As tensions with China continue to develop, which way its foreign policies and relations may proceed towards appear to be even more unclear than previously. The hope that China would be tamed by the rules of the international order as it becomes one of its most prominent participants is increasingly becoming an utopian dream, one that is not unlike the utopianism that E. H. Carr used as a term to criticise the League of Nations’ own fragile structure.
The growing aggression exhibited by China that has been exacerbated by the coronavirus epidemic has therefore led to a crisis in how world leaders should approach the renegade state that is monopolised by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Whilst it is clear that its actions through its new security law in Hong Kong and its sterilisation program on Uighurs in Xinjiang is enough evidence to show the immoral decisions the CCP is still willing to make in post-Maoist China, it alone fails to explain the motivations behind its policies.
China, like most countries, has had a foreign policy that has hardly been consistent. However, like the United States with its grand strategy of primacy, China has had at least two distinguishing features that go beyond even the founding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949—that of historical memory largely determining its long-term goals, and the use of its cultural values to justify the expansion of its interests.
China’s historical precedent is key to its officials’ interests to redeem the nation from its ‘century of humiliation’ where it endured the consequences of imperialism and gunboat diplomacy in the 19th century. The CCP had once attempted to purge the nation’s past through the Cultural Revolution to consolidate its own vision of a ‘new China’. On the contrary, it now seemingly embraces it as a form of soft power through its Confucius Institutes, the namesake of which was once used by the CCP’s most fanatical members as a term to persecute its opponents as ‘rightists’.
If anything, China’s emphasis on culture has solidified the foundations of its influence that goes beyond both ideology and economics—the former once placing China as the head of Mao’s ‘Third World’ that was an alternative to both the US and the now extinct Soviet Union; the latter now determining its status as a world economic powerhouse that the rest of the world depends on. Much like American exceptionalism, China see its own form of exceptionalism that is characterised by its culture. But unlike the US’s own version, which was once described by Henry Kissinger as ‘missionary’, China’s is a reassertion of the tributary system that respected China as the ‘Middle Kingdom’ of ‘All Land Under Heaven’. Contrary to the Westphalian system that defined clear boundaries between European nations, what separated China from the rest was its own ‘civilisation’ to that of the ‘barbarians’. It would historically pit the latter against one another without making any formal alliances, much like how China tends to cooperate through bilateral methods such as the Belt and Road Initiative that lacks few formal obligations.
Making a comparison between alliance-based initiatives such as Five Eyes and China’s own preference to cooperate bilaterally shows the extent to which China relies on its ability to act accordingly to the moment rather than following the conditions the world order has placed to restrict aggrandisement. China has broken these restrictions numerous times within the South China Sea through its ‘nine-dash line’, a theory that has a quasi-historical emphasis that characterises many Chinese justifications for its foreign policy aims.
The CCP’s historical attitudes towards Confucianism is one that uses China’s historical roots as a political tool for its Machiavellian interests than that of the legitimate force for good once advocated by the Confucian philosopher Mencius, hence the CCP’s previous hostility to it. It has therefore been argued by others that China’s historical use of Legalism is what defines the limited continuity within the country’s foreign policy since the reign of the First Emperor Qin Shi Huang, not Confucianism itself. Both during the Qing dynasty and the Maoist era has China isolated itself by its own free will, either through its own self-confidence in its capabilities being superior to others, or due to its imbued distrust of peripheral actors that have conquered or occupied its territories in the past. Nevertheless, both groups of rulers have seized what opportunities there have been outside China’s conventional sphere of influence, from the late Qing period encouraging a principle of ‘Chinese studies as fundamental, Western learning as useful’ to the opening of Sino-American relations between Mao and Richard Nixon in the 1970s—compromising Marxist-Leninist principles for the sake of containing Soviet influence. Accusations of IP theft by China in countries such as the US and Australia is testament to this theme continuing.
The essence of Chinese foreign policy has both a historical and contemporary self-confidence in its own beliefs to influence whatever interests it. Its adherence to its unique civilisation, whether as the historic Middle Kingdom or through its Marxist-Leninist principles, continues to dictate what it believes it can achieve. This may derive from a genuine belief in its historical uniqueness or as a weapon for garnering credibility for its foreign policy aims. Regardless, the symbiotic nature of its domestic and foreign policies is akin to its history being the foundations of its position and interests within the world. Understanding this is essential for the rest of the world’s own security interests – not just China’s.
Alex Johnson is a Co-editor of The Jackdaw.
Picture: Mao Zedong speaks to student at the Tianjin University factory. Public domain.