Evaluating the logic of Beijing’s actions through the prism of Western models and concepts is, at the very least, unconstructive. China quite consciously did not accept the hegemony of Western discourse in international relations and is trying to build its own discourse, which is in discord with the status quo in the West, writes Valdai Club expert Ivan Zuenko.
No one will argue with the fact that China is an important political player on the world stage and a significant factor in the development of international relations. The days when analysts talked about the “rise of China” as a forecast are long gone. China has already risen. The current period is the time of the maximum strengthening of the PRC; the former model of rapid growth is already stalling, and a new one is yet to be found. This allows us to talk about cementing the current situation, both within the country and in terms of Beijing’s ability to project its power abroad. Roughly speaking, China is unlikely to become stronger, but at the same time it will not become weaker in the foreseeable future: unless, that is, there are the tectonic shifts in the system of international relations that Xi Jinping warned about at a recent congress of the Communist Party, when he spoke about “black swans” and “grey rhinos”.
China is great again
However, what kind of actor on the world stage the risen China is, and what lies at the heart of its actions, is still a debatable question. It is already clear that China, like many other countries in the developing world, has not exchanged its unique identity for the imaginary benefits of Westernisation and, contrary to the aspirations of the American intellectual elite, despite its middle class becoming richer, China did not turn into in a weak-willed “satellite” of Washington.
In other words, Beijing managed to take advantage of both: combining protectionism and safeguarding of national traditions from being drawn into the “Western agenda” on the one hand, with all the benefits that integration into the global economic system brought to it on the other. Actually, such a situation seemed to China to be the most advantageous, so the gap initiated by Washington is still perceived by the West as an unfavourable development. In China one still hears the voices of those who, negatively assessing the confrontation with the West, at the same time call for a return to the “good old times”, when China was not perceived as a threat, and for the sake of would-be “de-sovereignisation”, even obvious deviations from the logic of neoliberal globalisation were forgiven, such as the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
However, from the point of view of the question that interests us – whether China has a foreign policy strategy – something else is more important: evaluating the logic of Beijing’s actions through the prism of Western models and concepts is, at the very least, unconstructive. China quite consciously did not accept the hegemony of Western discourse in international relations and is trying to build its own discourse, which is in discord with the status quo in the West. So, if we evaluate Beijing’s major foreign policy initiatives according to the usual Western patterns, then we get complete nonsense: the Belt and Road (一带一路) Initiative does not have any classification at all, since it has neither targets nor a roadmap. The publicised concept of the “community with a shared future for mankind” (人类命运共同体), by and large, is described by one banal phrase: “Let there be peace in the world, it is more profitable to cooperate than to conflict.”
No less misleading is the archaization of ideas about China, which is found in political science literature all the time. A typical statement in this spirit about modern (!) China can sound like this: “The political thinking of the Chinese involves long-term strategies, calm preparations and the absence of unnecessary movements. It’s practically the philosophy of traditional martial arts.”
In practice, we see that China easily adapts Western political concepts (in addition to the aforementioned “swans” and “rhinos" and discourse, one can at least mention “wolf warrior” approaches in the statements of diplomats). China is constantly in search of new forms and methods and tries not to focus on its past: whether it was the heyday of ancient or medieval empires, or the recent “long eighties”.
Therefore, when evaluating Beijing’s foreign policy ideology and strategy, we must proceed, first, from the inconsistency and multiplicity of factors influencing them, and, second, from the inconsistency of their implementation. Both have objective causes and far-reaching consequences.
The political tradition of the People’s Republic of China (a state founded in 1949 as a result of the communists’ victory in the civil war) is a complex mix of three basic components: the thousand-year heritage of Chinese civilisation, Soviet prescriptions, as well as the Chinese communists’ own experience, gained during the years of the struggle for power. However, there are more factors that influence China’s modern foreign policy, some of which contradict each other.
First, this is an internal idea of China as a great civilisation, which should be a regional leader and one of the centres of the world order – and not because of strength, but because of higher civilizational achievements. Second, the historical memory of the traditions of ethnocentrism, vassal-tributary relations with neighbours and the possibility of the peaceful co-development of a large number of countries in a Chinese-centric economic and cultural system, as it was quite recently, in the Middle Ages and at the dawn of modern times.
No less important is the third factor, associated with the sentiment of revanchism, which goes back to the idea of the civilizational crisis of the 19th and 20th centuries as a period of external pressure on China. Regarding the restoration of China’s civilizational power, the “great revitalisation of the Chinese nation” (中华民族伟大的振兴), about which Xi Jinping talks so much appears to be the only fair outcome. At the same time, a number of unresolved problems with neighbours (territorial, historical memory, etc.) fuel these moods of revanchism, which objectively frighten external observers.
It should not be forgotten that China is a partocratic state, and the party in power has declared its loyalty to the ideals of communism, including its ideas about internationalism. The inertia of internal ideas about China as a “developing” state is also great, which was comfortable and safe within the framework of the concept proposed by Deng Xiaoping “Hide your strength, bide your time” (韬光养晦有所作为).
Finally, China, on the one hand, is the “state of the Chinese nation”, for which the key issue is the unification of all Chinese within one country (hence the concept of “one country, two systems” (一国两制) and such a painful attitude towards the “Taiwan issue”). At the same time, de facto and de jure, the PRC is a multi-ethnic state inhabited by peoples who are culturally and linguistically close to other centres of world politics. These are, first of all, the Muslim peoples of Xinjiang, whose existence largely determines Beijing’s relations with Islamic countries.
All this makes the Chinese foreign policy “ideology” a complex, situational set of attitudes, reflecting the contradictory nature of the modern Chinese state. On the one hand, this is the ideology of an ambitious great power with pronounced nationalist overtones, mixed with revanchism and complexes regarding “European colonisers”; on the other hand, this is the ideology of the “leader of the third world,” declaring its desire to bring benefits, if not to the entire planet, then at least its closest post-colonial associates. With all this, in the end, China engages in the policymaking of the modern capitalist state, proceeding, first of all, from the imperative to turn a profit using national capital.
Of course, there is also the main direction of foreign policy ideology, associated with China’s general movement towards the realisation of the second of the “two centenary goals” (两个一百年). This refers to the implementation by 2049, the year of the centenary of the PRC, of “Chinese modernisation” (中国式现代化) on the basis of “universal prosperity, harmonious coexistence of man and nature, and the rejection of wars, robbery and colonization”. In other words, “building a modernised socialist state” (社会主义现代化国家). Foreign policy in this regard is an important, but still auxiliary tool.
The inconsistency of the factors influencing foreign policy ideology leads to inconsistency in implementation. For example, the Belt and Road Initiative was initially perceived by foreign partners as an opportunity to solve their infrastructure problems at the Chinese expense. At the same time, Chinese experts from the very beginning insisted that the Belt and Road implies mutual development, and China simply does not have the resources to benefit the whole world alone. The blurred scope of the initiative, the loud statements of Chinese politicians who tend to focus only on the positive factors, and the image of China as fabulously rich and at the same time promiscuous and nouveau riche have led to the fact, that expectations remain high. However, the rain of Chinese money never fell; and for those projects that nevertheless were implemented with Chinese loans and with the help of Chinese contracts, as it has turned out, one still has to pay.
Another typical example is Taiwan. The official position on this matter is quite peaceful: “The Taiwan issue is the Chinese’s own business, which must be resolved by the Chinese themselves <...> Peaceful reunification is the best way to unite the two sides of the Taiwan Strait, as well as the most beneficial option for compatriots from both sides and the Chinese nation generally.” However, flirting with nationalist sentiments and separate statements on the topic that “the decision of the Taiwan issue can’t wait forever” leads to higher expectations in this regard, both inside and outside of China. The current Chinese leadership is objectively not ready to back up these expectations with actions. First, the scenario of peaceful unification has always been a priority, and even the option of maintaining the status quo seems more attractive than a military operation with unclear prospects and a high probability of escalating into a world war. Second, as we have already noted, there is very great resistance to the transition to “great power” policy, and the voices of those who believe that it is more beneficial for China to continue to “keep a low profile” are heard well.
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Thus, summing up and focusing on the question asked in the title, we can say the following:
Beijing certainly has a foreign policy ideology and it is connected with its status of having become one of the world’s two economic leaders. Foreign policy should correspond to this status and contribute to the achievement of the country’s main goal – “building a modernised socialist state.” At the same time, due to the fact that the “rise of China” happened so rapidly, certain “growing pains” are observed: the inconsistency of both the ideology and the foreign policy strategy as a whole.
For an external observer, these properties of Chinese foreign policy are superimposed on the dual perception of modern China (in the same range from “archaic” to “modern” mentioned at the beginning of the article). As a result, this often makes it difficult or completely distorts the assessment of China's actions on the world stage. Thus, the current Sinophobia of the Western political elite, on the one hand, is based on the desire of the United States to maintain its position as a world hegemon. On the other hand, it is fuelled by the individual high-profile statements and actions of China itself, which is still not sufficiently experienced and determined to fight on equal terms with the West. In any event, China is no longer the poor developing country that could adhere to the “hide your strength, bide your time” adage.