China’s Foreign Policy: Speak Softly, Or Perhaps Not at All

(cc photo by philipshannon)

(cc photo by philipshannon)

Talking foreign policy with Chinese elites is a frustrating experience for someone who was hoping to have a conversation. The rise of a new major world power is a fascinating phenomenon that raises lots of practical and theoretical issues, precisely none of which anyone seemed interested in discussing with our group. Nobody had anything to say about the Obama administration’s national security strategy. No substantive thoughts were offered on the structure of the international order beyond the totally generic observation that it needs to evolve over time. Even when prodded, nobody would describe China’s “role in the world.” No remarks on the differences or similarities between the Bush and Obama administration’s beyond the observation that the bilateral Sino-American relationship, narrowly defined, is usually an area of continuity. A few people raised the complaint that US foreign policy is too driven by the election cycle, but nobody offered any examples.

I was aware that China has a strategic concept called China’s Peaceful Rise but nobody brought this up. When I brought it up to ask if there were any relevant historical analogies, the official in question said America’s rise counted. Some of us counter-observed that there were some pretty non-peaceful events in the first half of the twentieth century, which prompted a bit of a chuckle but no explanation.

This isn’t to say that China has no foreign policy. A clear and direct concern was repeatedly expressed that a North Korean collapse would create a massive refugee problem from China and that in general it’s important to avoid pushing the DPRK in a way that sparks a war. Similarly, China has an Iran policy and a stated rationale for why its commercial ties to Sudan are right and virtuous. But what they’re not talking about is a grand strategy in any kind of recognizable form, and efforts to get people to muse about anything thematic or otherwise unrelated to a concrete, present-day issue were futile. That’s not to say that China doesn’t have a grand strategy—perhaps they just don’t want to talk about it—but if they do they’re not interested in discussing it with foreign visitors. I suppose it’s possible that the whole thing is a smokescreen for a secret agenda of global domination in league with Venezuela and Iran in an axis of autocrats.

But to me it looks more like a policy of “masterful inaction.” China is focused on economic growth, on trying to secure international acquiescence to its rule over Tibet, and to trying to reintegrate Taiwan into PRC rule without sparking a destructive war but they regard these as domestic issues. On the international stage, they’re mostly doing what we would call economic policy. Their former ambassador in Washington said he spent most of his time on trade/currency issues and you’d have to think that’s doubly true for ambassadors to lesser military powers.

I’m not a believer in ideological geopolitical crusades, but it was a bit of reminder that relations with a democracy are always going to be different. As John Ikenberry argues in a scholarly context, the more transparent and rule-oriented nature of liberal democracies means that they can make credible commitments to one another and engage in deep, complicated, multifaceted collaboration in a way that’s just very difficult to do with an opaque oligarchy.