Beijing’s Great Leap Outward: Power Projection with Chinese Characteristics

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 3

The forceful projection of China’s hard and soft power in recent months marks a stunning departure from the foreign policy axioms of late patriarch Deng Xiaoping. Deng, who anointed President Hu Jintao as the “core” of the Fourth Generation leadership, noted shortly after the Tiananmen Square massacre that China must “keep a low profile and never take the lead” in global affairs. Particularly in reference to the United States, Deng pointed out that China should “seek [opportunities for] cooperation and avoid confrontation.” This advice was largely followed by Third-Generation leaders, such as ex-president Jiang Zemin and ex-premier Zhou Rongji, both of whom were accused of being “pro-American” by nationalistic intellectuals.

This shift in Chinese foreign and military policy had begun well before a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) missile destroyed an obsolete Chinese weather satellite on January 11. Last winter, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and PLA propaganda machinery surprised observers with the dramatic publicity of the launch of the Chinese-made Jian-10 fourth generation jet fighter, which is said to be the equivalent of the U.S. F-16 and the Russian SU-30. For example, state-owned CCTV showed tell-tale footage of the supersonic jet executing difficult maneuvers as well as refueling drills in mid-air (Xinhua, December 29, 2006). Until recently, it was rare for the official media to disclose information about newly developed hardware. A few months earlier, Western PLA watchers were also astounded to find military specialists discussing on-going plans to build the nation’s first aircraft carrier in the Chinese media. Blueprints of possible models even showed up on the websites of a few official news agencies (People’s Daily, November 17, 2006; November 21, 2006).

Sources close to the defense establishment said the PLA may unveil additional new weapons or technologies throughout the current year so as to demonstrate the fruits of military modernization under Hu, who serves as the chairman of the Central Military Commission. Examples may include test-flights of the even more advanced Jian-11 fighter; the unveiling of Chinese-made submarines; inauguration of indigenously designed laser weapons and even another demonstration of the Second Artillery Corps’ ability to hit targets in outer space.

On the diplomatic front, Hu set the tone for the rest of his term, which will run into 2013, by embarking on a grueling 12-day trip to Africa last week. This is the president’s second trip to the continent in less than a year. This “celebration” of Sino-African camaraderie follows on the heels of November’s Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), when Hu made history by hosting 40 African heads of state in Beijing.

Western reports of Hu’s on-going eight-nation African tour have focused on China’s anxiety to secure a long-term, reliable supply of oil and other strategic commodities; African crude already accounts for nearly a third of China’s total oil imports. The Chinese leadership has inked new deals on oil and other minerals with several countries, including Cameroon, Sudan, Zambia and South Africa. Equally important, however, has been Beijing’s eagerness to demonstrate the impressive sway of Chinese economic and diplomatic prowess. During the FOCAC as well as the current trip, Beijing has written off hundreds of millions of dollars of debt owed by 33 African nations. China’s direct investment in 49 African countries is close to $7 billion. While meeting Zambian leaders earlier this week, Hu vigorously defended his country’s assertive strategy toward Africa against charges of “Chinese-style neo-colonialism.” “China is eagerly expanding imports from Africa,” the president said, adding that tariffs for African products had been drastically curtailed. Hu declared that Chinese aid and investment in areas ranging from infrastructure and mining to hospitals and schools would be increased. The Africans and the Chinese, Hu said, would always remain “good friends, good partners and good brothers” (Xinhua, February 3).

It is true that an increasing number of African politicians—particularly those in the opposition—have protested against China’s “exploitation” of Africa’s resources and the ill-treatment of local laborers by the Chinese owners of African-based firms. Hu and his foreign policy advisers, however, are convinced that as far as the “mainstream elite”—particularly the authoritarian rulers and businessmen in several countries—are concerned, China has already displaced the United States as Africa’s big brother. Indeed, one of the main purposes of Hu’s trip is to demonstrate that China’s African policy is on par with Western norms. Thus in Liberia, the president inspected Chinese peacekeeping forces billeted there under the auspices of the United Nations. In Sudan, where China has been accused of supplying arms to government forces committing atrocities in Darfur, Hu urged President Omar al-Bashir to do more to permit a UN-sponsored initiative aimed at halting the genocide in Darfur (Xinhua, February 3). Western diplomatic sources in Beijing noted that a key reason behind Beijing’s newfound eagerness to participate in UN-organized peacekeeping missions is to demonstrate China’s rising clout, particularly when juxtaposed against the declining influence of the United States in Africa and the Middle East.

Apart from Africa, Beijing is focusing its diplomatic initiative on regions where China believes that it has an opportunity to displace the influence of the United States, which remains preoccupied with Iraq and Afghanistan. Due largely to its bulging foreign reserves, which are expected to hit $1.1 trillion this year, Beijing possesses the ability to utilize aid and trade to further consolidate China’s position in Latin America and especially Southeast Asia. During a meeting last December with the heads of state of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Premier Wen Jiabao succeeded in expanding several initiatives under the umbrella of a China-ASEAN free trade zone. Voluminous arms sales to countries including Myanmar, Thailand and Indonesia are also in the pipeline.

Yet, a number of Chinese and Western observers have begun to question the sustainability of Hu’s aggressive foreign and military policy. Given that the Chinese Foreign Ministry was not consulted prior to the January 11 anti-satellite missile test, quite a few Chinese officials have privately expressed misgivings over the timing of, if not the rationale behind, the blatant demonstration of raw power. More liberal Chinese officials have expressed their concerns that Hu’s strategies, whether in Africa, Southeast Asia or space, may precipitate a confrontation with the United States. As evidence of this possibility, members of the U.S. Congress have already called for an investigation of whether the recent developments in Chinese weaponry could pose a threat to U.S. security, and NASA has shelved space-cooperation plans with Beijing (Washington Times, February 2).

Prominent Chinese scholars and analysts, however, have defended Hu Jintao’s security and foreign policy. People’s University international affairs expert Shi Yinhong, a known advisor to the Chinese leadership, indicated that Beijing’s enhanced peacekeeping role in Sudan and other African countries was evidence of China’s willingness to be a “respectable stakeholder” in the global community. He explained to the Western media that such demonstrations of responsible diplomacy “would boost China’s image in the West and would be welcome in Africa too” (New York Times, February 2). Likewise, Peng Guangxian, a well-known PLA strategist, noted that the recent upgrading of the Chinese arsenal was “entirely for our country’s self-defense, and aimed at boosting China’s national security only.” “Only Taiwan separatists and those people who have ulterior motives regarding China would feel uncomfortable about China’s advanced weapons,” he added (Huanqiu Shibao, February 2).

Seasoned analysts have pointed out, however, that the current leadership had decided late last year to make a clean break with Deng’s cautious axioms and instead, embark on a path of high-profile force projection. The analysts noted that Beijing was convinced it had little to lose. For instance, even under the best circumstances, it was doubtful how much advanced technology the PLA would have been able to obtain from their U.S. counterparts even if space and military cooperation between the two countries were to take place. Even without the recent demonstrations of PLA capabilities, the defense alliance between the United States and Japan will likely intensify further through such means as an accelerated development of a theater missile defense system aimed at both North Korea and China.

A new generation of generals and strategists within the PLA apparently believes that Beijing has more to gain by attaining a “balance of terror” between China and the United States. As senior strategist Peng noted, “We are developing sophisticated equipment so as to realize the principle of ‘we’ve got whatever you’ve got.’” This balance of terror would deter the United States from engaging in activities that encroached upon Beijing’s “core national interests.” In the case of Taiwan, Beijing is convinced that the embattled ruling party in Taiwan, the Democratic Progressive Party, is likely to make a further push on independence so as to rally its base—native Taiwanese primarily residing in southern Taiwan. Beijing believes that if the White House realizes that the PLA is well-equipped to disable U.S. spy satellites and target U.S. aircraft-carrier battle groups, Washington would be hesitant to come to Taiwan’s aid.

There are also benefits, both tangible and intangible, that may accrue with China’s achievement of quasi-superpower status. Given the United States’ difficulties in Iraq and the perceived shrinkage of America’s moral high ground in international affairs, countries in regions such as Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America may have pragmatic reasons to tilt toward a seemingly benign, foreign-aid dispensing China. This goodwill may translate into more favorable terms when Chinese state firms negotiate for oil contracts in Africa and Latin America. Moreover, thanks to the backing from large numbers of Third World countries, Beijing may be able to vote down motions at the UN and other world bodies that are deemed detrimental to the interests of Beijing and close allies, such as Burma and Iran.

There may also be overwhelming domestic calculations behind Hu’s policies. With Chinese society becoming more fragmented due to the growing disparities between the haves and the have-nots, Beijing increasingly relies upon overarching ideals, such as patriotism and nationalism, to bind the disparate nation together. Spectacular demonstrations of the country’s own military capabilities and diplomatic triumphs in Africa and Latin America make it easier for Hu and his PLA colleagues to justify even greater increases in the army’s budget. And in the months leading up to the 17th Party Congress, Hu needs the support of the PLA generals in order to fully consolidate his stature in the CCP political hierarchy and legacy. All of these factors seem to impel the Fourth Generation leadership toward a much bolder—if not riskier—approach to the Middle Kingdom’s centuries-old quest for fuguo qiangbing or “wealthy country, strong army.”