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Shadow Government

Riding a tiger: China’s resurging foreign policy aggression

Why has China’s foreign policy been more aggressive over the past three years? Why have the Chinese undone a decade’s worth of good neighborly diplomacy in Asia? The facts of the case are now well known. In Southeast Asia, China declared the South China Sea a "core interest" (a term previously reserved for Taiwan and ...

Bloomberg via Getty Images
Bloomberg via Getty Images

Why has China’s foreign policy been more aggressive over the past three years? Why have the Chinese undone a decade’s worth of good neighborly diplomacy in Asia? The facts of the case are now well known. In Southeast Asia, China declared the South China Sea a "core interest" (a term previously reserved for Taiwan and Tibet), in essence defining the sea as Chinese territory. To punctuate the point, China harassed Vietnamese fisherman near disputed islands in the sea.

In Northeast Asia, China could not bring itself to condemn its North Korean ally for Pyongyang’s wanton murder of South Korean soldiers and civilians on two separate occasions last year. China also picked a fight with Japan. After Tokyo acquiesced in Beijing’s demand to release a Chinese fishing captain that had been arrested for ramming Japanese vessels in disputed waters, China suspended diplomatic relations, demanded an apology, and halted the sale of rare earth minerals to Tokyo. And finally there was China’s shabby treatment of U.S. President Obama during his November 2009 visit to China. If ever there was a president entering office with an outstretched hand to Beijing, it was Obama. His secretary of state went out of her way to downplay China’s human rights abuses. Obama delayed both a meeting with the Dalai Lama — a standard affair in U.S diplomacy — and the sale of the second half of a package of badly needed arms that President Bush had promised to Taiwan. During Obama’s maiden voyage to China, Beijing reneged on agreements to allow the president’s speeches to air on television without censorship, and left the new president to return to Washington without accomplishing anything on his agenda, from climate change talks to Beijing’s currency manipulation.

The explanation for China’s international rudeness is a threefold recipe for mischief: greater military power combined with leadership weakness and a xenophobic nationalism that China’s leadership created (I leave out the view held by some in China that America is in relative decline, because this is thinking is probably transient).

Greater Military Power

China now has a very capable military with which it can push around its neighbors. Its shows of maritime strength in the South China Sea are meant to cow weaker powers. Indeed, at the first sign of Vietnamese resistance to Chinese claims, the official Chinese press warned South East Asian nations not to become too close to the United States. And taking a page out of its strategy for intimidating Taiwan, the PLA moved a brigade of its lethal short range missiles into place to get Vietnam back into line. Given that China attacked Vietnam in 1979 out of irritation at Hanoi’s pluck, when China waves a fist at Hanoi all parties pay attention.

China’s new policy of showing off rather than concealing its newfound military prowess was on display when Secretary Gates visited China earlier this year. In the lead-up to his visit, the People’s Liberation Army apparently demonstrated its anti-ship ballistic missile capability leading PACOM Commander Admiral Willard to assert that the missile had reached "initial operational capability." China’s leaders apparently found Gates’s visit an opportune moment to display their new J-20 fighter, an aircraft that apparently has stealth capabilities. In short, China has more power and is exercising it in pursuit of its national interests.

Weak Leadership

Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao have proven to be weak leaders, unable to make tough decisions on economic reform and unable to keep all politburo members in line with Deng Xiaoping’s policy of "biding time and hiding capabilities" (i.e., allowing China to grow strong without provoking a countervailing coalition that fears China’s power). But it is not just a problem of weak leaders. The leadership system is weak. There is no one left in China with the revolutionary legitimacy of Deng or the legitimacy he could hand off (as he did to Jiang Ziamen), and thus the one-party state is now consensus driven – no one member of the politburo seems to have more power or legitimacy than another. Decisions seem to vacillate from those driven by complete risk aversion (e.g. North Korea and economic reform) to those driven by the aggrieved nationalism displayed by "netizens" and intellectual elites (see, for example, the South China Sea and Japan rows described above). Because of the weak leadership system, the PLA, which tends to favor a more hawkish foreign policy, has as strong a voice in decision-making as party members concerned with economic reform.

Xenophobic Nationalism

Many observers of China have identified the nationalism often expressed by internet users and Chinese intellectuals as a prime driver of Chinese foreign policy. What many miss is that China is riding a tiger of its own creation. Since the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, the Party has engaged in a massive "patriotic education" campaign stressing both China’s civilizational supremacy as well as its humiliation at the hands of great powers such as Japan and the United States. Talk to Chinese citizens in their twenties and thirties and you are likely to hear about Japanese-American plans to keep China weak and split Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang from China, and about China’s natural place atop an Asian hierarchy. These are the educated, supposedly Westernized Chinese, which American policy had counted on to liberalize the People’s Republic. Many younger Chinese have never even heard of the Tiananmen massacre, view all American policy as an attempt to contain China (including the war in Afghanistan), believe Taiwanese democracy is an example of political chaos, and are angry that Tibetans (many of whom have been killed or imprisoned in an underreported three year long crackdown) do not appreciate that Beijing has spurred economic growth in Tibet.

If many Chinese elites harbor these worldviews, one can only imagine what the "losers" in China’s wrenching years of economic growth believe. And what about the tens of millions of surplus men that China has wrought with its One Child Policy and preference for sons? They will be at the bottom of the Chinese socio-economic strata, unable to marry, and ready for all manner of violence and mayhem. It is true that China has to contend more with public opinion than it once did- but it created the climate of aggrieved nationalism that now circumscribes or even drives its foreign policy. This is not to say that there are no liberals in China who want economic reforms or who want China to fully embrace liberty at home and the liberal international order. Indeed there are, but the former are keeping their heads down and making money and the latter cannot do much from their jail cells.

The combination of more military power, weak leadership, and aggrieved nationalism are systemic problems. They are likely to be part of the Chinese foreign policy landscape for some time. China planted the seeds for each decades ago – by investing in coercive military capabilities, by delaying political reform, and by "educating" their people with über-nationalistic propaganda. Now the world is reaping what Deng Xiaoping sowed.

Daniel Blumenthal is the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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