Chinese Foreign Policy in the Year of the Goat

by Martin Walker, mature British student of BA International Relations at King’s College London.


It is a New Year’s tradition to attempt to make predictions as to what the coming year will bring. As the Chinese New Year celebrations draw to a close, I will focus on what to expect in the arena of Chinese foreign policy in the Year of the Goat.

This article will begin by examining China’s long-term strategic aims, providing a broad context within which to consider her current actions. Then, it will move on to investigate individual aspects of that wide strategy, and the actions that China is likely to take this year to move toward achieving her goals. Next, it will explore how those strategies and actions will affect China’s relations with other states. Finally, it will highlight some key state visits and summits to keep an eye on in the coming year.

In the study of International Relations, realist theory states that the core national interest of each state is survival. China can therefore be described as the ultimate realist power as her core interest is indeed survival – in this case, economic survival. Every facet of China’s foreign policy and every action she takes overseas is based around this core interest. One-fifth of the world’s population lives within China’s borders, and their living standards are rising quickly. Therefore, the acquisition of resources – of metals, minerals and energy in order to support this growth is the paramount aim of her foreign policy everywhere.

It is important to understand that whilst China’s global aims as a rising continental power are aggressive and far-reaching, the end-game is not to spread a system of government or an ideology. Instead, what is being witnessed is the early years of a long-term Chinese grab for resources worldwide. China is prepared to wield as much power as necessary to ensure her economic security; she is, as Kenneth Waltz would argue, a security maximizer. In order to deliver this economic security, China must first locate the necessary resources around the globe, and then ensure safe transport back to the homeland. The strategies of Chinese foreign policy are designed to facilitate these twin aims for the long-term.

There are two major strands of Chinese foreign policy strategy which are likely to be most visible in the coming year. Firstly, the Silk Road and Maritime Silk Road projects which aim to connect China with Central and West Asia, the Middle East, Africa and even Europe through a massive building programme of ports, pipelines, roads and railways. This strand is about both the sourcing of commodities and their safe delivery. Secondly, the East and South China Seas. This strand is purely about ensuring the long-term security of sea lanes into China, is more military in its application and is therefore more opaque and less easy to predict.

Whilst the aims of the Silk Road and Maritime Silk Road are the same – the securing of vital commodities and the safe transportation of them to China – the foreign policy implications of the two projects are different.

The land-based undertaking has as its core component pipelines and roads that will travel from Xi’an in central China, through the western province of Xinjiang, over the border to Tajikistan and Kazakhstan, and then onto Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey; the need for security in these areas to ensure safe delivery has shown up in some interesting foreign policy initiatives in the last year.  Last October, Afghanistan’s new President, Ashraf Ghani, undertook a four day visit to China where he held in-depth talks with President Xi. On the surface, this was not entirely surprising as the two countries share a common, if tiny (75km) border. However, only six weeks later Beijing hosted a delegation of Taliban leaders and an Afghan official said after the summit that China had offered to play the role of mediator.

China has also been bolstering diplomatic and economic relations with the three other central Asian nations on her western border – Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan. The offers to build infrastructure around the Silk Road project in these countries run into tens of billions of dollars.

There is a common denominator linking these two stories – that of the continuing and escalating violence between the Muslim Uighur and Chinese Han populations in Xinjiang and the current and future instability that this violence causes.

By working with Afghanistan, China hopes to minimise the chances of militant Uighurs crossing the border and training with the Taliban. Uighur separatists have close ties with China’s Central Asian neighbours where her aggressive policies in quelling the unrest in Xinjiang causes much resentment among the Turkic Muslim populations. It is hoped that positive relations with the governments of those nations will help with this security challenge. These strategic initiatives are expected to continue.

More broadly, it is predicted that China will attempt to play a role in conflict management further west. Relative stability in the Middle East is also critical for the Silk Road project to be successful in the long-term. Beijing hosted visits from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2013, and announced a limited peace proposal. Whilst nothing solid ensued, a Chinese government official declared that “China’s political role in the Middle East will only be enhanced, not diminished”.

The Maritime Silk road project, however, has implications in different areas – the Bay of Bengal, Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea and beyond. Deep water ports are being built or planned in Colombo, Sri Lanka, Gwadar in Pakistan and Doula, Cameroon. Agreements in principle are in place with the Maldives, Bangladesh and Mozambique to join the project, and progression of the plans between China and these three countries should be monitored in the coming year, along with any new nations joining the party.

Sri Lanka is becoming China’s closest strategic partner in the Bay of Bengal. This is not necessarily popular with the Sri Lankan public, and indeed was a campaign issue in the recent elections on the island. Incumbent President Mahinda Rajapaksa had agreed to Chinese plans to invest $1.4 billion in building the new port in Colombo, the capital. Opposition leader Maithripala Siresena campaigned, and won, on a platform which included a pledge to block the project, only to abandon the pledge, reverse course and approve it shortly after assuming office. It will be interesting to see if hostile Sri Lankan public opinion toward ever-closer ties with Beijing can have any effect on near-term policy.

Whilst China’s foreign policy strategy regarding these programmes is about the projection of both soft power and economic power, her activities in the East and South China Seas are markedly different and show a nation that is more than prepared to project hard power when necessary.

Once again, policy is based around long-term economic security and survival. In the East and South China Seas, however, the long-term policy is security against a nation that this article has yet to consider – the United States. Considering a map of the western Pacific Ocean, it is apparent that China’s eastern seaboard is effectively hemmed in by US naval bases in places such as Guam and Okinawa, Japan or US allies such as South Korea, the Philippines, Australia and, much closer to home, Taiwan. China – correctly – feels completely boxed in.

The long-term strategy is too broad to be discussed in detail here, but has as its central tenets a plan to build out naval power to such a degree that the US can be challenged and pushed back, and an assumption that the US will not be able to defend Taiwan from a Chinese attack indefinitely (a RAND study in 2009 predicted that this would be the case as soon as 2020).

The short-term strategy is death by a thousand cuts. China intends to intimidate, bully, retreat, advance, throw her weight around, mollify, pledge good relations, and attack again. Rinse and repeat. The aim is to slowly but surely inculcate in the minds of her maritime neighbours that China is indeed the regional naval power. She never wants to push so far that the US intervenes, but the – probably correct – assumption is that the US will not go to war over some uninhabited islands, particularly whilst caught up in the Middle East.

What to expect in the coming year? Consider the nine month period from November 2013 to July 2014 when China ramped up local maritime tensions with three separate conflicts – the announcement of the Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, which overlapped with Japan’s own ADIZ right around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, aggression toward the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal in the Spratly Islands and the installation of the HS-981 oil rig in Vietnamese controlled waters.

The ADIZ was roundly ignored, tensions with the Philippines were – briefly – defused and China soon removed the rig. So, no real harm done, but plenty of hard power projection shown. This strategy is extremely likely to continue, so expect further flare-ups in the Senkakus/Diaoyus, more building on various islands in the Spratlys, confrontations between Chinese ‘fishing’ vessels and the Philippine navy and various other sabre-rattling exercises, all designed to be under the radar of the US.

It is all very well for China to have her long-term goals and shorter-term strategies to achieve those goals, but she has some very powerful neighbours on her doorstep and farther afield that cannot afford to be antagonised to such a degree that they threaten her capabilities. Relations with Japan, Russia and India are crucial for China to continue to rise without localised conflict, and of course, a full-blown conflict with the United States must be avoided at all costs.

Relations with Japan are at yet another low point, as evidenced by the painful handshake between the two nations’ leaders in November. However, whilst low, they are stable. Both leaders head up nationalist governments or coalitions and have no real interest in compromising with other. However, as long as the US is in Asia, conflict is unlikely over and above the predicted spats regarding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands; these carry the bonus for both leaders of stoking nationalist passions at home.

China’s relationships with India and Russia are much more interesting and well worth watching, from a bilateral and trilateral point of view but also as part of the BRICS.

China’s bilateral relationship with India is complicated and likely to remain so. India fears that the Maritime Silk Road project, with ports planned for Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, is cover for a naval encirclement in the Bay of Bengal. When a Chinese submarine visited Colombo last year these fears were stoked even further. For China’s part, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to the state of Arunachal Pradesh – claimed by China as part of Southern Tibet – was provocative and unnecessary.

However, trilateral relations between China, India and Russia are at a much more positive juncture. The thirteenth trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting between Wang Yi (China), Sushma Swaraj (India) and Sergei Lavrov (Russia) was recently held in Beijing. There was plenty of co-operation to be seen in the post-summit statement, from working together to build an inclusive regional security architecture to pursuing a fairer international order. Crucially, there was extremely strong language condemning terrorism. Chinese support in countering Pakistani terrorism aimed at India could have a significantly positive impact on their relationship.

At the upcoming BRICS meeting, the three nations are expected to announce plans for a joint orbiting space station, signifying a new, much higher level of technical and strategic co-operation.

For all these regional intrigues, the most important relationship for China to manage if she is to achieve her long-term aims is, of course, that with the United States. Once again, a full exploration of what to expect from that relationship in the coming years and decades is beyond the remit of this piece. As far as the next year is concerned, however, nothing much is predicted to happen. The US ‘pivot to Asia’ is unlikely to ramp up in the countdown to an election and with the focus still elsewhere; China, for her part, is unlikely to do anything to provoke a reaction and will bide her time, waiting to see who the American people vote for as their new President next year.

To conclude, the coming year is likely to see China’s long-term strategies to secure her economic survival move steadily on. The Silk Road and Maritime Silk Road projects should be monitored as China’s need for commodities from around the world lead her into ever-more interesting foreign policy relationships and decisions. The tensions in the East and South China Seas are not likely to abate anytime soon, as China seeks to continue to provoke in the region. However, as avoiding conflict with the United States is a key foreign policy tenet, these spats should not escalate into anything approaching serious conflict. The relationship with Japan will continue to be ‘serious but stable’. Relations with India will be marked by ambiguity, but shared membership of BRICS should result in positivity overall, as it will with Russia. Finally, China’s relationship with the United States should be marked by overall stability, with both sides concentrating elsewhere in the Year of the Goat.

Thus, there are three signposted events to watch out for in the coming year.

Firstly, in May, Prime Minister Modi of India is making a state visit to Beijing. President Xi’s visit to New Delhi in September was somewhat overshadowed by a military confrontation between the two nations on the Ladakh plateau in the disputed Western Himalayas. Both sides will be seeking to improve matters this time around.

Then, in July, the seventh annual BRICS summit is being held in Ufe in the Bashkortostan region of Russia. Expect to hear more talk of strategic partnerships in the economic and political arenas, and for the joint orbiting space station project to be formally announced.

Lastly, in September, Xi Jinping makes his first state visit to the United States as President. Will something similar to President Hu’s 2011 visit happen, where Chinese state media was forced to censor their own President after he admitted human rights shortcomings in a press conference?


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