It's Not Just Material: Politics, Culture and Ideas Might Drive China into Confrontation

A guard in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. Johnathan Nightingale/Flickr

The realists' talk of a Thucydides Trap is right, but for the wrong reasons.

Anyone familiar with the foreign policy rhetoric emanating from Beijing for the past three decades or more has heard talk of China’s “good neighbor policy,” its “peaceful rise” and its aspirations to contribute to a “harmonious world,” by way of “a new type of great power relations.” China pledged under Deng Xiaoping to pursue a “good neighbor policy,” and China arguably followed through on that for the next three decades. China’s modus operandi during this era was what Deng called a policy of “taoguang yanghui,” literally “avoiding the [spot]light, nurturing obscurity,” or more colloquially, “biding one’s time and lying low.” Under Hu Jintao, the foreign policy mantra was “peaceful rise”—later changed to “peaceful development,” perhaps so as to avoid associations realists might make with rising powers and the complications this might bring).

Xi Jinping has ushered in a new initiative, suggesting “a new type of great power relations,” which could be read to say: Don’t worry—we won’t rise like 1930s Germany! Or, put another way, today’s China does not seek to repeat the past in terms of the “normal” historical pattern of great-power rise as leading to great-power conflict. In 2007, perhaps the high tide of “the peaceful rise” strategy, China was quite successful, for as David Kang and others pointed out, China’s neighbors did not appear to be balancing against a rising China, but seemed quite optimistic about China’s role in the region. China had then perhaps the best security environment it has ever enjoyed.

Yet in recent years, things have changed. China now has one of the worst security environments it has seen in recent decades, its relations with many of its neighbors now fraught with tension. For example, China’s recently very warm relations with South Korea have cooled, because of what Seoul perceives as Beijing’s continued backing of Pyongyang, despite North Korea’s nuclear tests, Beijing’s support for North Korea following the North Korean sinking of the South Korean naval ship Cheonan and North Korea’s shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island in 2010, all of which arguably contributed to Seoul’s decision to accede to and host the U.S. THAAD missile defense system, over Beijing’s heated protests. Moreover, China’s relations with Japan worsened in 2010, with an incident between a Chinese fishing trawler and a Japanese Coast Guard ship (YouTube videos clearly show the trawler ramming the Japanese ship) near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands group, which both China and Japan claim and Tokyo administers, and again in 2012, after violent anti-Japanese protests in China associated with a Japanese move to nationalize three of the islands in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands group. China’s relations with India have been tense in recent years as well, with Indians perceiving the maritime dimensions of Beijing’s “One Belt, One Road” policy as encroaching upon Indian interests in the Indian Ocean, and claiming that Chinese troops in the Himalayan region where Indian and Chinese border claims overlap have been more aggressive in pressing China’s claims there in recent years.

China’s relations with most of the Southeast Asian nations have soured recently, too, because of Beijing’s more assertive maritime policies and its assertion of its nine-dash line, which stakes claim to the bulk of the South China Sea. In fact, China’s 2012 takeover of the Philippines-claimed Scarborough Shoal (which Beijing calls Huangyan Island), just 123 miles from the Philippines and 540 miles from China, brought Manila to take China to court via the International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea, an appeal which Beijing recently lost. In addition, China’s placement of an oil rig in waters claimed by Vietnam set off violence and protests directed at Chinese concerns in Vietnam in 2014, bringing Sino-Vietnamese relations to new lows. In the past year or two, China has also begun aggressive reclamation work on several maritime features in the South China Sea, some of them far from China’s shores and well within the EEZs of other claimant nations, turning the features into man-made islands with docking facilities and airstrips capable of hosting military aircraft. Clashes between Chinese fishermen (who clearly have state support) and Indonesian patrol boats as far away as the Natuna Islands (within Indonesia’s two-hundred-mile Exclusive Economic Zone and outside China’s nine dash line) have raised tensions between Beijing and Jakarta in the last few years as well.

All of this has led to South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia and Singapore deepening defense ties with the United States, and even Vietnam seeking closer ties with the United States. “Taoguang yanghui” appears to have been abandoned.

With all of this in mind, there appears to be a curious disjuncture between China’s harmonious, peaceful, exceptionalist (i.e., the argument that China is not aggressive like other great powers) rhetoric and its increasingly robust, even aggressive, foreign policy-choices. Given the turn toward the assertive that Chinese foreign policy took between 2008 and 2010, and the increased friction with almost all of China’s neighbors during that period, what should we make of the Chinese government’s repeated pronouncements that China will rise peacefully, that China will never threaten other nations, that harmony is China’s overriding political and foreign-policy principle or value, that Confucian cultural inclinations make China different than other, “more imperialistic” nations, and so on?