A year after the change of leadership in Beijing, the new leaders’ approach to China’s foreign policy is becoming clearer, and it is a good time to take stock of China’s position on international affairs. In global crises, is China taking action merely to preserve its own increased international interests? Or is it interested in making a contribution to the global common good?
Is China taking action in global crises merely to preserve its own increased international interests?
Xi Jinping is proving to be a much stronger leader than his predecessors. Hu Jintao saw the last years of his mandate mired in factional debate over domestic political issues and a rising tide of public nationalism. It is now very clear that this has led to more systematic assertiveness on territorial issues, to high-profile public diplomacy, and to China turning away from its previous low profile on the world stage in favour of a new proclamation of “big power relations”. As the world’s second largest economy, China’s stake in the world economy has increased, and some of its valuable assets in the developing world are proving vulnerable to domestic and external threats. This would seem to argue for China taking a more active part in mitigating the impact of global crises – but is this what is happening? Is China’s increased interest in the global economy matched by greater support for international rules and for the “global commons”? Or does China still believe that the rules of the international order are part of a Western hegemony that has shown itself to be biased against the People’s Republic and, more generally, against new and emerging international actors?
There is no shortage of global crises right now, from Crimea and Ukraine to the Syrian civil war and the rise of the so-called Islamic State. Chaos is looming in Libya and, relatedly, Sub-Saharan Africa is destabilising. As the Western intervention in Afghanistan comes to an end, the region is also at risk of unrest. And incidents between China and its maritime neighbours, as well as between China and India, have the potential to spark a large-scale conventional conflict. Almost all of these conflicts are of urgent and direct interest to Europe; even Asia’s maritime problems, however geographically distant, have important implications for Europe’s sea-borne trade and its relations with its Asian partners.
As the world’s second largest economy, China’s stake in the world economy has increased.
China’s military budget is steadily increasing and it has gained a new capacity to project force abroad. This, together with its presence and influence in international institutions, raises new questions about China’s role in the international order. China has several options for dealing with its new position: it could contribute to global problem-solving while still insisting on its own terms, or it could find that its interests are best served by allowing the international order to become weaker. These questions are some of the most contentious issues within China’s community of international relations experts, as well as among outside observers, and Barack Obama’s recent comments about Chinese “free-riding” have intensified the debate inside China. Will China transition to international norms or will it continue to prioritise sovereignty, or even choose to support a different sort of world order?
So far, expectations have not lined up with reality on the question of China’s participation in global crises. China may have become, for a time, the world’s second largest contributor to “blue helmet” peacekeeping operations, but it trails many other countries in other forms of support for internationally sanctioned interventions, whether in combatants or in financial contributions. Still, China’s sparing use of its veto power at the United Nations Security Council has enabled many international operations. Therefore, explicit or default Chinese consent is a key component of any UN-sanctioned international operation. Ambiguity is often built into Chinese positions, which makes it hard to read China’s real thinking on many international crises.
Will China transition to international norms or will it continue to prioritise sovereignty?
The positions in this paper are largely drawn from a dialogue with a group of Chinese international relations experts during a recent seminar held by ECFR in Beijing. The experts were not foreign policy or security officials, but rather, highly regarded academic policy analysts. They provide a contextual insight into current Chinese thinking, particularly as held by China’s leadership, rather than detailed information on China’s actual modes of intervention. Nonetheless, their views provide explanations of official thinking, and sometimes represent divergence from official positions as well. If understanding a major partner is the key to dealing with it, then this is the only way to access the terms of debate and the recent changes in thinking within China.
What follows, therefore, is an interpretation of comments made during the exchanges that took place at the seminar. We are solely responsible for the interpretation, but it is based on arguments made by participants, whether individually or in consensus.
Foreign policy comes from the top
One striking finding was that the experts very rarely mentioned the potential impact of different policy centres, or even of fragmented policymaking through organisations or interest groups.
There seems to be an unprecedented degree of personalisation in China’s foreign policy
Only a few years ago, this was a common complaint, but today, even the Ministry of Foreign Affairs itself is not spoken of as the primary source of foreign policy. Instead, China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, is usually said to be the direct source of foreign and security policy. There seems to be an unprecedented degree of personalisation in China’s foreign policy: even in Mao’s era, his foreign minister or prime minister, Zhou Enlai, played a very important international role. Moreover, participants mentioned a high degree of mutual regard between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.
Chinese “public opinion” is the only frequently cited counterweight to Xi’s policy decisions. The issue seems to be not so much the rise in nationalist sentiment as the potential for a public backlash after the leadership has raised the international stakes on sovereignty issues, if and when it decides to back down for pragmatic reasons. Public opinion is not a driving factor of China’s foreign policy, but is an important secondary consideration, inasmuch as the public have been given high expectations and so may react badly to any compromise or loss of face. As an example of this thinking, one participant explained that it was better for China not to state precisely the extent of its maritime claims: if it did, public opinion would put pressure on the government to drive out unauthorised foreign presences, such as that of Vietnam, from contested areas.
Chinese “public opinion” is the only frequently cited counterweight to Xi’s policy decisions.
Aside from the influence of public opinion after the fact, there is no doubt that foreign policy flows from the very top. In discussing the implications, some of the experts expressed alarm at steps taken by China in its relations with neighbours: one participant said that “China’s relations with its neighbours should be more friendly. This is a requirement for China’s credibility.” Others spoke of the worldview of China’s leaders and how it shapes foreign policy. To China’s leaders, the world is still divided between “us and them”, although now the gap is seen as one between China and Asia (or the developing world) and the West (or developed nations) rather than between communists and capitalists. China’s “enemies” are unambiguously the United States and Japan, while Europe might be a friend “whom they hope to win over”. Fear of “orange revolutions” is still important, and China would never fully join the West.
China’s role in global crises
Chinese experts are comfortable expressing their distaste for some of the regimes with which China associates: Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is judged to be an “obsessional anti-Semite”, Bashar al-Assad and Robert Mugabe are seen for the dictators they are, and the experts “do not approve” of Putin’s actions in Ukraine. But in many cases, experts say the seeds of global crises were planted by the West.
“Russia and China share the same fears, so they understand each other.”
As one expert said, “Russia and China share the same fears, so they understand each other.” The Chinese analysts blamed Europe’s and NATO’s efforts to incorporate Ukraine as having been the cause of Putin’s reaction in Crimea and Ukraine. China agrees with Russia about the problems with the ouster of Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, whom it still regards as legitimate. Putin acted pre-emptively to obviate the risk of upheaval and chaos created by Western support for the Maidan demonstrations. It should be noted that “chaos” remains one of the factors that, under previous PRC statements, could justify the use of force in Taiwan, which indicates some consistency in the Chinese position. The experts also discussed the role of think tanks in Russia, saying that some of their best-known representatives were actually funded by the United States.
The first thing the West should have done was “take Russia seriously”, and China would have qualms similar to Russia if it faced an oppositional alliance on its own doorstep. Would Europe be ready to accept a measure of Russian influence over Ukraine? Admittedly, some experts were embarrassed about China’s relations with Russia and Ukraine: the country had friendly relations with both, and was trying not to take sides. They wondered whether Europe would look kindly at a future proposal by Chinese energy firms to become the “third party” in the much-needed revamping of Ukraine’s oil and gas pipeline network.
On the Middle East, the experts were suspicious of the coalition being formed by the US against the Islamic State (IS). Would the same coalition ultimately take on Syria’s Assad? Why would this coalition not accept Iran as a participant, considering that Iran is a natural enemy of Sunni extremism? Four vetoes at the United Nations Security Council testified to China’s opposition to international action against the Syrian regime  after what happened in Libya. But in spite of the experts’ suspicions, US intervention in the region was in fact welcome for two reasons: firstly, it would remove the need for direct action by China, which has no essential security interests in the region. And secondly, US intervention in the Middle East would limit the scope of the US pivot to Asia. On Iran’s nuclear programme, China supported the interim agreement reached in Geneva in 2013, but it was equally supportive of Iran’s requests to postpone its implementation.
According to Chinese experts, the first thing the West should have done was “take Russia seriously”.
The experts said that “Europe and France have a historical responsibility for the difficulties” in Mali. Chinese experts were not overly concerned about the terrorist risk presented by Islamist groups based in the Sahara. In view of their government’s recent decision to provide combat forces to the UN peacekeeping operation in Mali, they wondered how Chinese public opinion and the Chinese government would react to any loss of Chinese lives. Chinese public opinion would only accept external interventions by China if the rationale were clearly based on China’s immediate interests, as opposed to any idea of contributing to global governance.
Intervention close to home
China’s reservations about international action are strongest when it comes to intervention in the South and East China Seas. The experts question the objectivity of the International Court of Justice, which arbitrates territorial disputes. They point to the fact that it is presided over by a judge who is a former Japanese diplomat, and that it has dealt favourably with Japan over the issue of Okinotori , the uninhabited islet in the Philippine Sea. Japan poured concrete to turn this semi-submerged atoll into an islet as defined in legal statutes, which has sparked a race throughout Asia to erect structures on reefs, in efforts to provide claimants with legal rights to the surrounding maritime zones.
China’s reservations about international action are strongest when it comes to intervention in the South and East China Seas.
China is said to recognise the results of the Cairo and Potsdam wartime conferences, – unsurprising, since these conferences implied that Japan would have to turn over all territories acquired by force. But it does not recognise the San Francisco Treaty of 1951, to which it was not a party, nor does it accept the US-Japan Security Treaty of 1960, which covered areas under Japan’s actual control. The experts have little time for the negotiated settlement now being discussed by unnamed Singapore think tanks “under American influence”. Reportedly, this settlement would assign only 7 percent of the South China Sea to China, which the experts call “a laughable exercise”. Finally, China’s interpretation of freedom of navigation under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea differed from the US conception.
The experts had very different opinions on how to resolve the conflicts in the China Seas. Some saw a “frozen conflict” as the only option, especially since Chinese public opinion would not accept compromise. Cooperation could take place on transversal security issues, such as marine pollution or piracy (with China’s participation in the Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia, ReCAAP). Others believed that it would be better for China to define its claim, as the first step towards opening negotiations.
Afghanistan and Mali were seen as the two crises – apart from the Middle East – in which some form of Western intervention was actually welcome. On Mali, the accent on international terrorism was dimmed, however, by a view that the former colonial power – France – was somehow responsible for general conditions there. On Afghanistan, the main interest was whether Europeans would provide economic assistance to the country after the withdrawal of their troops.
Two things seem clear. International interventions, and China’s participation in them, are an option of last resort rather than a preferred mode of action.
China has taken on a new type of responsibility that is “constructive, selective, and on a new frontier”.
And the rationale for intervention must be clearly based on national interest rather than on international norms or law – even if China’s neutrality in any given instance is probably based on the fact that China considers the intervention to be justified under international law and norms. One expert said that since 2008, China has taken on a new type of responsibility that is “constructive, selective, and on a new frontier”. The criteria for intervention in this new approach are highly selective. China will accept interventions that are predominantly non-military and based on approval by the United Nations, as well as on approval by all state parties involved. China should choose interventions in areas in which it has real interests – this means, in particular, in Africa. And China prefers international involvement on transversal issues, such as maritime issues, the North and South Poles, cyber security, and financial security.
This snapshot of Chinese expert views on their government’s attitude to global crises presents a sobering conclusion. Chinese experts sometimes judge their closest partners negatively and show some embarrassment at their actions. But the default position is non-intervention, the preservation of sovereignty, and a new doctrine of influence over the neighbourhood that is cited as a justification for the actions both of Russia and of China. There is still a window of opportunity to gain China’s cooperation in solving global crises, but it is tightly restricted by several demanding criteria. China believes force should be used only as a backup to solutions acceptable to all parties. It will not get involved unless its national interests are at stake. And it calls for any intervention to be authorised by the UN, which allows China to exercise its right to veto decisions. The potential for cooperation on non-traditional or transversal security, where inter-state conflicts are not at issue, may be more promising.
China’s vision of international order does not so much involve a “power shift” to China as a more pragmatic view of global affairs.
China’s vision of international order does not so much involve a “power shift” to China as a more pragmatic view of global affairs, in which the latecomers to statehood – the developing and emerging countries among which China still places itself – and the outliers in the prevailing democratic system of governance nonetheless hold equal rights under a legal vision which places states above individuals. Any hope of obtaining Chinese cooperation must be based on these criteria: utility, common security implications, and bargaining between states rather than legal arbitration by a third party.
It could be said that this vision in fact minimises China’s real role in the international system. But given current US and European concerns about systemic overload due to multiple crises appearing simultaneously in several regions, this argument may be more reassuring than disquieting to our potential Chinese partners.
 The four vetoes occurred on 22 May 2014 for the draft resolution S/2014/348, on 19 July 2012 for the draft resolution S/2012/538, on 4 February 2012 for the draft resolution S/2012/77, and on 4 October 2011 for the draft resolution S/2011/612.
 Despite its small size, Okinotori reef is located in a strategic military position between the US military bases in Taiwan and Guam. This atoll represents an economic asset for Japan since it is surrounded by oil and gas resources and it could allow Japan to extend its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). In 2004, China asserted that given its size and according to the UNCLOS, Okinotori reef could not be qualified as an “island”.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.