External Threats and the Formulation of China’s Foreign Policy

March 16, 2012
Event: 
Fellows' Seminar

Chair: Amb. R Rajagopalan
Discussants: Amb. Nalin Suri and Prof. MV Rappai

China’s foreign policy is geared towards securing its ‘core interests’ such as maintaining territorial integrity, the preservation of its system of government and continued economic and social stability. Perceived threats to these core interest shape China’s external behaviour. The paper analyses important external threats as perceived by Chinese strategic thinkers.

Chinese perceived external threats are:

  1. Japan
  2. Korean Peninsula
  3. South China Sea
  4. India
  5. The US.

Chinese scholars view Japan as an emerging military threat. They believe that China’s economic growth has encouraged a sense of envy within Japan regarding China. Japan will seek to strengthen its military and political clout to balance China’s growing political and economic clout. Japan’s territorial disputes with Russia and China are seen by many Chinese scholars as providing impetus to revise the role of Japan’s Self Defense Forces. A close examination of Chinese threat perception regarding Japan suggests that they believe that Japan can be a threat for China as a key ally in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan straits, as a facilitator of regional cooperation (among India, Japan, Australia and the US) that may exclude China and as a contender for political leadership of the region by increasing its stature at the international forums including the UN. Japan’s pursuit to gain a permanent seat at the UN Security Council is viewed by the Chinese scholars as being aimed at gaining political clout to countervail China.

As regards Korean peninsula, the Chinese scholars perceive that an exacerbation of tensions on the Korean peninsula would have implications for China’s domestic and foreign policy. China’s failure to prevent conflict from breaking out on the Korean peninsula would adversely affect the political influence Beijing has gained in the region. In case that happens, smaller states in the region would look at the US as the net provider of the security. Chinese scholars also believe that instability in the Korean peninsula has given an opportunity to Japan and South Korea to strengthen their military ties with the US. In case the situation aggravates further, it will help them deepen their military relationship.

The issue of South China Sea and Chinese territorial and maritime claims over its sovereignty has become an issue of much concern for China in recent years. According to the Chinese scholars, the bilateral disputes that China has with some ASEAN member states such as Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia now have the potential to strain and stall the relationship with the ASEAN as a whole. American courtship of these countries neighbouring China is viewed by the Chinese scholars as an opportunistic exploitation aimed at containing China. According to the Chinese scholars, instability in the South China Sea provides an excuse to the US and Japan to increase their military footprint in China’s immediate neighbourhood. They also fear that in the event of an escalation of dispute on South China Sea, the US and its allies would take the opportunity to interdict Sea Lanes of Communications thereby jeopardizing China’s economy.

India has been recognized as an important regional actor by Chinese scholars because of two main factors: economic development and a proactive foreign policy following the 2005 Indo-US nuclear deal. Unlike the Indian perception of an imminent military challenge from China, India is seen as a direct threat to China. It is Tibet, which China defines among its core interest, that makes India a potential threat in Chinese thinking. Despite India’s adherence to the “one China policy” and repeated assurances that the Indian government will not permit dissident Tibetan to undertake anti-China activity, Chinese scholars remain wary of India’s stand on the Tibet issue. They believe that Dalai Lama can be used by India to destabilize the Tibetan Autonomous Region.

India’s look east policy and growing military relationship with the regional countries are seen by Chinese scholars as aimed at seeking strategic balance with China. New Delhi’s efforts to develop bilateral relationship with central Asian countries and prospects of greater involvement in the region are seen as enabling the encirclement of China. Growing Indo-US relationship is also seen as a strategy to contain China in the near future. China is deemed as an important factor in the close bilateral relationship that developed between the two countries following the Indo-US nuclear deal.

In the Chinese strategic thinking the US is viewed as the fundamental obstacle to China’s continued assent in global politics. The US arms transfer to Taiwan and the seeming centrality of the Taiwan question in the Asia calculus of the US continues to be an important threat for China. Apart from Taiwan issue, China sees the US as a threat for many reasons. It is seen as a facilitator for the creation of China containment policy in Asia. American relations with Japan and South Korea, its military engagement with Southeast Asia and its growing relationship with India are all seen as part of a greater strategy to reduce China’s strategic space. The US has been raising the human rights issue of China. This has been viewed in Beijing as interference in China’s internal matters and an effort to destabilize the country domestically.

China has taken three important foreign policy initiatives- support for multilateralism, promoting military diplomacy and active pursuit of economic diplomacy- to tackle various external threats mentioned above. By promoting multilateralism, China is trying to project itself as a responsible power and a cooperative partner. Chinese participation in multilateralism is also geared towards diluting the influence of one particular power.

Following the repeated criticism of its military modernization, China has tried to allay the “China threat thesis.” It has established defence and security consultation with 22 countries including the US, India, Japan, Vietnam and Philippines. With an aim to project a more open and transparent image of the Chinese military, it has also sought to increase military exchanges with countries across the world.

Economic diplomacy has become a central theme in China’s foreign policy. In terms of management of external threats, China has actively sought to reassure its smaller neighbours that they have a stake in China’s growth. Keeping that in mind, China has signed various FTAs with Southeast Asian countries. China has consistently sought to deepen economic engagement while putting contentious issues on the backburner. The rational is that greater economic ties will help instill mutual trust.

Major points from the discussion and suggestions to the author;

  1. The title should be revised to reflect that the paper studies Chinese perception of external threat.
  2. Current assessment of security environment and Chinese world view may be added as a background to the paper.
  3. The paper must include a section on Taiwan and an assessment on recent elections.
  4. The paper should also look at Chinese threat perception with reference to Central Asia and Russia. Resource competition among the regional powers should also be factored in.
  5. China’s historical grievances-the century of humiliation-should also be factored in the paper.
  6. The Chinese threat perceptions mentioned in the paper should be reordered and should begin with the US.
  7. The paper should lay emphasis on Chinese threat perception in Hu Jintao era.
  8. China’s response to these threats may also be added if possible.
  9. The scholar should undertake a field trip to further asses the Chinese perception on these threats.
  10. The paper notes that some of the perceptions mentioned in the paper are based on personal interviews with the Chinese scholars. The scholar should footnote the interviews.

Report prepared by Shamshad A. Khan, Research Assistant, East Asia Centre.