The overriding goal of the present regime in China remains survival, and international primacy is now seen by the Chinese leadership as necessary for its goal of securing China’s rise or, to use its words, China’s rejuvenation. Internal politics in China too will ensure that China will not behave like the United States.
The 19th Party Congress in October 2017 marked the overturning of several institutions and conventions that Deng Xiaoping had put in place after the Cultural Revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union to restrict the accumulation of personal power, thus preventing the emergence of a disruptor like Mao Zedong or a dismantler like Gorbachev. How long the attempt to change Deng’s arrangements will last is an open question.
As performance legitimacy becomes harder to claim, there is an even greater centralisation of power, a personality cult, and a new authoritarian leader whose legitimacy is increasingly based on nationalism.
The centralisation of power brings with it a concentration of responsibility, so that should things go wrong, as they certainly will sometimes, blame will fall on the leader.
The internal dynamic affects China’s foreign policy in three ways, none of them unique to China. First, the capacity to negotiate, compromise, give and take, and bargain that diplomacy requires is constrained by the ultranationalist legitimacy such leaders assume.
Second, foreign policy is used for domestic political purposes to a much greater extent, with foreign policy considerations playing second fiddle to how actions will play to a domestic audience.
Third, the more the internal pressure, the harder the external line, and the greater the Chinese leadership’s propensity to take risks. That dynamic reinforces the more assertive Chinese policy that we have seen in recent years.
If China succeeds in the China Dream, in making China great again, do not expect China to behave as Western powers have in the past. It will not necessarily be another United States setting international rules, norms, and institutions and providing security and public goods for an order that it manages. The idea that China will do so by proposing an alternative order is today’s equivalent of the Western wish-myth of the 1990s that China’s market-based economic development would bring about a Western-style democracy and a pro-Western regime.
Will China replace the United States as a net provider of security, as an expeditionary power projecting power across the globe? I think not.
It cannot and will not be able to for some time. Will China seek to determine the nature of regimes and successfully implement regime change in other countries across the world? The United States has apparently done so seventy-two times since 1950.
China today has the necessary combination of soft and hard power only in its immediate periphery, where it now shows clear preferences between local leaders and supports them financially and otherwise in moments of transition. The 2018 Malaysian elections and Nepal and Sri Lanka’s internal transitions saw this phenomenon.
Will China open its markets to the rest of the world to promote globalisation to the extent that the United States does? This is most unlikely as it will affect China’s internal economic structure based on state- owned enterprises and state-run finances on which the power of the CCP is built. The desire for regime stability will prevent this.
Will China design, invest in, and run the global financial and trading institutions that undergird the global economy as the United States did? Not if its domestic needs for constant infusions of capital and technology remain as they are, if it can get what it wants from present institutions, and if the sources of its growth continue to shrink.
Will China exert the kind of cultural influence and be a net provider of knowledge to the world that every previous hegemon has been? This could actually come about first but is still a few years away.
None of this precludes China’s developing a capacity to project power globally in permissive environments, while concentrating on building up sustained operational capabilities in its periphery – east and southeast Asia, central Asia, south Asia, and subsequently the Indian Ocean rim. By using humanitarian and disaster relief, nonmilitary evacuations, and peacekeeping, China presented its military modernisation as nonthreatening with a softer image. Weaknesses in airlift, sealift, and logistics have been addressed in the last decade, thus enabling more effective military expeditionary purposes.
Today, China is adding the space-based ocean and land surveillance systems, large transport aircraft and tankers, ports, bases, amphibious combat ships, special forces, and other requirements to project force beyond its periphery, a capacity that so far only the United States has. Organisational reform of the PLA since 2015 and changes in training also point in the same direction. Under Xi Jinping, the ideological and doctrinal barriers too have been loosened for the PLA to intervene and be more assertive, particularly in what it regards as its “own” region.
This new assertiveness’s popularity in China is evident in the record box office receipts of films like Wolf Warrior-2 about the PLA using force abroad to save Chinese citizens. As China’s investment abroad grows, as more Chinese travel, and as China increasingly provides security services to local governments in Africa and Asia, the PLA’s motivation to intervene militarily abroad will only grow.
More than half of Chinese investment abroad is in energy assets and another large proportion is in real estate. In 2013 China owned more than US$3 trillion abroad. Most of this investment is either from the state or by state-owned companies, thus increasing the motivation for the government to intervene abroad.
Over 20,000 Chinese companies operate in over 180 countries. And over 130 million Chinese travelled abroad last year spending about $115 billion.
There have been attacks on Chinese workers and citizens around the world and the number of incidents is increasing. In 2014 the Chinese Foreign Office said that it handled 100 incidents of Chinese nationals in danger every day.
Besides, China has begun to provide security services, both as part of securing its Belt and Road Initiative projects, as in Pakistan, or as an investment in the local government, as in Zimbabwe. The security tools and practices that China has developed since Tiananmen to manage internal security and maintain stability are now being exported to eager authoritarians in Asia and Africa.
China naturally sees advantage in improving its image abroad as a great power committed to peace, while creating the means to deter, compel, and punish those who might be tempted to oppose it. In the near future, China will have a limited global expeditionary capability to project power and will be able to militarily dominate parts of its own periphery. This could lead to a militarisation of China’s foreign policy, as has occurred in the United States. Certainly, the temptation for China to use force will increase.
The fundamental drivers of its policy will lead China to a unique pattern of behaviour in the near future.
Its economics, technology, and internal politics require a China much more actively engaged in shaping the world than it has ever been before, in ways that will be different from previous powers like the United States or Britain. At the same time its internal stresses, geography, and demography suggest that the scope for China’s activism or interventionism will be limited in both space and time. Neither space nor time are necessarily in China’s favour.
It will remake them while it can, in what Xi has called “strategic opportunity.” Like good gamblers, they will make the most of the moment, while the cards run their way. The question, however, is whether China knows when to leave the table and cash in its chips, or whether there will be a precipitate withdrawal. The danger is that the dichotomy between its needs and what is practical could result in a frustrated but powerful China.
The Chinese are realists; they expect others to respect their power, as they respected US dominance for over three decades. But realists are often disappointed, which is why so many of them become pessimists.
Excerpted with permission from India and Asian Geopolitics: The Past, Present, Shivshankar Menon, Allen Lane.