The Loneliest Superpower

How did China end up with only rogue states as its real friends?

Feng Li/Getty Images
Feng Li/Getty Images

The rare foreign visitor to China during the Cultural Revolution often saw a huge placard at the airport boasting the farcical claim, "We have friends all over the world." In truth, Maoist China — a rogue state exporting revolution and armed struggle around the world, and a bitter foe of the West and the former Soviet bloc — was extremely isolated. It had a few friendships with countries like Ceausescu’s Romania and Pol Pot’s Cambodia; for a few bleak years, China’s only true ally was tiny Albania.

Forty years later, a powerful and assertive Beijing has a lot more friends. Its economic presence is warmly welcomed by many governments (though not necessarily people) in Africa; European countries regard China as a "strategic partner," and China has forged new bonds with leading emerging economies like Turkey, Brazil, and South Africa. Yet besides Pakistan, which depends on China for military and economic assistance, and which China supports mainly as a counterweight against India, Beijing has a shocking lack of real allies.

Real strategic alliance or friendship is not a commodity that can be bought and bartered casually. It is based on shared security interests, fortified with similar ideological values and enduring trust. China excels in "transactional diplomacy" — romping around the world with its fat checkbook, supporting (usually poor, isolated, and decrepit) regimes like Angola and Sudan in return for favorable terms on natural resources or voting against Western-sponsored resolutions criticizing China’s human rights record. And the world’s second-largest economy will remain bereft of dependable strategic allies because of three interrelated factors: geography, ideology, and policy. 

For one thing, China is situated in one of the toughest geopolitical neighborhoods in the world. It shares borders with Japan, India, and Russia; three major powers which have all engaged in military conflicts with China in the 20th century. It still has unresolved territorial disputes with Japan and India, and the Russians fear a horde of Chinese moving in and overwhelming the depopulated Russian far east. As natural geopolitical rivals, these countries do not make easy allies. To the southeast is Vietnam, a defiant middle power which has not only fought many wars with China in the past, but is apparently gearing up for another contest over disputed waters in the South China Sea. And just across the Yellow Sea is South Korea, historically a protectorate of the Chinese empire, but now firmly an ally of the United States. 

That leaves countries like Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Nepal, weak states that are net strategic liabilities: expensive to maintain but that yield minimal benefits in return. In the last decade, China wooed more important Southeast Asian nations into its orbit with a charm offensive of free trade and diplomatic engagement. While the campaign produced a short-lived honeymoon between China and the region, it quickly fizzled as China’s growing assertiveness on territorial disputes in the South China Sea caused Southeast Asian nations to realize that their best security bet remained the United States. At the last East Asian Summit in Bali in November 2011, most of the ASEAN countries spoke up in support of Washington’s position on the South China Sea.  

China may be North Korea’s patron, but the two countries dislike each other intensely. Beijing’s fear of a reunified Korea motivates it to keep pumping massive aid into Pyongyang. Despite having China as its gas station and ATM, Pyongyang feels no gratitude towards Beijing, and rarely deigns to align its security interests with those of China: Consider North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, which has dramatically worsened China’s security environment. Worse still, Pyongyang repeatedly engaged in direct negotiations with Washington behind Beijing’s back during the China-sponsored Six-Party Talks, illustrating that it was always ready to sell its "friend" and neighbor out to the highest bidder. Yet China has little choice but to smile and play nice, as its ties with a reunified Korea would be worse: If the democratic South absorbs the North, the new country would almost certainly continue and possibly strengthen its security relations with the United States, instead of growing closer to China.

Of all its neighbors, only Pakistan has produced genuine security payoffs for China. But as internal turmoil weakens the Pakistani state, the net benefits of this relationship are decreasing. China’s expanding trade and security ties with the Central Asian autocracies face competition from Russia (their traditional protector) and the United States; these states may need China to balance against the other great powers coveting their resources and strategic locations, but they are too fearful of falling deeply into China’s orbit to form genuine alliances with it.

If geography conspires to deprive Beijing of durable security allies, the Chinese one-party system also seriously limits the range of candidates that can be recruited into Beijing’s orbit. Liberal democracies — mostly prosperous, influential, and powerful — are out of reach because of the domestic and international liabilities of forming an alliance with a dictatorship. China and the EU wouldn’t forge a security alliance; the rhetoric elevation of their relationship to a "strategic partnership," is immediately made hollow by the existing EU arms embargo against China and incessant trade disputes.

Electoral democracies now constitute roughly 60 percent of all the states in the world, making the pool of potential political allies for China much smaller than it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Newly liberal democracies like Mongolia, a neighbor of China, are loath to be tied to an autocratic behemoth, particularly a neighboring one. Instead, they seek alliance with the West for security (and one imagines that Beijing wasn’t thrilled at Mongolia and the United States recently holding joint military exercises). Today, China’s much-vaunted Cold War ties with Romania and Albania have collapsed. Although their democracies are deeply flawed, both countries’ leaders seem to understand that hitching their wagons to China would hurt their chances of being part of the West. Doing business with China is one thing — and perhaps it’s inevitable in a modern, globalized economy, but seeing eye to eye on foreign policy is another matter entirely.

Beijing’s foreign policy strategy in the last three decades has not focused on building strategic alliances. Instead, the emphasis has been on maintaining a stable relationship with the United States and capitalizing on a peaceful external environment to promote domestic economic development. Chinese diplomacy post-Mao went into overdrive only twice: squeezing Taiwan when a pro-independence government was in power (1995-2008) and the occasions when it rallied developing countries to defeat the West’s human rights campaign against China. These were the times when Beijing had to rely on its friendship (and veiled threats) to get its way, such as when it convinced states such as Algeria and Sri Lanka to boycott the Nobel Peace Prize Award ceremony in December 2010 honoring Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. But otherwise, Chinese leaders have firmly stuck to their belief that the most dependable way for a great power to safeguard its security and interests remains expanding its own capabilities while ignoring the rest of the world. 

Like other great powers, China has client states, such as North Korea and Myanmar.  If North Korea has shown how a vassal can become a dangerous trouble-maker, Myanmar illustrates why a patron should never take its charge for granted. Until the recent political thaw in Myanmar, China thought it had the isolated military junta in its pocket. But the generals ruling Myanmar apparently had other plans. They abrogated a contract with China to build a controversial dam and, before Beijing could make its displeasure known, released political prisoners and invited U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Yangon for a historic visit. Today, Myanmar appears to be slipping away from the Chinese orbit of influence.

Farther afield, China may have a few countries with which it is truly on friendly terms, such as Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and the Castros’ Cuba. But these are, by and large, states headed by political pariahs that are skilled manipulators of great powers. Besides access to natural resources and backing at the U.N., important as they are, good relations with such states generate little value for Beijing. In any case, the rulers of these states are old and ailing. When new, better democrats take their place, the relationship with China may cool.

Russia is the closest thing China has to a powerful quasi-ally. Their shared fear and loathing of the West, particularly of the United States, has brought Moscow and Beijing ever closer to each other. Yes, their common economic interests are dwindling: Russia has disappointed China by declining to deliver advanced weapons and energy supplies, while China has not lent enough support to Russia in its feud with the United States over missile defense and Georgia. But in a strictly tactical sense, China and Russia have become partners of convenience, cooperating at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to avoid isolation and protect each other’s vital interests. On Iran, they coordinate closely with each other to moderate the West’s pressures on Tehran. On Syria, they twice jointly vetoed UNSC resolutions to protect the Assad regime. Yet any honest Russian or Chinese would tell you point-blank that they are no allies; their strategic distrust of each other makes genuine alliance impossible.

The growth of Chinese power has created the dreaded "security dilemma": Instead of making Chinese more secure, its growing power is striking fear among its neighbors and, worse, has elicited a strategic response from the United States, which has pivoted its security focus toward Asia. The emerging strategic rivalry will severely test Beijing’s diplomatic skills. The strategic choices available in terms of strengthening its alliance structure are few. Most Asian states want the United States to maintain its critical balancing role in the region; friends China can make in other parts of the world bring nothing to bear on this rivalry. There are, however, two difficult but promising paths China can take. One is to resolve the remaining territorial disputes with its neighbors and then throw its weight behind a regional collective security system which, once in place, could alleviate its neighbors’ fears, moderate the U.S.-China rivalry, and obviate the need for China to recruit allies. The other is to democratize its political system, a move that will once and for all eliminate the risks of a full-fledged U.S.-China strategic conflict and bring China "friends all over the world." The first may be a reach, too little, too late — and don’t hold your breath for the latter.

<p> Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. </p>