China has become something of a punching bag for Western criticism. At the East Asia Summit in Singapore last year, US Vice President Mike Pence insinuated that China is pushing ‘empire and aggression’ in the Indo-Pacific. Disgruntlement with China dominated November’s Stockholm China Forum meeting, a gathering of American, Chinese and European ambassadors, diplomats, scholars, politicians and business leaders. Whether it’s the ‘debt trap’ of its Belt and Road Initiative, island building in the South China Sea or alleged influence operations, China is causing profound anxiety in Western democracies. Has China become a great disrupter?
There are reasons to think that global stability is still in the interest of a powerful China and that Chinese leaders will come to appreciate that insight. In an age of ambition, Beijing is unwilling to make absolute stability its foreign policy goal; but it also doesn’t want unremitting competition or confrontation.
President Xi Jinping refers to the aim of his grand strategy as the ‘great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’. In his report to the 19th party congress, Xi divides China’s rise into three periods: standing up under Mao, getting rich under Deng Xiaoping, and becoming powerful under himself.
It is true that stability isn’t posited as a goal in itself, but it is well worth asking whether national rejuvenation can be achieved without a good degree of external stability. Xi’s rejuvenation project, although above all a domestic task, also requires a reasonably stable regional and international environment. A turbulent world would create many challenges. The international structural imperative is such that even if Chinese policy creates instability in certain areas and at certain times, decision-makers will try to keep it under control and recognise the virtue of overall stability.
Does stability have a place under the overarching goal of national rejuvenation? In an important foreign policy speech delivered in June 2018, Xi described the ‘layout’ of his strategy, composed of six arenas. The first is to make the global governance system fairer and more reasonable. The second is to solidify the BRI. The third is to ‘construct a framework of overall stability and balanced development’ for the major powers. The fourth is to improve neighbourhood diplomacy and make the regional environment friendlier and more beneficial to China. The fifth is to deepen cooperation with developing countries. And the sixth is to promote mutual interaction and mutual learning with the rest of the world.
Each arena of this strategic roadmap assumes stability as an objective. Take two critical areas: major-power relations and neighbourhood policy. For major-power relations, overall stability is identified as a key goal. Indeed, Xi’s China desperately wants to stabilise relations with the US, now buffeted by President Donald Trump’s trade war and other uncertainties. For neighbourhood policy, the goal is a friendlier regional environment, which can’t be achieved without a good degree of stability. Beijing is now trying hard to bring stability back to the South China Sea by negotiating a code of conduct with Southeast Asian nations. At the level of grand strategy, China has built in overall stability as a foreign policy goal.
But grand strategy is as much about implementation as about conception, and successful implementation is by no means an easy matter. Here we should note the powerful mechanism of learning. During Xi’s first term, his ambitious and assertive regional policy was destabilising, especially in the East and South China Seas. But notable changes have taken place recently. In the South China Sea, for example, Chinese island-building increased security tension, but the code-of-conduct negotiations represent an attempt from Beijing to achieve a balance between regional stability and national rights. It is based on the recognition that despite all the nationalist fervour about sovereignty and maritime rights, stability is still an important foreign policy interest.
Another case in point is an important debate within China about strategic overstretch. Launched by Renmin University professor Shi Yinhong, among others, the debate brings to the fore the costs of Xi’s assertiveness. It may have already influenced official thinking.
The BRI provides a further example. Although unwilling to accept the ‘debt trap’ criticism, Beijing is privately acknowledging the problem of debt in some BRI projects and has courted collaboration on infrastructure investment from third parties such as Singaporeand Japan.
International concerns about the challenge posed by Xi’s plans are understandable. Ambitions aside, China still has a strong incentive to achieve a good degree of external stability. International interdependence is a structural imperative and Xi and his team have learned and will continue to learn about the virtue of stability through a policy process of trial and error. Ultimately, China is far more likely to balance its goals in the service of overall stability than to wreak havoc.
© This article first appeared at The Strategist blog of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 23 January 2019.