China Deploys Pugilistic Foreign Policy with New Vigor

Publication: China Brief Volume: 12 Issue: 12

A Competitive Edge Behind the Handshakes and Smiles

Daunting challenges call for extraordinary responses. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration has found itself on the defensive particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. China’s sovereignty spats in the South China Sea with several Southeast Asian states came to a head in a prolonged naval standoff with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal (also known as the Huangyan islet). Tension with Vietnam—another disputant to China’s claims over South China Sea islands—also remains high. Japan and India, both of which also have territorial rows with China, have boosted military ties with the Philippines and Vietnam. Moreover, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced at the annual Shangri-La Security Dialogue in Singapore in early June that the Pentagon would by 2020 base as much as 60 percent of its naval capacity—including six aircraft carrier battle groups—in the Asia-Pacific theater (Associated Press, June 1; Reuters, June 1). This seemed to be a substantiation of the Asian “pivot” that President Barack Obama unveiled with much fanfare early this year. These developments have apparently prompted Beijing’s foreign policy establishment to exacerbate the  aggressive tactics in the diplomatic and security arenas that it first started last year (“Beijing Adopts Multi-Pronged Approach to Parry Washington’s Challenge,” China Brief, November 30, 2011).

In theory, senior party and government cadres have not abandoned late patriarch Deng Xiaoping’s famous foreign-policy dictum of the early 1990s: “Take a low profile and never take the lead.” A rising number of influential academic and military advisers to Beijing have argued that due to China’s fast-rising quasi-superpower status—and the intensification of the country’s competition with the United States and its Asian allies—the “low profile” approach has become all but obsolete. According to widely-published defense theorist Yang Yi, “it is no longer possible for China to keep a low profile.” “When any country infringes upon our nation’s security and interests, we must stage a resolute self-defense,” Rear Admiral Yang told Xinhua News Agency in an interview. “Counter-attack measures [taken by Beijing] should be ‘of short duration, low cost and efficient’ – and leave no room for ambiguity or [undesirable] after-effects” (Xinhua, December 26, 2011; Southern Daily [Guangzhou], December 26, 2011). The usually hawkish Global Times, which is a subsidiary of the People’s Daily, said it all when it editorialized that for China to safeguard its national interests, “we must dare to defend our principles and have the courage to confront multiple countries simultaneously” (Global Times, May 11; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], May 11).

Indeed, Beijing’s immediate reaction to the Panetta statement was hardly in congruence with Deng’s “take a low profile” mantra. The head of the Chinese delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue, Lieutenant General Ren Haiquan, took a tough line in response to the Pentagon’s plans to boost its naval presence in Asia. “We take the worst-case scenarios into consideration,” said Ren, who is Deputy Commandant of the Academy of Military Science. Ren added “Once Chinese interests are hurt, our retaliatory measures will be terrifying” (, June 3; China News Service, June 3).  At the same time, a number of military commentators in the official Chinese media have made thinly veiled threats about using military means to settle diplomatic flaps. Major General Luo Yuan, a popular media commentator, has reiterated the People’s Liberation Army’s readiness to “teach the Philippines a lesson.” Luo blamed nationalistic elements inside and outside the Philippine government for inflaming relations with China. “If the Philippines cannot rein in their folks, let us discipline them,” he wrote last month. Regarding the alleged provocations of the Philippine navy, Luo warned “We have repeatedly adopted a forbearing attitude—and we have reached the limits of tolerance. There is no more need to show further tolerance” (Global Times, May 23;, May 23).

Emblematic of the more assertive stance taken by Beijing is the so-called foreign policy of core national interests—and, by extension, the red line diplomacy. Put simply, this means Beijing wants to draw “red lines” around geographical locations deemed integral to the country’s “core national interests.” If a foreign power is perceived as having encroached upon these red lines, Beijing reserves the right to retaliate through military and other tough tactics. Traditionally, Beijing’s “core national interests” merely referred to issues of national unity and territorial integrity—for example, Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang must never be allowed to secede from the motherland. Alarm bells were sounded in Washington and several Asian capitals in March 2010 when two senior U.S. officials were told by Chinese cadres that Beijing regarded the South China Sea as falling within the country’s “core national interests.” (See “Hawks vs. Doves: Beijing Debates ‘Core Interests’ and Sino-U.S. Relations,” China Brief, August 19, 2010). In an official statement a few months later, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang apparently tried to cool things down by refraining from naming specific places when he gave the official definition of China’s core interests. He said “Areas relating to national sovereignty, security, territorial integrity and developmental interests all belong to China’s core interests” (Global Times, July 13, 2010; China News Service, July 13, 2010). Given that China’s “developmental interests” may include reliable supplies of oil and gas as well as strategic minerals, Qin’s definition could be interpreted to encompass islets in the South China Sea that are supposedly rich in hydrocarbons.

In the wake of the on-going crisis with Manila—and Panetta’s dramatic announcement—Chinese theorists have been pushing the red line policy with more gusto than ever. People’s Daily commentator Ding Gang cited the South China Sea as a vital part of China’s core national interests. “We have to draw a set of lines [in the South China Sea] for the United States so as to alert the Americans regarding what it can do and what it cannot,” wrote Ding in the party mouthpiece, “The Americans should also be made to be aware of its hegemonic tendencies. This is not only necessary but also beneficial to the Americans” (People’s Daily, June 2; Global Times, June 2). Senior cadres also have made more overt references to the disputed Diaoyu archipelago (also known as the Senkakus) in the East China Sea as part and parcel of China’s core interests. While meeting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda in Beijing last month, Premier Wen Jiabao apparently complained about Tokyo’s stance on the Diaoyu islands as well as the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. The official media quoted Wen as urging Noda to “respect China’s core interests and major concerns” (China News Service, May 15; Yomiuri Shimbun, May 15).

The red line diplomacy also includes penalizing a variety of countries whose leaders have either met with the Dalai Lama or allowed meetings of the World Uighur Congress, which supports some form of Xinjiang independence, to take place in their countries. Beijing has halted a series of high-level exchanges with the United Kingdom after Prime Minister David Cameron held a “private meeting” with the Dalai Lama at Saint Paul’s Church in London last month (Ming Pao, June 14; Xinhua, June 13). This was reminiscent of the “punishments” that Beijing had inflicted on countries including Germany, France and the United States after their leaders had met with the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. In almost all cases, however, Beijing has “normalized” relations with countries penalized due to the Dalai Lama factor after a decent interval—at most, several months.

Equally controversial has been Beijing’s increasingly frequent deployment of economic weapons to resolve diplomatic differences. During the on-going territorial confrontation with Manila, Beijing has curtailed the importation of Philippine fruit and agricultural produce. It also has called upon Chinese tour groups to stop visiting the Philippines (Philippine Star [Manila] May 20; The Australian, May 17). This extraordinary gesture was a further development of the CCP administration’s controversial “rare earth” strategy, which was used to put pressure on Tokyo in late 2010 after the captain of a Chinese fishing junk was detained by Japanese coast guard in the vicinity of the Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands. Beijing also cut the number of Chinese tourists visiting Japan. Earlier this year, Japan, the United States and a number of other countries filed a complaint in the World Trade Organization (WTO) accusing Beijing of using artificial fiats to cut down on the export of rare earth minerals, which are an important component of a variety of high-tech products. The WTO is pressing ahead with investigations despite Beijing’s vehement denial (Xinhua, March 13; Bloomberg News, March 12).

Until recently, Beijing had cautioned against “mixing economics and politics” in China’s relations with foreign countries. At the height of the anti-Japanese riots in 2005, nationalistic Chinese demonstrators called for a boycott of Japanese products. The firebrands also asked the Ministry of Railways not to import Japanese bullet-train technology. Then-Minister of Commerce Bo Xilai, however, admonished the nationalists to separate economic from political and diplomatic issues. Bo indicated, in this globalized economy, boycotting Japanese products would end up hurting China. He argued “Boycotting products [of another country] will be detrimental to the interests of the producers and consumers of both countries…This will hurt our cooperation and [economic] development with other countries.” The minister added “we will protect the legal interests of all foreign companies in China, including those of Japanese enterprises” (Xinhua, April 22, 2005; China News Service, April 22, 2005). Going further back, when Beijing had to make annual applications to the U.S. government for “most favored nation status” in the 1990s, Chinese officials invariably asked members of Congress who criticized the nation’s human rights records “to separate politics from economics” (, November 25, 2010;, February 23, 2010;, December 24, 2002).

Other instances of Beijing’s controversial use of economic power to score diplomatic points are seen in its long-standing financial ties to rogue states, including those that are the targets of UN-mandated economic sanctions. Beijing not only provides economic aid to North Korea, but also trades with the Stalinist regime in contravention of the UN embargo (The Telegraph [London], June 8; Reuters, May 17). The CCP also maintains close investment and trading ties with Iran. Bilateral trade was worth $29.3 billion last year, up more than tenfold from a decade ago. Beijing also has been criticized for taking advantage of the withdrawal of Western oil companies from Iran to acquire oilfields and related resources there at good prices (South China Morning Post, June 17).

It seems evident that Beijing’s bare-knuckled diplomacy has borne fruit in individual cases. For example, the “rare earth” strategy apparently played some role in Tokyo’s decision to release the captain caught in East China Sea in late 2010. Additionally, Manila has become less vociferous in its attacks on Beijing’s South China Sea policies in the wake of China’s economic pressure. Overall, Beijing’s adoption of hawkish and controversial tactics has hurt China’s global image—and its ability to win friends on its periphery.

This concern seems to be behind an article in the Global Times last week entitled “Why Has China’s Global Environment Become More Severe?” In this thought-provoking piece, Wang Jisi, a respected international relations expert at Peking University, argued that “while the global balance of powers has demonstrated the trend of ‘the East rising and the West declining’, China’s international situation has not improved.” Among the numerous domestic and foreign factors that Wang analyzed were Chinese neighbors’ reactions to the country’s more assertive power projection. “In the course of China’s boosting its national defense capability, its neighbors and the U.S. not only cast doubt on [Beijing’s] peaceful-development intentions but they also strengthen defensive measures that target China, in addition to coordinating their China-related strategies,” Wang wrote, “All these have put bigger pressure on China’s national security (Global Times, June 13). An equally pertinent point, of course, is whether China’s global status—and its sense of diplomatic security—may not have been enhanced if it had refrained from using foreign policy tactics that are deemed to run counter to well-established international norms. The CCP leadership may want to think twice before abandoning both the letter and the spirit of Deng’s “lie low” stratagem, which signaled in an unequivocal manner the Middle Kingdom’s commitment to global diplomatic conventions.