China’s Foreign Policy Balancing Act

by Lyle Morris


Over the last few years, pundits and commentators in the West have reached near consensus that China has become more assertive. Many point to Beijing’s willingness to use its newfound economic and diplomatic clout to bully and coerce its neighbors and the United States. Yet such a label creates misperceptions about Beijing’s intentions, which continue to be benign and focused on building an environment conducive to China’s economic development. The truth is, Beijing is overwhelmingly preoccupied with internal challenges that threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy. These issues include increasing income inequality, endemic corruption, environmental degradation, and social instability, and they will continue to consume Chinese policymakers for the foreseeable future.

The sources of Chinese assertiveness stem more from China’s opaque political system and independent foreign policy actors than from an overt strategy to challenge its neighbors and the United States. Compounding the situation is the fact that major policy changes and political developments in China can appear to come with little warning or explanation. Additionally, the many overlapping areas of administrative jurisdiction and levels of responsibility over foreign policy domains serve to complicate matters further still, as these entities increasingly lack central coordination and erode Beijing’s ability to project a peaceful rise. Consequently, regional neighbors may find the uncertainties associated with China’s rise particularly daunting despite their multifaceted and far-reaching ties with China.

Take China’s recent passage of a law giving Hainan provincial public security and border police broad authority to “board, detain, and expel illegal foreign vessels” in “Hainan-administered waters.” Enacted with little explanation to the international community, the law has been interpreted as a coordinated effort by China to escalate tensions in the South China Sea. It is unclear, however, how much central coordination took place prior to issuance of the law as it was passed by the Hainan provincial congress. Furthermore, ambiguity in its text, first published on the Hainan province website, has created uncertainty as to whether the law applies to Chinese jurisdiction over the entire South China Sea or simply to territorial waters off Hainan Island. A month passed before a Foreign Ministry spokesperson addressed these concerns, emphasizing that the law’s aim was to “tackle crime at sea and maintain peace on the seas.” Time will tell how or if the law changes Chinese maritime behavior in the South China Sea.

To be sure, China’s ascendancy, like that of any other rising power, unsettles nearby and status quo-seeking states as the possibilities for fundamental transformations to familiar and established patterns of interaction in a region become real. This holds true for relations with the United States, which retains a certain level of uncertainty as to how China intends to influence the current international security and economic order. The onus falls on China’s new cohort of leaders to convince its neighbors of its benign intentions while also appearing confident to its domestic constituency.

This delicate balance between foreign policy and domestic messaging has proven difficult for Beijing to achieve. Take, for instance, the backlash which resulted following Japan’s recent announcement to nationalize three of the five Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands (called Diaoyu in China), which China claims sovereignty over. The announcement sparked  massive anti-Japanese protests throughout China. Angry citizens tore up Japanese flags, smashed Japanese-branded cars and vandalized shops selling Japanese goods. The protests cost Japanese companies an estimated 10 billion yen ($126 million) in damages, according to government spokesmen in Tokyo. Beijing subsequently adopted additional measures, such as publicizing historical basis for China’s claims to the islands as well as increasing naval patrols of the area.

The international community was defensibly critical of the Chinese reaction. However, the crisis exposed the severe challenges facing Chinese policy makers who had no choice but to condone the protests for fear that their swift suppression would be viewed as capitulation to the Japanese stance. The reality is that Chinese leaders have limited policy options when events or actions by other nations are perceived as a challenge to Chinese sovereignty claims. Appearing soft is simply not an option.

The central task of the Chinese leadership will continue to be to maintain robust economic growth and a stable external environment conducive to trade. Complicating efforts of a peaceful rise are issues of social instability, nationalism, and insufficient policy coordination with local bureaucratic actors—issues that will require deft statecraft on the part of China’s new leadership. Continuing to persuade China’s neighbors of its peaceful intentions while appearing strong domestically will be Beijing’s central challenge going forward.

About the Author

Lyle Morris is a Research Assistant at the RAND Corporation. Prior to this, he served as a Next Generation Fellow at The National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) from 2010 to 2011.

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