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The internationalist

How China sees the world

An emerging global power hashes out its foreign policy

(AFP/Getty Images)
By Thanassis Cambanis
June 26, 2011

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The specter of a China with rising influence in the world has long provoked anxiety here in America. Like a speeding car that suddenly fills the rearview mirror, China has grown stronger and bolder and has done it quickly: Not only does it hold colossal amounts of American currency and boast a favorable trade deficit, it has increasingly been able to play the heavy with other nations. China is forging commercial relationships with African and Middle Eastern countries that can provide it natural resources, and has the clout to press its prerogatives in more local disputes with its Asian neighbors—including last week’s face-off with Vietnam in the South China Sea.

With China emerging more forcefully onto the world stage, understanding its foreign policy is becoming increasingly important. But what exactly is that policy, and how is it made?

As scholars look deeper into China’s approach to the world around it, what they are finding there is sometimes surprising. Rather than the veiled product of a centralized, disciplined Communist Party machine, Chinese policy is ever more complex and fluid—and shaped by a lively and very polarized internal debate with several competing power centers.

There’s a clear tug of war between hard-liners who favor a nationalist, even chauvinist stance and more globally minded thinkers who want China to tread lightly and integrate more smoothly into international regimes. And the Chinese public might be pushing a China-first mentality more than its leadership. Scholars believe that the boisterous nativism on display in China’s online forums appears to be a major factor pushing Chinese foreign policy in a more hard-line direction.

Today, for all its economic might, China still isn’t considered a global superpower. Its military doesn’t have worldwide reach, and its economy, while prolific, still hasn’t made the transition to producing technology rather than just goods for the world marketplace. Because of its sheer size and the dispatch with which it has moved from Third World economy to industrial powerhouse, however, China’s arrival as a power is considered inevitable.

As it does, understanding its foreign policy becomes only more important. Overall, the contours of its internal policy debates suggest a China that’s more isolated, unsure, and in transition than its often aggressive rhetoric would suggest. The candid discussion underway in China’s own public sphere underscores that China’s positions are still under negotiation. And one thing that emerges is a picture of a powerful state that is refreshingly direct in engaging questions about how to behave in the world as it embarks on what it fully expects will be China’s century.

F

or generations, the question of China’s foreign policy was academic at best: The country was chiefly preoccupied with its own developmental great leaps forward. In 1989, with China opening to the world, then-leader Deng Xiaoping articulated a policy of pursuing ambitious goals without alarming the established great powers—or, as he put it, to “hide brightness, cherish obscurity, never take the lead but aim to do something big.”

Since then, China’s approach has shifted markedly. China has appeared anything but stealthy and restrained as it has won oil and mining concessions in Iraq and Afghanistan and defied the United States on economic matters like its currency and political flashpoints like Darfur.

What has changed is at least in part a story of a maturing state, where a single supreme leader no longer has unfettered authority to dictate foreign policy. Now, government agencies, ministries, and think tanks with competing interests have joined a lively internal debate over China’s best path.

Today, a mix of exuberance and self-aware sobriety characterizes the public discourse on foreign policy within China. “How to” books tackle questions of China’s rights and responsibilities as a fledgling superpower. China has no fewer than 428 think tanks involved in policy formulation—a number second only to the United States (although unlike in the United States, all of them have some connection to the state). Even the masses have gotten into the game; state television ran a popular 12-part documentary series in 2006 called “Rising Powers,” which examined the flaws of past empires and analyzed how China could avoid their historical errors.

In a widely read article in the most recent issue of The Washington Quarterly, David Shambaugh, a China expert at George Washington University, describes a rich and tumultuous internal foreign policy debate with at least seven discernible schools of thought.

“Many new voices and actors are now part of an unprecedentedly complex foreign-policy-making process,” Shambaugh writes. “No nation has had such an extensive, animated, and diverse domestic discourse about its roles as a rising major power as China has during the past decade.”

In the 1990s, the dominant factions in China’s policy debate espoused soft power and increasing involvement in global institutions like the United Nations. Today, Shambaugh finds that tougher, more hard-line schools of thought are on top – a consensus he describes as “truculent,” and pushing the nation “to toughen its policies and selectively throw China’s weight around.”

It’s not just America that views this turn in China with concern. In recent years, China has asserted that it has full sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, which many nations claim for use as a waterway, fishing ground, and potential field for natural gas and minerals. Last year, a group of neighboring countries, with America’s support, confronted China at an Association of South East Asian Nations meeting. That row sparked angry outbursts from Chinese officials: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact,” Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said in an enraged monologue.

At this hard end of the spectrum of Chinese thinking, Shambaugh sees groups he identifies as nativists and realists. Many of them see the international system as a conspiracy to suppress China, and they worry that the Communist Party’s embrace of the global economy could prove its undoing. The realists, whom Shambaugh considers the dominant group today, want China to assert itself aggressively, especially against the powers—including Britain and the United States—that they see as having historically worked against China’s interests.

More moderate schools of thought in China, he says, endorse China acting with more authority but focusing its policy attention on a few key relationships. Some Chinese specialists say Russia or the United States should take priority, while others argue that China should cast its lot with neighbors in Asia, or identify with the developing world.

At the liberal end of the spectrum, “selective multilateralists” and “globalists” buy into the idea that China will have to take on new responsibilities as its power grows, even if that means embracing international norms that limit China’s ability to maneuver on issues like Tibet, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. Some of these thinkers are still suspicious of international entanglements, but want China to be seen as contributing to the global system rather than behaving as a free rider. The most liberal globalists within China would like to see China concede some limits to its sovereignty and fully integrate with international institutions. The influence of these liberal schools, however, appears to have drastically shrunk since a peak in the 1990s.

Predicting what China will do, however, is more complicated than just following the conversation. Unlike the United States, where rival branches of government reach a consensus policy after a comparatively transparent process, China’s real decisions are still made in closed rooms by just a handful of top leaders. And who, exactly, influences those leaders is a question more complicated than it used to be.

As an example, MIT political scientist M. Taylor Fravel, who closely tracks Chinese policy, explains that an unlikely group of players contributes to China’s approach to the South China Sea, often forcing the central government’s hand. These include fisheries officials, who often detain foreign fisherman; the state oil company, responsible for exploration and drilling in the sea; the State Oceanographic Administration, which patrols waters claimed by China; and the navy, which conducts exercises in the disputed waters.

“The real story is the growth in the number of state actors and the capabilities of these actors that can influence China’s relations with other states and thus impact its foreign policy,” he says.

W

hat does all this mean for American policy makers? And does Washington have any leverage over the contest for influence within China?

Because China’s identity is so fluid today, Shambaugh argues that American actions have significant impact, especially if diplomats knowingly target representatives of all the different currents of thought. But, Shambaugh warns, policy making is almost inevitably going to have unwanted repercussions within China. Tough American positions can reinforce the fear, even paranoia, of China’s chauvinist nationalists, he says. But more conciliatory policies could strengthen another hard-line group, the China-first realists, who would claim American concessions as the fruit of Chinese aggression.

Even as China’s debate intensifies, and some scholars argue, is likely to harden, America seems determined to refocus its attention on China. A parade of Obama administration officials in recent months have made public comments about their interest in directing Washington’s policy energy toward the Far East, with its vast strategic interests, after a decade of distraction in the Middle East and Central Asia.

John Lee, a researcher at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and the Hudson Institute in Washington, argues that with Osama bin Laden dead and America’s wars winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan, America will be able to pay more attention to Asia. Asian states that perceive America as a less hostile, friendlier power will use Washington’s reinvigorated profile in the region as a counterweight to China’s designs, which are often perceived as bullying or controlling by its neighbors. As a result, Lee says, China’s isolation is likely to grow.

“China respects and even fears the United States more than the vast majority of Americans probably realize,” Lee recently wrote in Foreign Policy. “China’s sense of isolation is not an act but acute and real.”

Anxiety usually makes things worse in international relations, and it’s possible that hard-liners will gain power if China does feel more threatened. But President Obama has won plaudits from China watchers for his tiered approach. He has engaged on some issues, for example muting American criticism on human rights and Tibet. On others, he has set down firm limits, opposing China’s claim to the South China Sea and demanding that China stop propping up its currency.

Even amid the lingering questions, what’s clear is that China has outgrown its phase as a mere regional player, and soon will cross the threshold into global power. The more China thinks about how to influence the world beyond its borders, the more the rest of the world is going to pay attention to what’s going on inside them.

Thanassis Cambanis is the author of ”A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel” and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is an Ideas columnist.