A conversation with Dr John Lee about the intricacies of China's foreign policy: how it is changing in the light of the country's new economic strength, the underlying political philosophy and the current state of relations with Africa, Myanmar, North Korea and India.
Traditionally Chinese foreign policy has been described as passive and dedicated to non-interference. Has this changed over the last decade of economic prosperity in China?
The traditional characterisation of it as passive and dedicated to non-interference is correct. However, such a strategy was appropriate when China was still a very weak ‘big power’ and was designed to avoid the perceived mistakes made by Mao Zedong of trying to do too much too quickly. Over the past decade, China has become too great a power to pursue such a policy. Its interests are expanding, and with expanding interests come a more pro-active foreign policy. Its energy security policies in Africa and the Middle East are examples. As the world’s second largest economy, it is not possible to have a passive foreign policy any longer. But note that the rhetoric of its foreign policy is still generally that of passivity and non-interference.
What are China’s “core interests” in terms of foreign policy?
Territorially, holding on to Tibet and Xinjiang, and eventually absorbing Taiwan back into the mainland are the core interests. Many entities, including the PLA (People’s Liberation Army), have been pushing harder on the issue of Chinese claims in the South China Sea. But I would still not classify Beijing’s attitude in the South China Sea as analogous to its mindset in the aforementioned territories.
Has Chinese foreign policy changed recently given the perception that US global power is on the wane?
Chinese ultimate foreign policy objectives have not changed for two decades – that is to eventually supersede America in Asia and ease America out of Asia as China rises whilst avoiding conflict. But it is no longer possible to ‘hide its power’ given the enormity of it. My summary is that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) civilian leaders are still fairly cautious while I do detect strong elements of hubris amongst the PLA.
Will China’s massive military build up lead to policy changes?
If China can achieve its ‘core interests’ militarily, then it will be very tempted to do so. However, despite its massive military build-up and capacity to inflict serious damage on American military assets, it is still well behind the American competitor. Hence, the danger is more one of escalation arising from a crisis (eg., in the Taiwan Straits) than any planned military adventurism in the foreseeable future.
How would you describe current foreign policy and to what extent is it linked to aid and economic assistance?
Beijing’s aid and economic assistance is almost all about securing and diversifying sources of energy and mineral resources. This ‘locking up’ of supply is best understood as China’s ‘hedging’ approach against complete reliance on local and international commodity markets to secure needed resources. Beijing is convinced that in the event of shortages in the international commodity market, America will be able to ‘control’ supply to its own advantage.
Dr John Lee is the Michael Hintze Fellow for Energy Security and Adjunct Associate Professor at the Centre for International Security Studies, Sydney University. He is also a non-resident Senior Scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington DC. Anticipating structural and other trends in the Chinese economy and foreign policy long before they became apparent, his articles are frequently published in the world’s leading policy and academic journals, and he has contributed hundreds of opinion pieces to over forty leading newspapers and magazines in America, Europe and Asia such as the Washington Post, New York Times, Times of London, Wall Street Journal, Global Times, Time, Forbes, Der Speigel, International Herald Tribune, Business Week, and Newsweek, in addition to all major newspapers in Australia.
Is there any political ideology attached to Chinese foreign policy or is it just pure realism?
It is more the latter – trying to extend its influence in any way possible and to seek windows of opportunity to do so. The only ideological component is that Beijing feels deeply uncomfortable as an authoritarian great power in a world dominated by liberal-democratic great powers. It, quite correctly, feels that America in particular will never accept China as a ‘peer’ whilst China remains an authoritarian polity. Remember that the rationale given by American presidents since Bill Clinton in engaging China includes speeding up the process of political reform in the country.
Is there such as thing as a Chinese theory of international relations?
I am sceptical that there is such a thing. Some Chinese do put forward notions of the ‘civilisation’ state as a basis for order in foreign policy. But I view this as somewhat self-serving, rather than as a genuine alternative basis for foreign relations as such.
Is the Taiwan issue absolutely key?
It is the most intractable issue in US-China relations and the issue most likely to lead to war. Having said that, even if Taiwan were peacefully integrated back into the PRC, I don’t think strategic competition would decrease between the US and China. On the contrary, it would deepen since China would now have an ‘opening’ into the Western Pacific Ocean.
I wanted to ask you particularly about Myanmar and Africa. Myanmar is in a state of rapid political change but in terms of Chinese foreign policy, Myanmar is geographically strategic. What is the importance of Myanmar for China? I have the Andaman Sea in mind particularly.
Myanmar is superbly positioned above the Andaman Sea and entry into the Malacca Straits. This offers several potential advantages to China. First, if infrastructure is developed, it allows China an alternative route to receive imports that does not go through the Malacca Straits and South China Sea which is patrolled by the US Seventh Fleet. Second, it potentially allows the PLA Navy an excellent intelligence gathering ‘listening’ post and also a convenient docking and refuelling option.
How would you describe Myanmar-Chinese relations at present?
China is Myanmar’s most important trading partner and foreign investor, and has been since Myanmar was increasingly ostracised in 1988 following its suppression of pro-democracy protesters. However, Myanmar does not want to become a de facto ‘Chinese province’ and is now seeking to further political reforms in order to access international aid as well as foreign investment from America and the EU. In summary, the relationship between Beijing and Rangoon was always one of convenience but not an alliance as such. China is good at forming relationships with authoritarian regimes of weak or failing states through economic largesse but expects strategic and economic returns. Its record of winning over local populations is very poor. This is very typical if China’s relations with so-called allies such as North Korea.
In Africa, Is China’s foreign policy exclusively tied to gaining access to resources? Is the situation more complex than this? Is there any attempt by the Chinese to win hearts and minds?
It is almost all tied to ‘locking up’ resources as part of Beijing’s energy and resource security policies. There is little attempt at winning over hearts and minds because there is no immediate need to do so. The modus operandi is to form a special relationship with the authoritarian regime in that country and win elites over with enormous amounts of economic aid. Hence, there is little emphasis on a ‘bottom up’ diplomatic strategy and it shows in the deep unpopularity of Chinese companies in many African countries despite the apparently strong government-to-government relations between Beijing and these capitals. Note also that China tends to bring in its own workers in many of these countries, offering little by way of employment benefits to locals. The environmental record of SOEs (State-Owned Enterprises) in Africa is also very poor, creating significant resentment amongst local populations.
You have described Chinese aid and economic assistance to African countries as being with “no strings attached” can you explain that approach?
It can be a misleading term. There are ‘no strings attached’ when it comes to imposing governance and transparency standards (unlike conditions imposed by institutions such as the World Bank) but Beijing expects an economic and strategic return from these governments.
Is it fair to say that Chinese policy pays no heed to labour relations and environmental issues?
Chinese policy is certainly poor in this regard, compared to the policies of other great powers. In many respects, Chinese SOE behaviour in this respect simply reflects domestic behaviour of its SOEs.
Are there drawbacks to this seemingly open-ended approach? Presumably China wants a very specific payback.
Yes, there is very little grassroots support for Chinese economic activity in these countries, while Beijing has little interest in building communities or observing environmental standards etc in these countries. Events in Myanmar recently, and also periodic protests against Chinese interests in places like Sudan are testament to the fact that Beijing’s statecraft is not as effective as sometimes believed.
What about North Korea? China rarely pronounces on this problem but basically it is much more a Chinese problem than a US one. Is the key for China merely to avoid having a pro-US neighbour, whatever the cost?
This has very much to do with it. A unified Korea would almost certainly be under the leadership of the much more economically powerful South (similar to the West and East Germany dynamic) and this would leave an American ally right on the doorstep of China in the northeast.
Relations with India are still tense but improving, is that true?
They certainly are tense albeit stable. I wouldn’t say it is improving. On the contrary, relations with India have deteriorated noticeably over the past few years. The immediate issue of contention is the dispute over the Indian held territory of Aranuchal Pradesh. China has militarised their side of the territory and India is beginning to do so as well. There are hundreds of small, potentially explosive skirmishes between Indian and Chinese troops each year. And India is now openly speaking about increasing its capacity to fight a limited war with China over this issue. More broadly, the rise of two Asian giants is always going to create tension, particularly as India has dramatically improved strategic relations with Japan, Vietnam and the US – all competitors of China’s. Asia has not seen a powerful India, China and Japan for around 400 years!
How has China reacted to President Obama’s bolstering of Australia’s security recently albeit with a symbolic number of marines. What message were PM Gillard and President Obama giving to China?
China has been quick to condemn the announcement as provocative and potentially destabilising, although Beijing would not have been surprised. Many other states have renewed or enhanced their strategic and military relationship with Washington over the past couple of years in Asia. The message by the US and Australia is that America is not withdrawing from Asia in any way and that the perception of American influence weakening in Asia is not accurate. It is also significant that Washington is clear that defense spending cuts are quarantined when it comes to Asia. From Australia’s point of view, it is a message that Australia has already chosen its strategic direction – which is to move even closer to America – despite Australia’s booming trade relationship with China.
Is the Indian Ocean the new theatre of operations that everyone is concentrating on?
There is certainly more interest in the Indian Ocean because of the increase in seaborne trade through the Ocean. But in Asia, the South China Sea and Pacific are still more important since this is where China is primarily focusing on still.
The cliché is that China tends to behave similarly to Russia which is to find out what the US and Europe wants and then say “No”. Does China still see itself as a bulwark against US and NATO expansion such as with the recent UN vote on Syria?
China is attempting to play the Russia role, but wants to be less conspicuous and vocal than Moscow in doing so. Bear in mind that while Russia is a declining power looking to make as much noise as possible to maintain its relevance, China is a rising power looking to assure other great powers that its rise will be peaceful.