Published on YaleGlobal Online Magazine (
Home > China’s Foreign-Policy Balancing Act – Part II

China’s Foreign-Policy Balancing Act – Part II

Ranked 11th largest in the world in 1980, China’s economy has since swelled to the second spot. Outbreak of hostility in any part of the world – like Libya – affects China’s global portfolio. This two-part YaleGlobal series analyzes China’s approach to complex global issues. China prefers pragmatism in alleviating global tensions, contends Shen Dingli, Fudan University professor. China’s rapid rise, increased external pressures to act at a faster pace and tardy responses to crises heighten suspicions. A case in point is China’s inconsistent position vis-à-vis North Korea despite its open violation of internal law in dealing with its southern neighbor. The principle of noninterference, territorial integrity, reliance on patient diplomacy and a desire for stability that characterize China’s strategies can appear opaque. Every nation, including China, can benefit by examining its own foreign-policy responses for consistency and the reactions they generate. Shen concludes that delicate handling and building mutual trust would minimize frustrations and serve everyone’s interest. – YaleGlobal

China’s Foreign-Policy Balancing Act – Part II

Delicate handling and consistent policies can help China regain the trust of neighbors
Shen Dingli
YaleGlobal, 15 April 2011
Troubled Water: Japanese arrest of Chinese fishing boat captain and strong Chinese response provoke protests in China (top) and Japan

SHANGHAI: China is better off due to its extensive international engagement. Yet such engagement is double-edged, increasingly exposing China to regional unrest such as the current turbulence in Libya. Chinese investment and laborers were at risk there, and required swift action. Beijing’s effort at protecting its physical investment interests, verbal insistence on the longstanding principle of non-intervention, as well as support for and compromise on the United Nations Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions, which indeed constitute interference in Libya, reveal China’s ever-complicated calculation of interest as well as its pragmatic diplomacy.

Contrary to the suggestion that Beijing is becoming more assertive, China faces more challenges, both structural and incidental, that pressure it to respond publicly. While China’s foreign policies are intended to be conducted with more visibility now, some of its responses are viewed by others as pushy or over-reaching. External pressures, notably from the US, could be forcing China’s hand in responding too quickly, too forcefully, to classic security dilemmas, particularly in its own backyard.

While China’s foreign policies are intended
to be conducted with more visibility, some responses are viewed as pushy or over-reaching.

China’s foreign relations in East Asia have experienced turmoil over the past year. For instance, with Japan, Beijing demanded last September that Tokyo immediately release a Chinese captain whose fishing boat collided with a Japanese government vessel near Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. China has long claimed sovereignty over the territory, but the fast, stern approach, combined with a temporary hold on exports of rare-earth materials, could have added strain to its public diplomacy with Japanese at large.

The most serious challenges facing China have been from the Korean Peninsula. Rather than returning to the Six-Party Talks, the DPRK staged a series of contentious moves in 2010. Although China was uncertain of Pyongyang’s role in sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel, the North’s artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong in November, which killed civilians, is indisputable. After the first wave of shelling, China was silent, unhelpful in preventing the North from threatening a second wave. China neither criticized the ROK for staging a shelling exercise too close to the North nor condemned the DPRK for shelling Yeonpyeong and violating international law. China was uninterested in addressing this issue, subsequently blocking a statement of condemnation from the UN Security Council.

China’s security environment is increasingly challenged by the US, which has shown renewed interest in the Asian region.

China’s security environment is increasingly challenged by the United States, which has shown renewed interest in the Asian region, taking advantage of regional tensions to shore up its alliance with both South Korea and Japan. Washington also is revamping relations with some ASEAN countries, urging them to hedge against China. In July 2010, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton openly challenged China’s position on the South China Sea, asserting US interests and calling for peaceful resolution of territorial disputes, in addressing the ASEAN Regional Forum ministerial meeting in Hanoi. In addition, China has increasing disputes with the US in regard to freedom of navigation inside China’s Special Economic Zone. The two nations still have not resolved disagreements over interpreting the relevant rights under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

It makes sense to ponder why these challenges have emerged, how China may have contributed to them and how they might be averted in the future.

China’s rise per se is a source of its growing confidence, but too fast a rise and too much confidence could foment tension between China and other nations. For instance, China’s growth rate over the past decade is 10 times higher than that of the United States. If it sustains this fast rate, China could surpass the US in total output in another decade.

Sometimes China
tends to move more slowly than the US in responding to individual incidents.

Similarly, China’s official defense budget in 2010 was $78 billion, 50 percent higher than Japan’s and 150 percent more than India’s. The 2011 official budget at $91.5 billion could exceed the total expenditures from Japan and India. Even if China has the best intentions and transparency, the neighbors’ response is predictable. A number of China’s neighbors are apprehensive about Beijing’s fast rising power and respond with hedging while calling for dialogue.

China has viewed US arms sales to Taiwan as insulting. Yet, Beijing has bided its time in the hope that the US would respect China’s rise and end its interference. Against the backdrop of the global financial crisis and US commitments in Afghanistan and Iraq, Beijing may have concluded that the time to end the US weapons sales has come. That may be why, a year ago, China demanded that the US end such sales, or find itself “truly sanctioned.” Indeed, China sanctioned the US while hurting itself, by freezing military-to-military exchanges for 2010.

Sometimes China tends to move more slowly than the US in responding to individual incidents. So China’s DPRK policy appears, at best, contradictory. While Beijing tries to normalize its relations with Pyongyang, moving away from a ”lips and teeth” relationship, it continues to protect “traditional” bonds, preventing sanctions on the North for its behavior. For instance, the UN Security Council has ordered comprehensive sanctions against the DPRK for its nuclear/missile development, except humanitarian aid. Yet, China is reportedly in talks with the DPRK to develop harbors and other infrastructure. If such South Korea press reports are true, this could move beyond the UN limit of aid for “humanitarian purposes.”

Mutual distrust
between China and
other parties, especially the US, at a time of China’s rise, increases mutual hedging.

Although China has regarded the ROK as a “strategic partner” since 2008, it waited five weeks to issue condolences after the Cheonan’s sinking, a sharp contrast to two high-profile welcomes for North Korea’s leader last spring. China’s unwillingness or inability to speak out fairly about violations of international law in the Yeonpyeong case does not boost its diplomatic profile or win international support.

Beijing and Washington may have clashed, unnecessarily, over “China’s core national interest” concerning the South China Sea. Such core national interest is most important in terms of substance and therefore most narrowly defined in terms of scope – China’s sovereign soil, space and waters rest within 12 nautical miles from its sea baseline. The adjacent water, exclusive economic zone, and the rest of the South China Sea as contained by the “nine-dashed-lines”– except for islands claimed by China and associated territorial waters – are important, but not core interests for China. This should be clearly stated to avoid unnecessary conflict and aid China in securing its legitimate security environment.

China’s complicated security environment may extend from the outgrowth of three factors: external pressures, China’s fast rise and its own performance. US security pressure on China persists, but Beijing's handling of that pressure increasingly accounts for complications in its security environment. The mutual distrust and suspicion between China and other parties, especially the US, at a time of China’s rise, increase mutual hedging.

Beijing is influential in many international affairs, contributing greatly to alleviating regional tensions and global concerns. That said, it must also understand the undesirable consequences of its own actions in shaping its security environment. More delicate handling and specific responses could ease a number of security dilemmas and help it ride out the rough waters.

China could better position itself to reduce some of those challenges. In fact, dealing with maritime disputes primarily through international law, stabilizing the Korean Peninsula through proactive balancing and working with the US to allay each other’s legitimate concerns are the remedies to smooth the latest rough patch.

Shen Dingli is a professor and director of the Center for American Studies and executive dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, China.

Rights:Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization