To glimpse how China is perceived in the West, a good place to start would be the titles of bestsellers. In 2015, the No. 1 bestseller in the United States was The Hundred-year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower. In 2017, there was Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? And this year, a trending one is Red-handed: How American Elites Get Rich Helping China Win.
The message is as ominous as it is clear. A rising China, with a culture and political system often elusive to Western observers, is increasingly seen as a “challenge” or even a “threat” to the West. China’s foreign policy is believed to have taken an “aggressive” turn to match the country’s growing strength and ambition. After all, there is no lack of historical precedents of rising powers eagerly reshaping the international order to their own advantage.
But China has vowed to defy such (largely Western) conventional wisdom. And the realpolitik approach has often turned out to be disappointing for understanding Beijing’s global aspirations, leading to self-fulfilling prophecies of more antagonistic relations between the West and China.
The truth is, Chinese foreign policy is more flexible than many give it credit for. As British sociologist Martin Albrow observed, “China is often thought of in the West as an ideologically-driven country. In actual fact, the West is far more ideologically-driven, in the sense of promoting values as such, than China is.”
The Biden administration is busy forging a value-based alliance whose main targets are unmistakable. The UK’s new prime minister recently claimed that China poses “a systemic challenge to our values and interests”. In contrast, China views differences between nations through a more practical lens. This is encapsulated in Beijing’s mantra of “seeking common ground and shelving differences”. Put forth by Premier Zhou Enlai at the 1955 Bandung Conference, it remains the animating spirit of Chinese foreign policy today.
Such pragmatism prompted socialist China to enter into diplomatic relations with France, Japan and America and campaign to regain its seat at the United Nations during the Cold War, and to return to Bretton Woods institutions and negotiate long and hard to join the World Trade Organization in the reform and opening era. Today, Beijing continues to deepen engagement with those countries with vastly different systems, and welcomes all interested parties to its Belt and Road Initiative and Global Development Initiative. One gets the impression that China has moved on from Cold War, while some in the West are yet to catch up.
A pragmatic foreign policy also means that China does not align itself with any particular country. In the knee-jerk criticism of China’s handling of the Ukraine crisis, some Western countries — notably not Ukraine itself — are expressing their frustration at failing to get Beijing to pick sides. They forget that China had forged a strategic partnership with Ukraine as well as Russia. Even as Beijing continues to uphold territorial integrity as a central tenet of foreign policy — in every case, not selectively, one might add — it cannot turn its back on a neighbour with whom it shares a 4,300-kilometre border and many common interests. More people will come to see the wisdom of the Chinese approach: refusing to provide weaponry and ammunition to either party and therefore not acting to prolong the conflict and suffering; and reminding the world of the unfortunate origins of the conflict and, by implication, what a negotiated outcome must address.
Which begs the question: If China has shown such deftness, how come the “wolf-warrior diplomacy” narrative has gained traction in many quarters?
If one cares to look deeper, one will see that in many cases — a US congressional leader’s visit to Taiwan, accusations of “genocide” in Xinjiang, and support for anti-government riots in Hong Kong — it involved what China considers its domestic affairs. China was not picking a fight half a world away, but was standing up for itself on well-publicised “red lines”.
Like in every other country, the Chinese public and policymakers are also extremely sensitive where sovereignty comes into play. They tend to see any encroachment of the country’s periphery as a possible reenactment of its 19th and early 20th century “national humiliations” where Taiwan, Xinjiang and Hong Kong had been the prized objects of imperial conquests.
Indeed, the supremacy of sovereignty is deeply ingrained in the Chinese collective consciousness. For much of China’s history, it was under constant threat from strong nomadic neighbours. Its modern history was rife with dark episodes of foreign invasion euphemistically known as “gunboat diplomacy”. Even after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, China was subject to blockade and sanctions for decades.
Therefore, the inviolability of sovereignty is not only the single most important principle in Chinese diplomacy, but also what gives the CPC government legitimacy and underlies the strong support it enjoys among the governed. It would be wiser to take this into account before sticking the “wolf warrior” label on Chinese diplomats.
Another narrative swirling in Western foreign policy establishments is that China is becoming more adept at putting forth agenda-setting initiatives to provide alternatives — if not counterweights — to existing Western ones.
This perception is at best superficial. There is no doubt that China seeks a voice and say in global affairs that reflects new realities, and it is only to be expected that no country would invest in initiatives that hurt its own interests. Anything else would be hypocrisy. But to suggest that the initiatives are designed to cripple partner countries’ economic autonomy? That’s a bit far-fetched.
In proposing new frameworks of cooperation, China has also set the parameters of its own activities. The process is essentially reciprocal: Partner countries will acquire financial and technological support, while China may attain something of greater value than economic rewards: moral legitimacy. To paraphrase Richard Nixon, this is a far better outcome than “a billion of its potentially most able people [living] in angry isolation” or flouting international norms, surely?
In practice, the Belt and Road Initiative has provided pilot zones for norms that China believes could prove a better model for development cooperation. Non-intervention and mutual benefit are honoured in international relationships where one party is a major power.
Contrary to assertions that belie a lack of self-confidence, China does not belittle Western — actually, universal — ideals such as democracy. But Beijing understands that if democracy is to work and deliver, it must adapt to local conditions. The overwhelming majority of the Chinese people agree to this view. More and more of them are also sickened by the double standards practised by some Western countries. For one thing, even as they try to revitalise democracy at home, they are behaving in an increasingly undemocratic fashion in global affairs. For another, they keep referring to a “democracy vs authoritarianism” dichotomy even if some of their partners and friends do not meet the bar of a Western-defined “democracy”.
In the Chinese tradition, democracy at its best means involving all stakeholders and building consensus, both at home and abroad. It would be far removed from this ideal if some members of the international community are deprived of an equal voice or are forced to pick sides, or if international commitments can be given and disavowed when it suits a country’s political cycle.
China does not give international commitments lightly. But when it does, it honours them, be it the Millennium Development Goals, WTO accession obligations or emission reduction targets. And China has put money where its mouth is and kept foreign aid free from political conditions. Recognising that countries’ fortunes are interlinked, it has helped to grow hybrid rice, build (rail)roads and bridges, develop human resources and mitigate climate change in the developing world. It doesn’t hurt to win more friends and market shares in the process.
To end where I began, it is time that the West approaches China with an open mind, instead of just extrapolating from their own experience. A lot in the world will ride on it. The price of staying in the echo chamber and consistently getting China wrong could be inviting the very outcome the West purports to avoid.
(The author has contributed to The Straits Times, The Brussels Times, Morning Star, China-US Focus, etc.)