International Affairs — 21 May 2005

With more than a decade of outstanding economic growth, and its adoption of a “great-power mentality” (daguo xintai), is China really a dragon on the hunt? Riaz Hassan analyses China’s expanding foreign policy objectives. Such objectives are resulting in regional complications that US foreign policy will be forced to face but may not be able to counter.

Wei-Ch’i, or “Go” as it is also called is a strange sort of game. Intellectual and strategic activity is devoted to a pursuit that, at best, has an ambiguous result. The game is not the realm of winners or losers. It is however a pursuit of perpetual struggle for minute advantages. Unlike chess where the end game is always aspired to and can either be met as win, lose or draw, Wei-Ch’i has no endgame, unending seeking of position is the only rendering factor. Chinese policy makers brought up on many an hour spent at Wei-Ch’i tables have suddenly found the world a gargantuan Wei-Ch’i board. Using ingenuity and creativity to achieve constant and incremental advantage has led China’s leadership to the brink of becoming the world’s second super power.

The question on most lips is not whether Beijing can be called a bona fide superpower, but rather what kind of power China will be? The discourse on this subject has occupied many leading Sinologists and political commentators, with some arguing that China is oversized paper tiger while others consider it an ideological foe comparable to the former Soviet Union. This very important subject surfaced in a very public manner during George Bush’s trip to Europe, during discussion about the proposed resumption of EU arms sales to Beijing.

As Willem van der Geest, head of the European Institute of Asian Studies in Brussels says, “There’s a sense that we’re just talking past each other, China is a one dimensional trade driven soft power without a military threat, so why not sell the country weapons?”

A comment by Henry Kissinger, quoted at the beginning of “The Coming Conflict With China” by Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro, perhaps best sums up American fears about Chinese aspirations1 “Once China becomes strong enough to stand alone, it might discard us. A little later it might even turn against us, if its perception of its interests requires it.”

Although Bernstein and Munro’s work was vilified by many Sinologists for its fear-mongering and over dramatisation of the issue, it nevertheless raised an important concern. The authors maintained that they were neither in the “containment” nor the “engagement” camp concerning US-Sino relations. The potential struggle was quite clearly outlined in their work and a number of stark predictions stated have since borne fruit, but I think Bernstein and Munro were mistaken in their view of how the struggle would play out. They argue that the Chinese government regards America as “the hegemonist enemy” and having been indirectly behind the student actions in Tiananmen Square. Thus they assume that anti-Americanism has become a matter of national dignity and China’s stance will be belligerent.

It not surprising that the world’s most populous country, buoyed by impressive economic growth and with a standing army of some 2.3 million, should want to exert some sort of influence on the world stage. Yet the form, intensity and location of this struggle are now more open to interpretation than ever. China’s status in the world today, its aspirations and its modus operandi can possibly best be summed up by Sun Tzu in the “Art of War”2

“Move not unless you see an advantage; use not your troops unless there is something to be gained; fight not unless the position is critical. If it is to your advantage, make a forward move; if not, stay where you are. Anger may in time change to gladness; vexation may be succeeded by content.”

China has long been regarded as a sleeping giant on the world stage, and despite its chequered history during the twentieth century, it has not lost direction of its regional goals. This is evidenced by the fact that the prospect of an emergent, assertive China has never been far from the minds of many leading policy makers. Samuel Huntington stated that, “the clash of civilisations which is to occur will manifest itself between Western Universalism, Muslim Militancy and Chinese Assertiveness.”3 While the clash between the West and “Islamic militancy” has received much attention and has been the mainstay of international political debate in recent times, the China factor mentioned in his bold statement has not has not gained as much attention hitherto, yet it is at the moment one of the most constant sources of worry and uncertainty for US policy makers. The Clinton administration, in seeking to control and manage the growth of China reclassified the nation as a global partner rather than a global competitor. This change of stance to an “engagement” policy, though largely symbolic, was very a successful attempt to placate and outmanoeuvre the Chinese leadership. With the emergence of George Bush in the White House, the “curtailment” or “containment” policy was announced, but never really took off and was largely sidelined as more pressing matters took centre stage, such as Iraq, the U.N. and Russia. Anthony Lake, Clinton’s former National Security Adviser recently lambasted the Bush administration for being reactive and failing to appreciate the ups and downs that go hand in hand with an effective China policy.4 Henry Kissinger and others have long been lobbying for greater engagement with China as a means to control it. He stated that needless disputes between the US and China threatened to destabilise the “Shanghai Communiqué”, which has been the basis of Sino-US relations for the past 30 years and a mechanism for the US to keep Chinese ambitions in check.

Although, China has undergone some radical upheavals over the past two centuries, in sharp contrast to the former Soviet Union and the United States, Chinese foreign policy has not been devoted to advancing purely ideological interests, such as world communism or freedom. The main lens through which the Chinese view success is that of advancing national interest.

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