China has overtaken Japan as the world’s second largest economy and has been seeking to reform the global governance system to expand its role and influence to match its growing economic power. In an effort to achieve these goals, China has adopted a global development strategy, known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and also created parallel regional organizations and institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Rumi Aoyama offers a broad picture of such shifts in China’s foreign policy by analyzing changes in perception of the Chinese leadership as well as a wide range of BRI-related activities.
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Over the past few decades, China has experienced remarkable economic growth in a larger effort to transition into a market economy by pressing forward its reform and opening-up policy. Since the Nixon administration and particularly following China’s opening-up, Western-aligned developed nations such as the United States and Japan have pursued engagement with China. The underlying hope was that China would eventually transform into a democratic state that values freedom and the rule of law in the process of being incorporated into the existing West-led liberal international order.
China’s presence on the international stage has dramatically expanded along with its rapid economic growth. The Xi Jinping administration’s motto is “achieving the great revival of the Chinese nation,” and its stated goal is for China to become a “modern socialist superpower” whose political system differs from that of Western-aligned nations. President Xi Jinping has promoted the Belt and Road Initiative as his signature foreign policy initiative, established various international organizations under China’s leadership such as AIIB, and retained a hardline stance on maritime issues.
However, the international environment surrounding China continues to change. Within the last few years, several Western-aligned developed nations have begun to reconsider their policies of engagement with China, and the growing consensus in Washington seems to be that the engagement strategy has failed. For instance, the 2013 Foreign Affairs article, “The China Reckoning” by Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner sparked debates on the existing US-China policy by suggesting the engagement policy’s failure to secure the liberal democratic order and calling for a new approach to China.
In this paper, the author seeks to ascertain the characteristics of China’s foreign policy, and to clarify developments in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) promoted by the Xi Jinping administration as well as changes in China’s foreign policy, on the basis of China’s execution of its foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.
Perception of Security Threat
China has consistently worked towards eliminating the military presence of major nations in areas surrounding China as well as increasing its own military might. In 1993, China announced a “new strategic guideline” in which the scope of defense of the Chinese military was revised from the “homeland” to “air, ground, sea, and outer space,” emphasizing its priority in developing sea and air power. In recent years, achievement of a comprehensive operational capability enabling the Chinese military to launch strikes in remote seas has emerged as a goal for China’s military modernization policy, and since the start of the Xi Jinping administration, China has abandoned the Soviet-style ground force model and has started to emphasize joint operation capabilities in areas including “land, sea, air, defensive missiles, and cyber defense.” China has reduced its forces by 300,000 people, reorganized the previous seven military regions into five theater commands, and is modernizing its military by strengthening its navy and air force as well as its outer space and cyber capabilities. With the realization of the Belt and Road Initiative, the importance of maritime, outer space, and Arctic issues has increased, and joint military-civilian technological development is being promoted in those three areas. Through such policy transitions, it can be found that China’s perception of security threats has also been shifted.
Suspicion towards US-NATO Collusion
China’s geopolitical feature is that it is surrounded on three sides by land with one side facing the sea, and there has been a difference in opinion as to whether China is a continental nation or a maritime nation, but in recent years, the recognition that China is both a maritime and continental nation has quickly spread within China. Amid a political atmosphere where China’s maritime advancement is legitimized by the government, the People’s Liberation Army, and domestic public opinion, NATO’s position on maritime issues has garnered attention.
Regarding the maritime issue, many argue that there is a possibility of conflict with NATO in the long term (He 2014). It is true that the passage of Chinese military vessels through the Mediterranean and the Suez Canal has caused concern for some NATO members. Also, in April 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Abe and then NATO Secretary General Rasmussen issued the “Joint Political Declaration between Japan and NATO,” and in May 2014, a Japan/NATO IPCP was agreed. The strengthening of relations between NATO and Japan, as well as the involvement of NATO in the nine choke points of the Indian Ocean have raised new concerns for China.
Since the 2010s, China’s interest in the Arctic region has increased, and NATO’s positions have been studied. In November 2008, the EU put out a policy paper entitled “The European Union and the Arctic Region”; in January 2009, then NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer pointed out the importance of the Arctic region, and in April of the same year, the joint declaration from the NATO summit held in Strasbourg, France also mentioned the Arctic. The general view in China is that while caution is warranted towards NATO’s increasing emphasis on the Arctic, at the current stage, entry by NATO into the Arctic is limited (Li 2014).
As mentioned, in regards to the security threat towards China, China’s suspicion towards collusion between the US and NATO is especially great. While Russia is a strategic buffer for China, collusion between the US, Japan, and NATO regarding the maritime issue has recently become of increased concern for China.
Transformation of US-Led Security Network in Asia and Closer China-Russia Relations
China’s foreign policy developed after the Cold War had been based on tacit acceptance of the presence of US military alliances in Asia. Needless to say, China came to be greatly suspicious of a series of moves made by the United States since the autumn of 2011 to strengthen military ties in the Asia region. Meanwhile, the United States’ strengthened military and economic commitment in the Asia-Pacific region brought about strong concerns by Russia, since they threatened to break the previous power equilibrium between the United States and Russia. The deployment of THAAD resulted in a strong backlash not only from China but also from Russia, similar to when NATO deployed a missile defense system in Europe. Russia’s moves can be understood through this logic.
Cooperation between China and Russia regarding space and cyber security has also been quickly developing in recent years (Sutter 2018). In October 2018, at a meeting with Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Kuzhugetovich Shoygu, President Xi Jinping stated that “both nations are of utmost importance to each other, and are strategic cooperative partners to prioritize in foreign policy,” (Xinhuanet Oct. 19, 2018) giving greater praise to the nations’ relationship than ever before.
Closer ties between China and Russia have also affected China’s view of the Russia-led CSTO in Central Asia. CSTO is a small collective security organization and China’s view is that Russia has outsized influence in the organization (Wang 2007). Since the SCO and the CSTO agreed to build a cooperative relationship in 2007, security cooperation between the Russia-led CSTO and China-led SCO and BRICS has been discussed (Russian Security Council Develops New Formats of Cooperation within CIS, BRICS, CSTO, SCO 2017). Of course, this cooperative relationship is far from being promoted to a “new Warsaw Pact” covering the Eurasian continent, let alone the world. The CSTO is an “indispensable presence” in Central Asia (Li and Niu 2016), and thus, in promoting BRI, China will likely put effort into strengthening its cooperative relationship with CSTO while its relationships with the United States and NATO were being taken into consideration.
As aforementioned, in considering security concerns towards the United States, China always considers its security policy in terms of the US-China-Russia triangle. As the US-led security network in Asia is strengthened, ties between Russia and China are becoming closer.
Belt and Road Initiative and Foreign Policy Strategies of China
Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy initiative, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), is also centered on the four elements of “institutional hegemony, economic hegemony, political/ideological hegemony, and military hegemony.” Although the BRI was initiated under the Xi Jinping administration, it serves as the foundation for China’s post-Cold War foreign policy, and thus, the execution of the Belt and Road Initiative will be analyzed here with consideration for China’s efforts up to now.
Pursuit of Structural Power in International Order
China’s influence in the existing international financial system has significantly increased. In the IMF, which was created under the Bretton Woods system, the voting share held by a member state depends on the amount of contribution by the member state. As a result of the reform to the IMF voting shares agreed in 2010, China’s contribution proportion rose to the third place after the United States and Japan.
As well as seeking to increase its influence in the existing international financial institutions, China has put effort into creating financial institutions led by China. The AIIB is an idea that was unveiled in October 2013 together with the Belt and Road Initiative when President Xi Jinping visited Indonesia. In addition to the establishment of the BRICS New Development Bank and the AIIB, there are also discussions regarding the establishment of a Shanghai Cooperation Organization Development Bank.
China has been actively involved in regional organizations throughout the world since the latter half of the 1990s, and has established cooperative relationships with them. The Xi Jinping administration has consolidated into one framework China’s efforts in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Arab world, and Pacific Island nations, has increased its cooperation with Latin America, and its involvement in Arctic Council (AC).
China’s policy of engagement is at the center of its global strategy surrounding the Belt and Road Initiative, by which China seeks to create an economic and political sphere of influence in five areas: policy, finance, trade, infrastructure, and people-to-people exchanges (Five Connectivities: 五通).
Ideological Hegemony — China’s Governance Model
Considering various discussions within China since 1990, China’s political values today include the three ideologies of universal values, Marxism-Leninism, and Chinese traditional thought, and as a nation that is seeking to increase its soft power, China cannot depend completely on any one of the three ideologies in its foreign policy philosophy, and therefore vacillates between all three (Aoyama and Amako 2015). In this situation, the Chinese government is attempting to spread state capitalism as the Chinese governance model throughout the international community under the BRI. This Chinese governance model seeks a foundation for economic growth and stability in China, and thus, whether China can overcome economic friction with the United States as well as manage its economy in a sustained and stable manner is crucial in determining the outlook of Chinese soft power.
Military Hegemony with focus on Cyber/Space Power
Under the Xi Jinping administration, the importance of space and cyber warfare forces in addition to ground, naval, and air forces has rapidly increased in China’s military strategy (Wang 2016). In August 2018, the United States Department of Defense released its Annual Report to Congress pertaining to military and security developments in China, and this Report points out that China’s efforts in space technology are a major concern for the United States. The 2018 Defense of Japan white paper also states that China sees information operations for definitively gaining information superiority as one form of its asymmetrical military capabilities, and argues that China’s capabilities in electronic and cyber warfare, which aim to confuse the enemy’s chain of command during a conflict, are rapidly increasing (Defense of Japan 2018).
The white paper “China’s Military Strategy” published by the Chinese government in 2015 states that China’s military strategy is active defense and that China’s future strategy is informationized local wars (China's Military Strategy 2015). The paper additionally states that the Chinese military’s eight duties include safeguarding the security and interests of new areas such as outer space and cyberspace in addition to territorial integrity, national unification, maintenance of world peace, stabilization of the domestic political society, and the like.
Thus, in recent years, with an increased dependence on satellites and computer networks in the military, the Xi Jinping administration has put particular effort into outer space and cyberspace in order to create a world-class military. International cooperation on the projects of outer space and cyberspace has been emphasized under the BRI as an important policy.
While having achieved remarkable economic growth, Chinese foreign policy has also undergone significant changes. At the beginning of the 1990s, China had predicted that the post-Cold War world order would constitute one superpower and multiple great powers, but by now, China has put efforts into forming a “G2+” world order (the two superpowers of China and the US as well as other political powers).
China’s strategy for rising in prominence has been strongly influenced by international political theories and concepts such as the hegemonic stability theory and structural power. China has been seeking to increase its standing in the changing international order by increasing structural power, building infrastructure, and providing international public goods such as the RCEP and FTAAP.
The Xi Jinping administration continues moving in this direction and promoting the Belt and Road Initiative so as to be centered on institutional hegemony, economic hegemony, political/ideological hegemony, and military hegemony.
On the other hand, with major reforms in the party and state organization as well as reforms in creation and execution of policies, the unifying ability of the Communist Party as well as coordination between the state administration, local governments, and corporations have been strengthened in order to promote the Belt and Road Initiative. Under the Xi Jinping administration, the Communist Party (the state) now has the power to decide a policy, market mechanisms continue to be incorporated into executing policies, and the state administration, local governments, and corporations are cooperating to execute policies as a whole. In short, the arrangement of the government and market and that of the government and corporations have greatly changed, and there are strong tinges of state capitalism under Xi’s leadership.
As distrust towards the West in terms of security escalates and China attempts to respond to the changing international situation, China-Russia ties have become closer. In new security areas such as outer space and cyberspace, China and Russia have shown remarkable unity in terms of global governance and the direction of foreign policy, and have consequently widened the gap with Western nations. Thus, the international situation is becoming increasingly fluid.
Rumi Aoyama is director of Waseda Institute of Contemporary Chinese Studies, and a Professor at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University. She has been a visiting scholar at Stanford University (2005-2006) and George Washington University (2016-2017). She earned her Ph.D. in Law from the Graduate School of Law, Keio University. She specializes in China’s contemporary foreign policy and politics. Her publication, entitled Contemporary China’s Foreign Policy (Keio University Press, 2008), was honored with the 24th Masayoshi Ohira Foundation Memorial Prize. Other recent publications include Decoding the Rise of China (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018); A Diplomatic History of the People’s Republic of China (University of Tokyo Press, 2017); China and the Future of International Order (University of Tokyo Press, 2015)..