Will a Rising China Respect Sovereignty?

by Ameya Naik

China’s approach to domestic and foreign policy alike has long been driven by the twin imperatives of maintaining high economic growth and domestic stability. These objectives have become more disjunct than in the past, for at least two reasons. First, China has indeed discovered greater political tolerance for lower economic growth, especially if the administration takes measures to address governance and quality of life concerns. Second, despite recent disturbances, the process of ethnic consolidation of Xinjiang and Tibet has advanced significantly. This combination affords Chinese foreign policy greater leeway than it previously enjoyed.

Professor Brookfield, in starting this series, wrote that China is “the locus of many risks for the world.” In the foreign policy arena, these risks can be summarized as one key question: as its influence waxes, how will China treat the sovereignty of other states? Sovereign equality may be a cornerstone of the current global order, but the details of what it entails remain highly contested. In the fluid domain of international law, the actions of one powerful state today can shape the global understanding of sovereignty for years to come. On those grounds, a number of trends bear watching.

The most evident, of course, is China’s conduct in the South China Sea. China’s expansive territorial claim—the so-called nine-dash line—is today the single largest challenge to universal application of the Law of the Sea. As the New York Times has documented, China is slowly but steadily changing facts “on the ground” (as it were) to support its claims. The recent militarization of the China Coast Guard suggests that China’s reliance on this “salami slicing” strategy will only intensify in the near future. Meanwhile, U.S. recalcitrance in ratifying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) makes American criticism easy to deflect.

A second area of concern is the sharing of river water between riparian states. The sources of some of Asia’s greatest rivers lie in the Chinese/Tibetan Himalayas, making China the upper riparian. China has not signed any water-sharing arrangements or treaties. As climate change affects both glacial melting patterns and demand for freshwater, water sharing becomes a potential flashpoint between China and its lower riparian states. India and Bangladesh have large populations reliant on the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra river system, and the threat of “hydro-hegemony” makes them justifiably nervous.

Leaving aside Asia’s water woes, China also has major investments in infrastructure and land holdings in Africa. The implications of these investments for African governments and economies are hotly debated. High-level African criticisms of China’s investments, claiming that they are neo-colonialist extractive exercises that add no value to the communities in which they operate, have caught Chinese officials flat-footed. Assertive civil society is an unfamiliar challenge for Chinese officials, and the argument that China squeezes African firms out of domestic markets is not easily answered in any case.

For the time being, investments continue unabated, most recently including a $12 million contract for railroad construction in Nigeria. It remains an open question, however, as to how long China can—or will—continue scattering largesse through these channels, and through new investment banks. To be sure, there are associated benefits: China’s provision of infrastructural assistance and Chinese national oil companies’ success in bidding for exploration projects, for instance, are not entirely unrelated. In volatile markets such as oil or commodities, though, one has to have a high tolerance for risk, and economic slowdown at home may well alter China’s risk appetite abroad. The implications of tapering Chinese investment on “Africa’s fragile boom” remain largely unexplored.

In short, China has access to a number of levers, which could be used deliberately or inadvertently to destabilize a number of key regions. The short-term danger is that domestic political imperatives may yet lead Chinese leaders to make irresponsible decisions. The long-term danger is that China actually finds strategic value in such destabilization. Economic factors alone are insufficient to predict, explain or address this possibility; rather, its prevention must be a key objective in grand strategy decision-making for any state interested in a stable international order.

About the Author

Ameya Naik is a dual degree MALD-LLM student at The Fletcher School, with a focus on rule of law in post-conflict states. He is a research scholar at The Takshashila Institution, an independent public policy think-tank based in Bengaluru, India.

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