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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.

Related directly to this is the second factor I’d like to highlight: the role of hierarchy in Chinese social and cultural reality. Chinese views of the social milieu have been hierarchical for centuries, in both domestic and international political terms, and while not bowing to historical determinism, there is a strong historical trajectory that suggests there is no reason to expect that China in the twenty-first century will be remarkably different, with no reason to believe Chinese leaders will this time disavow the ambition to be number one, or laoda in Chinese vernacular.

Domestically, the Chinese political system has always been authoritarian, with clear norms for relations between ruler and ruled, husbands and wives, parents and children, etc. Hierarchy was, and is, valued more than equality. In international relations, in like manner, China’s world has always (until the 1839 Opium Wars) been hierarchical, one in which China was always laoda in the world it knew. While China did not necessarily impose its will on every subordinate nation whenever it could (its hegemony was much more subtle than this, as Yuan-kang Wang, Alastair Iain Johnston and others make clear), in the tributary system it wisely and successfully constructed, it was clearly always first among unequals and got what it wanted on the issues most important to it. Its hegemony was, for the most part, benign during the tributary system period as long as it was not challenged. If challenged, it acted like a realist would expect it to. It rarely was challenged, however.

In a very general sense, in Chinese societal contexts, even today being number one is key—the highest social value—where attainable. Zheng Wang has an interesting discussion about gold medals at the Olympics. In the medals count, the Chinese do not count total medals (gold, silver and bronze), but only gold medals, because from a Chinese perspective silver and bronze medalists still lost. Only the gold medalist is a winner in the true sense, and Chinese athletes face an overwhelming pressure to win gold and bring glory to China, or fail and face shame.

In like manner, as long as the United States is number one economically, militarily, technologically, or in terms of cultural soft power or the number of Nobel Prizes attained, there is a compelling argument that Chinese leaders are not going to rest, harmonious rhetoric aside. The argument here is that they aspire, once again, to be laoda, number one. This is visible in almost everything the Chinese state does internationally, from creating “national champions” in global but state-run corporations like Huawei, Lenovo and Haier, to building a formidable industrial policy as a part of a state-driven/state-serving economy, to establishing its nine-dash line in the South China Sea, to its relentless quest for national resources and military technology and hardware, to its policy to increase the number of research publications or Nobel Prizes won by Chinese academics, to its quest for success in space.

In addition to this, there is a third factor: the fact that China’s newfound wealth, coupled with its size and historical legacy of being “laoda” (again, number one, the preeminent one), makes its easy for Chinese leaders to have a sense of entitlement in their foreign-policy orientation, a sense that China should be deferred to, that China should once again get its way after so many years of humiliation, poverty and struggle. This is one way to read China’s increasingly assertive positions and policies in the South China Sea. As then foreign minister Yang Jiechi told his Southeast Asian colleagues in the context of an ASEAN ministers’ meeting in response to Hillary Clinton’s statements about the importance of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” This statement speaks volumes. China is a big country, it is now number two economically and quite powerful militarily, and it should therefore get what it wants, à la Thucydides (again, “the strong do what they can, while the weak accept what they must”). What is true in Chinese domestic politics, where the attainment of power brings with it a seemingly limitless ability to bend rules to one’s advantage and expectation of deference from the weak, so too Chinese policymakers seem to have developed in their foreign policy a similar sense of entitlement, an expectation that China’s newfound power purchases it a right of deference from smaller, weaker nations. Needless to say this has not flown well with China’s neighbors or today’s “global laoda,” the United States.

For the domestic political, ideational and sociological reasons explicated here, and not due simply to the raw material reality of China’s rise (which cannot be stopped in any event, though Mearsheimer would like the United States to try to do so), China seems on course to clash with the United States and its neighbors. Though the materiality of China’s rise is part of the story, for it facilitates the aspirations of this great nation in repositioning itself at (or near) the top of international society, I would argue that this is largely a nonmaterial story, a story driven by domestic politics and social, cultural and ideational factors, not just on crude material indicators of power. Though I wish it were not so, alluding to the potentially tragic outcome of the trajectories described herein, I think it is an accurate story.

It seems that there are two possible explanations for the disjuncture between China’s harmonious rhetoric and its more assertive, even aggressive, foreign-policy turn in recent years. One possibility is that when Chinese leaders look in the mirror, so to speak, they honestly see a peaceful, harmonious self, a self quite different from those of other actors in the world outside of China, and they honestly believe that no one should fear China, that China will always, and only, do what is right and fair, and that any rhetoric otherwise comes from either ignorance or ill will toward China, or both. This is consistent with what Peter Gries and others have called fundamental attribution error, or the tendency to assume good intentions of and give the benefit of the doubt to oneself and one’s friends, but to assume the worst about enemies and unfamiliar others. The other possibility is that the harmonious rhetoric is simply a farce, a tactical move to placate China’s neighbors and the rest of the world until China is ready to begin flexing its muscles. The reality may be a little bit of both, but it is difficult to know for sure, given the lack of transparency in the Chinese political system.

In the end, only time will tell if China’s rise will be peaceful or if it will end in an international-relations train wreck, in yet more examples of war among nations party to a great power transition, and yet further proof of the difficulty of avoiding the “Thucydides Trap.” In any event, alluding to the language of realist Reinhold Niebuhr, it seems prudent that while hoping and working for the best, China’s neighbors and the United States would be prudent to quietly prepare for the worst.

Gregory J. Moore is Head of the School of International Studies at the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, China, and a member of the (U.S.) National Committee on United States-China Relations.

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