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

July 27, 2016 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaHistoryDefenseStrategyForeign Policy

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

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?

Should we then believe that China will rise peacefully, and will not fall into the “Thucydides Trap,” as Graham Allison has so colorfully labeled the temptation to power that faces rising powers like the People’s Republic of China—namely, the tendency for rising powers to get into wars with other powers as they seek to establish their place in the international order? Based on a comprehensive study at Harvard University, Allison concludes, “Indeed, judging by the historical record, war [between the United States and China] is more likely than not.” Realists like John Mearsheimer are even more pessimistic that China can rise peacefully, that it can avoid the “Thucydides Trap” Allison speaks of, not simply because of China’s own natural insecurities and interests as a rising power, but because of the fear China’s rise will put in the hearts of China’s neighbors and the United States, just as Thucydides said of relations between rising Athens and Sparta.

As for me, I believe the weight of evidence is on the realist side as it concerns outcomes in this case. I do not believe that realism’s material-driven narrative wholly explains it, however. Realism’s narrative is quite simply that the availability of material power opens doors of opportunity for foreign policy, and that given the uncertainties and insecurities facing great powers, expansion of the state’s power along with robust, aggressive, security-enhancing foreign-policy action is the best, most rational option available to foreign policy makers. What this means is that in a power transition such as the one we are witnessing, this dynamic will more likely than not lead to great-power conflict. As Mearsheimer says in the final pages of his noteworthy 2001 book, “A wealthy China would not be a status quo power, but an aggressive state determined to achieve regional hegemony,” including the domination of Japan and Korea and the exclusion of the United States from Asia.

While the outcome I see may (unfortunately) be similar to what Mearsheimer sees, my explanation thereof would be different in a number of important ways. While I do not believe that the growing abundance of Chinese power in and of itself determines that China will become more aggressive or problematic, I do think there are a number of reasons China is likely to become a more aggressive, difficult power for the United States and China’s neighbors to deal with in the coming decade.

First is the nature and role of domestic politics in China, drawing in particular here from Zheng Wang. Wang has argued that China’s foreign policy is best explained by domestic politics, by the policy choices of a regime whose legitimacy is based not on democratic processes or even primarily on economic success any more (though this still matters to be sure), but rather on its self-defined legacy of being defender of the realm, “most thorough-going patriot,” urging that all Chinese must “never forget national humiliation,” its mantra according to Wang. In other words, the Party portrays itself as being all that stands between stability, independence, success and national pride on the one hand, and instability, subjugation to foreign powers, failure and national shame on the other hand, drawing from China’s very real and very painful history of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers, from 1839 to 1949 in particular.

Wang concludes that because China’s undemocratic regime now draws its legitimacy from the “never forget national humiliation” mantra it has constructed, inculcating it into the minds and hearts of its people via state-run education and media from cradle to grave, China’s foreign policy is quite prickly, and China’s leaders are unwilling to compromise on what might otherwise be minor territorial issues. This is because, Wang argues, compromise on such issues would undermine the Party’s master narrative, its raison d’être. As long as the Chinese Communist Party rules China, and does so in the general way that it does now, it is difficult to see much change in this regard.