Beijing’s New “balanced” Foreign Policy: An Assessment

Publication: China Brief Volume: 4 Issue: 4

The past twelve months having been a banner year for Chinese foreign policy, senior cadres, including President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, have been busy laying the foundations of a diplomacy that is balanced yet pro-active. And the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Leading Group on Foreign Affairs (LGFA) has knocked into shape a multi-pronged approach to boost China’s status in the international community while ensuring good relations with key powers as well as the country’s neighbors.

According to Beijing-based diplomatic scholars, the key word in the Fourth-Generation leadership’s new style diplomacy is balance. First, Hu, who has headed the LGFA for a year, will seek a Golden Mean between the views of late patriarch Deng Xiaoping and those of former president Jiang Zemin. In the early 1990s, Deng coined the famous slogan that China should “keep a low profile and never take the lead” in world affairs. However, Deng’s successor, Jiang, wanted to conduct so-called Great Power Diplomacy, by which he meant that China would play a role in global affairs commensurate with its growing economic, military and geopolitical clout.

The Fourth-Generation leadership’s distinctive approach is best illustrated by recent relations with the United States. Hu has continued with Deng’s dictum that China should focus on internal economic development–and avoid direct confrontation with the world’s only superpower. Thus, despite its serious reservations about the expansion of U.S. “unilateralism,” Beijing has acquiesced in American military action in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the CCP leadership has been much more roactive–and even aggressive–in several critical areas of Sino-U.S. ties. For example, it has been assertive in calling on the White House to end its long standing “strategic ambiguity” on the Taiwan issue by openly opposing Taiwanese independence. Moreover, Beijing has taken the lead in

engineering the six-nation talks devoted to defusing the North Korean nuclear crisis. This move has boosted its leverage with Washington as well as with Tokyo and Seoul.

The imperative of balance–in the sense of playing one country or bloc of nations off against another–also informs Beijing’s leap forward in ties with the European Union. Beijing has conceived of Sino-EU ties as key to its goal of establishing a “multipolar world,” that is, a global order that is not dominated by the United States. In this context, Beijing hopes that Sino-European cooperation in arenas such as the United Nations could fend off the “unilateralist” tendencies of the George W. Bush administration. In a White Paper on Sino-EU relations published late last year, Beijing envisaged a “full strategic partnership” with the EU in areas including trade, culture, technology, defense and space exploration.

In high level dealings with senior European politicians–for example, during Hu’s high profile trip to Paris last month–CCP leaders indicated confidence that China’s trade with Europe would surpass that with the United States in several years time. Bilateral commerce is expected to hit US$200 billion by

2010. And Beijing has been particularly aggressive in pushing for the EU to lift its fifteen-year-old embargo on the export of military technology and weapons to China.

A diplomatic source said Beijing had put together a war chest of some US$40 billion for purchasing EU–and in particular French–hi-tech and defense related know-how and hardware. This was in appreciation for the huge efforts that President Jacques Chirac had made in lobbying other European capitals to end the arms ban. “Beijing figures that after the EU has lifted the embargo, there is no

way that the U.S. can hold out for long,” the diplomat said. “After all, hi-tech corporations and, in particular, the defense industrial establishment in the U.S. cannot afford to let their French, German, British and Scandinavian competitors dominate the world’s largest market.”

Then there is a third “balance” in China’s diplomacy: That between wielding the political and the economic cards. In theory, Beijing still pays lip service to Chairman Mao’s old goal of being leader of the Third World–and of boosting solidarity with the underdeveloped world in the interest of forging a multipolar global order. For example, both Hu and Wen have paid high profile visits to Africa in recent months, where the senior cadres have consolidated Beijing’s strategic and comradely ties with major players on the continent.

However, economic concerns, and in particular the search for reliable supplies of petroleum and other resources deemed indispensable to China’s economic takeoff, have assumed more and more significance in Beijing’s world outlook. As Premier Wen said in the United States last December, a country’s foreign policy is increasingly “based on [perceptions of] national interest and economic

development.” China’s emergence as the world’s sixth largest economy–and the fourth largest trading nation– underpins its growing clout in the global arena. And Beijing is aggressively playing the “import card” to gain the good will and cooperation of countries from both the First and the Third World.

The relative effectiveness of the Hu-Wen team’s diplomacy of balance can be assessed through examining one of China’s major diplomatic initiatives the past year. This is the policy of good neighborliness, which is seen as crucial in nurturing a congenial global climate where China can build up its economic and military prowess. As Beijing-based international affairs scholar Ruan Zongze

pointed out, good neighborliness involves “the concepts of maintaining peace with, mollifying, and enriching your neighbors.” Ruan added that the Chinese leadership also subscribed to the belief of attaining “co-prosperity” together with surrounding countries.

Crucial to Beijing’s woo-your-neighbor gambit is the concept of heping jueqi (“the peaceful emergence of China”). The concept was first advanced by a group of innovative Shanghai-based academics and cadres to counter the “China Threat theory.” Heping jueqi, which underscores the fact that China will never seek hegemony, also has a strong economic component. As former Central Party School Vice-President Zheng Bijian put it, heping jueqi implied that “China must seek a

peaceful global environment to develop its economy even as it tries to safeguard world peace through development.” Beijing has stressed that far from hurting other nations, China’s new found pre-eminence will bring them sizeable gains.

For instance, Chinese theorists have drawn the distinction between the rapid expansion of China’s economy in the past ten years with the takeoff of Japan and that of the Four Asian Dragons (South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong) from the 1970’s onwards. While the economic juggernauts of Japan and the dragons were mostly predicated upon aggressive, even predatory exports, China’s growth can be attributed not just to overseas markets, but also to massive domestic consumption and foreign investment.

Of equal importance, China has opened its door to imports, which increased by 40 percent last year. And with China sustaining notable trade deficits with most Asian nations, its heping jueqi has contributed to the latter’s well-being. Late last year, Beijing signed a non-aggression pact with ASEAN, meaning that sovereignty disputes over flashpoints such as the South China Sea will be

shelved indefinitely in the interest of joint economic development. Through means including free trade agreements, the Chinese leadership also pledged to increase imports from and economic aid to ASEAN countries. How well is Beijing’s new diplomacy working? Is China’s new-found clout with the United States, the EU and Asian countries merely a function of its fast-expanding economic and

geopolitical muscle? The performance of the Hu-Wen team’s one-year-old foreign policy can perhaps be gauged by the reception that its heping jueqi and good-neighborly policy is receiving. While there is no doubt that the China Threat theory has been less frequently cited by Asian politicians and

commentators, Beijing has to do a lot more in winning friends and building bridges to former foes.

After all, the image of a fast rising China wielding formidable economic, diplomatic and military powers in pursuit of its national interests–however legitimate the latter may be–could clash with that of an all-smiles, conciliatory neighbor. Take China’s new urgency for securing reliable supplies

of oil and gas and other raw materials, seen as a prerequisite for sustained economic growth. Despite Beijing’s apparent readiness to leave the South China Sea disputes to later generations, the leadership has raised alarms over alleged attempts by different claimants to the oil-rich area to expand their footholds.

Last month the Chinese Foreign Ministry decried efforts by unnamed countries to invite multinationals to prospect for oil and gas in parts of the region that are under these countries’ effective control. According to the official Outlook Eastern Weekly, “relevant countries have mounted offensives against China on the issue of sovereignty in the South China Sea–and they have strengthened their

military grip over islands and sea lanes.”

China’s anxiety over securing reliable supplies of electricity and water has also pitted it against neighbors, including Thailand, Burma, Vietnam and Cambodia. A case in point is Beijing’s plan to build hydroelectric dams at the upper reaches of the Mekong and Nu–and to funnel more water from these rivers for irrigation purposes. This has resulted in less–and poorer-quality–water for countries reliant upon the downstream portions of these rivers. A more serious impediment to heping jueqi, however, is China’s refusal to overhaul its outdated governmental structures. Thanks to the country’s accession to the World Trade Organization in late 2001, more of China’s economic and business

operations are now approaching international norms. The winds of globalization, however, have hardly touched Chinese political institutions and systems.

Take for example the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which is a major factor in the China Threat theory. Most Asian-Pacific countries have no quarrels with Beijing’s urge to build up defense forces that are commensurate with the country’s economic and geopolitical strength. What they find most disturbing is the PLA’s lack of transparency and “state within a state” status, and particularly the fact that it reports only to the CCP’s dominant faction.

And needless to say, the PLA’s readiness to wage “liberation warfare” to reabsorb Taiwan–should the administration of President Chen Shui-bian press ahead with its “creeping independence” agenda–has raised disturbing questions about the CCP leadership’s policy of good neighborliness and global responsibility. Restructuring–and modernizing–China’s many Leninist political

institutions and conventions, however, would require a reformist zeal that the Hu-Wen team has yet to exhibit.