested that Greece is using Chinese assurances of support to bolster its bargaining position as it attempts to renegotiate bailout conditions with the European Union. By targeting Europe’s troubled economies in this way, China hopes not only to gain influence over those countries themselves but also secure influential friends and partners within the European Union. Winning over friends and backers around the world is a key to competing with the United States in the global arena.
The Greek prime minister’s pledge of cooperation aboard a Chinese warship would be inconceivable in a country or region that regards China as a real threat. The partial operating rights China has secured in the port of Piraeus are of a matter of considerable significance to the Chinese military. They open the way for the deployment of Chinese naval vessels in the Mediterranean and assure potential friends and partners in the region that China can back up its commitments with military might. But China knows enough to tailor its alliance-building approach to the individual region. In the Asia-Pacific region, where many governments view China as a major threat, such a blatant display of military power would be counterproductive.
Two-Track Approach in Southeast Asia
Let us turn now to China’s policy toward the 10 member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The South China Sea is of vital importance to China. Its value derives not only from its seabed resources and its key role in sea transport but also from military considerations: This is where China deploys nuclear submarines armed with intercontinental ballistic missiles, designed as the ultimate deterrent against a nuclear strike by the United States.
Judging by this military strategy, China’s foreign policy makers are dyed-in-the-wool realists. They are proceeding on the assumption that the United States, as the world’s dominant power, might well resort to military force to prevent the rise of China as a challenger to US hegemony. China’s perception of the United States as its only serious rival and of the potential for military conflict are both implicit in Xi Jinping’s call for “a new type of major power relations” between the two countries.
From a realist viewpoint, China is bound to continue its quest for complete control of the South China Sea, even if that involves strong-arm measures against the Southeast Asian nations that dispute its claims. Realism regards international affairs as a struggle for survival between great powers. With the nation’s survival at stake, the moral justification for Chinese or US behavior is beside the point. According to this school of thought, the Chinese will continue to build up their military because they believe that the only sure means of guaranteeing China’s survival is to make it the dominant power. In short, as a great power, China will inevitably strive for regional hegemony, regardless of who stands at the helm of government at any given time.
In fact, however, Beijing recognizes that the rise of fiercely anti-Chinese forces in Southeast Asia would be undesirable from the standpoint of expanding its global influence, hence the “dual-track approach” for dealing with the South China Sea issue—a concept first aired by Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the August 2014 ASEAN Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. [ 5 ] The two tracks are (1) peaceful resolution of territorial disputes through friendly bilateral consultations between the countries directly concerned, and (2) maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea through the cooperative efforts of China and ASEAN. Premier Li Keqiang reiterated Beijing’s commitment to the dual-track approach at the November 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing. Since then, the term has appeared with increasing frequency in the official media.
But what precisely does it signify? While the first track is an extension of China’s strategy of dividing ASEAN so as to maintain its advantage in territorial negotiations, the second track—”maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea through the cooperative efforts of China and ASEAN”—seems to lead in the opposite direction. Media commentary in China hints at the rationale for the dual approach, suggesting that the second track reflects “China’s primary goal of regional economic integration.” [ 6 ] This implies that Beijing appreciates the economic merits of a single, integrated Southeast Asian economic community, and further that it believes integration will put the region’s pro-Chinese forces in a position to influence and muffle the anti-Chinese voices. In other words, while negotiating the territorial disputes separately, on a bilateral basis, Beijing has also opted to cooperate with ASEAN as a whole in order to nurture a pro-Chinese climate in the region.
Why Analyze China’s Motives?
As we have seen, Beijing is pursuing a policy aimed expanding Chinese influence across Asia and into Europe with the aim of building a vast economic zone centered on China. At present, however, American military power and political influence predominate in East Asia and Europe alike. As China’s influence spreads, the United States is bound to react with concern and suspicion. What are the likely consequences for global peace and stability?
Some schools of thought regard the struggle for hegemony and the attending clash of major powers as an inevitable, cyclic feature of international politics. This is the thrust of both A.F.K. Organski’s power transition theory and John Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism, although the two differ as to the precise dynamic behind those conflicts. If, indeed, such hegemonic clashes are inevitable, then there is little point in analyzing China’s motives. Instead, Japan and the other nations in the region would do well to begin preparing for the coming war between the United States and China.
Although it seems clear that China, with its realist approach to international affairs, is building up its military in preparation for a possible a clash with the United States, Beijing has also been assiduous in its efforts to avert such a conflict. On the other hand, one could make the case that China is avoiding conflict now merely to buy time as it builds up its strength.
Certainly, realist theory would hold that the only reason we have not seen a clash so far is that China is not yet strong enough to challenge the United States. That is certainly correct. China’s economy has developed at a breathtaking pace in recent years, but it is fast approaching the limits of the economic model that has sustained it thus far; Beijing must now turn its attention to difficult economic reforms. As far as military power goes, China has modernized its weaponry, but it still has a long way to go strategically and operationally. If China begins to pose a serious threat to US hegemony, the United States will doubtless take measures to check it.
But does this mean a military clash between China and the United States is inevitable farther down the road? As I see it, the answer depends above all on whether the United States and China can successfully address their mutual fears and suspicions. And this means understanding one another’s intentions correctly. Indeed, a failure to grasp one’s rival’s intentions is one of the key causes of conflict between major powers. If this is the case, then it follows that efforts to understand China’s perceptions and intentions will continue to be of the utmost importance for the preservation of world peace.
1. See http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2014lh/ .
2. See http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1243662.shtml .
3. Wang Jisi, “‘Xijin’: Zhongguo diyuan zhanlue de zai pingheng (Marching West: Rebalancing China’s Geopolitical Strategy), in Huanqiu shibao , October 17, 2012.
4. See http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2015-02/20/c_134007691.htm .
5. See http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1181523.shtml .
6. See http://finance.sina.com.cn/china/20141202/171420977701.shtml .