15 December 2013

Contradictions in China’s Foreign Policy

Douglas H. Paal, Contradictions in China’s Foreign Policy,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 13 December 2013.

You may have missed the funeral, but China’s new leadership has quietly buried the admonition of former leader Deng Xiaoping that as China rises in wealth and power it should maintain a low profile (known as taoguang yanghui). In its place, the new leadership is advancing a more proactive diplomacy in surrounding regions. President Xi Jinping is displaying self-confidence that seems to match the mood of the times in China, one of renewed nationalism and self-assertion. In most neighboring capitals this development will be viewed positively but warily; in Manila and Tokyo, less positively. 

The issue is that China wants the benefits of a charm offensive with its neighbors, but it also wants to jealously guard its far-flung territorial claims. It cannot do both.


China’s adoption of a well-resourced agenda seeking better relations with its neighbors offers the kind of competition for influence that the U.S. government has repeatedly said it welcomes. China pursued such an agenda between 1998 and 2008 with considerable success, especially in Southeast Asia.

After the 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the global financial crisis, however, China became more outspoken and intolerant of its neighbors’ claims. It embarked on an approach that would seize on actions by others involving disputes, such as Vietnam creating a municipal jurisdiction for its disputed South China Sea islands, and respond even more forcefully with actions of its own. This has triggered a series of quid pro quo chain reactions across the region.

In any event, whether China’s neighbors are charmed or alarmed by Beijing’s actions, their demand for an American counterweight will continue to grow. It is incumbent on the United States and China’s neighbors to make the U.S. investment in their security rest within broader economic and diplomatic activities that will sustain the support of the American people. The Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations symbolize this productive path to greater economic interdependence as part and parcel of a continuing U.S. role in the region.

Unlike in Southeast Asia, where distances and lower levels of military development tend to soften the effects of frictions with China for now, in Northeast Asia, all parties are better armed and in fairly close proximity, so their air forces and navies are well within range of each other. Moreover, the present leaders of China, Japan, and South Korea appear more willing to accept risks than their predecessors. Indeed, each capital seems to have calculated that a simmering level of tension suits its political needs. This can be the tinder for conflagrations that quickly get out of control despite intentions of restraint.

In this environment, one normally reaches for a cookbook of confidence-building mechanisms, such as hotlines, agreements on incidents at sea, and mid- and high-level diplomacy. This may be possible and probably is worth seeking between South Korea and China, where ADIZs overlap but territorial claims do not. In the South China Sea disputes, stepped-up efforts to achieve a workable code of conduct would be preferable to a new round of ADIZ announcements.

If China continues to condition such mechanisms with Japan on acknowledgement of a territorial dispute, then the political will to agree will not be found in Tokyo. The United States should continue to combine messages urging restraint by all parties with robust reaffirmation of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.

A delicate balance must be struck between being unyielding to more unilateral efforts to change the status quo and getting trapped in escalatory behavior that might otherwise be avoided. This will require spokespeople for the Obama administration to speak with greater clarity and uniformity than they have at present on how the United States intends not to recognize China’s new ADIZ. There is a need to reconcile State Department and White House statements with notices from the Federal Aviation Administration to civilian airlines that imply acceptance of the new ADIZ.

As it has done, the Obama administration should insist on freedom of navigation despite the declared ADIZ and on abiding by international established practices within the zones. It should also assert that an ADIZ conveys no implications regarding sovereignty.

And the United States and its security partners need to maintain or increase the pace of deployments and exercises within the first island chain to dilute the Chinese sense of having diminished American influence there. They should also compete vigorously with China’s charm diplomacy in traditional and creative ways. There is considerable room for a range of multilateral initiatives on issues such as public health, the environment, education, and the sharing of fisheries as well as on more conventional security and diplomatic arrangements. The U.S. Congress should support and not impede the president’s ability to carry out the nation’s diplomacy.

In addition, the United States should sustain, deepen, and broaden its newly revived military-to-military interaction with China’s armed forces. Congress should trust the U.S. military and retract the 2000 National Defense Authorization Act’s constraints on that activity.

Finally, U.S. national security authorities should calmly seek opportunities to show China that the ADIZ surprise announcement was a costly mistake. Much as when North Korea launched a satellite and conducted its third nuclear-weapon test and the United States later announced an increase in anti-ballistic missile interceptor launchers in Alaska, Washington should patiently and nonprovocatively undermine the sense that American forces are being pushed out of China’s near seas.

Beijing should be helped to understand that it is not a zero-sum game.