Political drivers in China

“Hide your strength and wait for your time”

– Deng Xiaoping

Leaders of People’s Republic of China since WWII:

Paramount leader            Mao Zedong                         1949 – 1976

Paramount leader            Deng Xiaoping                     1978 – 1989

President                        Jiang Zemin                          1989 – 2002

President                        Hu Jintao                              2002 – 2012

President                        Xi Jinping                              2012 –

China has been a fully formed imperial bureaucracy for more than three thousand years, whereas Europe shaped its state-like system after the Westphalian treaty 1648. A thousand years ago, Asia was the overwhelming leader in the world economy, China number one and India number two. Consequently, the Chinese approach to world order has been very different from the system that took hold in the West.

China’s history in nutshell

European state system in 16th and 17th century was comprised of the institution of the Roman Catholic Church, sovereign states, balance of power diplomacy and the legal equality of states, which later became as the basis of international law and diplomacy. China, by contrast, was never engaged in sustained contact with another country on the basis of equality for the simple reason that it never encountered societies of comparable culture or magnitude. That the Chinese Empire should tower over its geographical sphere and neighbor states was taken virtually as a law of nature. Like the US, China also has thought of itself as playing an exceptional role in the world but China never espoused the American notion of universalism to spread its values around the world.

As to the traditional Chinese approach to international affairs, they relied more on strategic acumen and longevity. China has no tradition to conquer its neighbors. The Great Wall is an example of that, China relied on a rich array of diplomatic, defensive and economic instruments: prefer defense not attack. The Chinese idea prefers subtle, indirection and patient accumulation of relative advantage. The world-famous ancient author of The Art of War, Sun Tzu, published his treatise over two thousand years ago but it is still valid in Chinese military and strategic thinking.

The 19th century was a humiliation century to China ending up to the collapse of Quing Dynasty in early 20th century and a long period of chaos and turbulence, which paved the way to the formation of People’s Republic of China, led by the communist party and Mao Zedong after the WWII. In 1949 the communist revolution put the end to old and traditional China transforming thoroughly the whole Chinese society, political structure and leadership, both in domestic policy and foreign policy. Defeated by the communist troops led by Mao Zedong, the nationalist troops led by Chiang Kai-shek retreated to the island of Taiwan in 1949, which case is still one of the most sensitive issues in international politics and especially in the Sino-American relations.

China took part in the Korean War by supporting North Korean offensive, which ended in July 1953 essentially along the prewar line of the 38th parallel. After that, China confronted both superpowers: two conflicts with the US in Taiwan Strait, a growing ideological and political controversy with the Soviet Union and began preparations of conflict with India. During the first decade of the People’s Republic of China’s existence (1950s), the leaders of the broken empire turned it into a major power internationally. 1960s was dominated by Mao’s attempt to accelerate the continuous revolution at home. His Great Leap Forward turned however, into a full catastrophe. The famine triggered by Great Leap had barely been overcome than the next unrest was knocking the door, the Sino-Indian border crisis in 1962.

The immediate impact of the Cultural Revolution was disastrous. China turned inward to reconstruct the whole society during the last years of Mao who died 1976. However, during his last years, Mao organized a new initiative, opening negotiation process with the US, which culminated president Nixon’s visit in China 1972. The event began a period of cooperation between the two countries. From China’s point of view, the US has become a counterweight to the USSR on the international scene, although the relations with Soviet Union began to alleviate gradually as well.

New time and new rise

Deng Xiaoping

Mao’s successor was Deng Xiaoping (1978-1989) and China’s opening began in those years. Deng had the courage to base modernization on the initiative and resilience of the individual Chinese. He called it “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. China today is a testimonial of Deng’s vision and common sense. Deng rejected all traditional communist orthodoxies. The people needed to be given a stake in what they produced, consumer goods had to have priority over heavy industry, Chinese farmers had to be liberated, the Communist Party needed to become less intrusive and government would have to be decentralized. Over the course of next ten years he implemented all his ideas how to develop China.

Normalization of relations moved to the top of the Sino-American agenda in late 1970’s and finally the so called Third Communique was signed in August 1982. It has become part of the basic architecture of the US-China relationship. Each side restated its basic principles: China affirmed its position that Taiwan was a domestic Chinese affair in which foreigners had no legitimate role; America restated its concern for a peaceful resolution, appreciating the Chinese policy of striving for a peaceful resolution.

In late 80’s during the gradual fall of Soviet Union, China became active in international scenes. In 1985 CIA report described China as “maneuvering in the triangle” by cultivating closer ties with the Soviet Union through a series of high-level meetings and inter-communist party exchanges.

The year 1989 was dramatic. First the fall of Berlin Wall and soon after the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself and then the political situation in China began to escalate. In spring, what had started as a student demonstration evolved into an occupation of Tiananmen Square and nationwide anti-government protests challenging the whole Chinese authority system.

China’s leadership hesitated how to proceed. After weeks of internal debates, Deng and the majority of the Politburo ordered the army to clear Tiananmen Square in July 1989. International reaction was stark, as was the critics from the US. During the end year Deng retired and Jiang Zemin was elected as the new general secretary of communist party.

Jiang Zemin

Jiang Zemin (1989-2002), ex-Shanghai party secretary, had no foreign policy experience. His leadership arose from bureaucratic and economic performance. However, he was a cosmopolitan enough to understand that China would have to operate within an international system.  He emphasized the Westphalian state order and sought a multipolar world, where China’s brand of hybrid socialism and people’s democracy would be accepted and where the US treated China on equal terms as a great power.

According to Jiang the lack of economic reforms were the causes to the fall of USSR. Political reforms might be needed over time but economic reforms had to precede them. Chinese leaders also rejected the concept that the fall of USSR verified “the universal triumph of Western liberal democracy”. Jiang underlined many times that China will never submit to pressures, because it is a philosophical principle. Jiang began slowly but determinedly to develop the relations with “reborn” Russia.

Hu Jintao

The presidency of Hu Jintao (2002-2012) took place at the beginning of the new milleniun. Hu and his premier Wen Jiabao represented a new generation of top officials without personal experience of the revolution and the first officials of the great power China.

President Hu and his premier Wen described their reform aspirations not in terms of utopian vision of Mao but by the goal of building “a moderately well-off society” – a term with distinctly Confucian connotations. They enlisted Confucius as a source of Chinese soft power on the world stage and in January 2011 China marked the rehabilitation of the ancient moral philosopher by installing a statue of Confucius at the center of Chinese capital, Tiananmen Square.

The event 9/11 in 2001 redirected America’s primary strategic focus to the Middle East and Afghanistan and the war against terrorism. China remained the doubtful bystander to the American projections of power across the Muslim world and above all to the Bush administration’s proclamation of ambitious goals of democratic transformations. The relations with Russia were accelerated and enlarged over new and manifold areas.

China’s opening process has advanced slowly, step by step and in pragmatic ways. In the official and international statements, China used to diminish its growing geopolitical and economic strength.

The principles of Chinese classical greatness seemed to secure again the success of China: gradualism, harmonizing with trends, eschewing open conflicts, organized as much around moral claims to a harmonious world order as actual physical or territorial domination.

The Chinese think tanks began creating and designing a new national security strategy for China since the mid 90’s. The Cold War was ended and the economic muscles of China were growing. The new concept underlined such ideas that instead of strategic competition, confrontation and block thinking, the national security can be promoted by multilateral diplomacy and extensive economic cooperation. Long-isolated China began slowly look outside with new fresh ideas.

In relations with Western countries, the issues like Taiwan, Tibet and human rights have been “stress points”. On the other hand, China is underlining the principle of non-intervention in other sovereign states domestic matters and keeps this rule very tightly regarding China itself. Just recently, during last five years (since 2015), the voice of China has been changing more resembling the great power character.

In the annual report to the US Congress, “Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2007, the US Defense department stated in nice and polite way: “The US welcomes a rising peaceful and prosperous China and encourages China to participate as a responsible stakeholder in developing the welfare of the international community”. Few years later China was seen as a potential military competitor in the future and in American official reports of 2015-2019 the voices of the US Defense department and Intelligence authorities have been totally different.

Xi Jinping

Since the presidency of incumbent Xi Jinping (2012- ), China’s political focus has moved and changed in concrete way to underlining the sovereignty, territorial integrity and great power position of China, along the cooperation and peaceful policy, in its foreign and military political doctrine. Just recently more emphasis has been put officially on matters like political and military power and global leadership.

During Xi’s presidency, the relations with Russia are nearly “skyrocketing” and cover all possible areas both economic, political and military issues as well as manifold scientific and societal areas.

Xi Jinping is widely seen as China’s most influential leader since Mao Zedong. In 2017, he cemented his power as a lifelong president, enshrining his political views in the constitution. The 19th CPC National Congress (the Communist Party of China), in October 2017, confirmed all theretofore achievements by Xi Jinping and paved the way for the future.

President Xi has received overwhelming endorsement of his authority from the Party and will, in all probability, lead China for another decade and beyond. In December 2018, President Xi vowed that his country will not develop at the expense of other nations but he also said that the global superpower would not be told by anyone what to do.

BRI – a Chinese Juggernaut – created by Xi Jinping in 2013

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is the largest undertaking in the country’s modern history connecting 65 countries and costing worth of over $1 trillion. First proposed by President Xi Jinping in 2013, the initiative would develop and construct a vast network of railroads and shipping lanes between China and 65 countries in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. The economic and political consequences and ramifications of BRI are already visible and concrete in many ways worldwide.

Awakening Asian Giant Dragon, Liu Mingfu

In early 2010s, China began to realize that being capable to create something new and magnificent in the world, the greatness of China has returned.  In the spirit of Chinese greatness, an interesting book was published in 2010 (in Chinese language, published in English in 2015 by CN Time Books, NY),by Liu Mingfu, colonel and professor: The China Dream; Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era.

The book examines the inherent conflict in the US – China relations and the coming “duel of the century” for economic, military, and cultural dominance in the world. Liu advocates that China’s pursuing a “military rise” will allow it to rival and then surpass America’s role as a source of global order, in an Olympic-style competition between civilizations.

Liu defines a national grand goal: to become number one in the world, restoring China to a modern version of its historic glory. This will require displacing the US away from China’s rise which will usher in a golden age of Asian prosperity Chinese products, culture and values being the standard for the world. The world will be harmonious because China’s leadership will be wiser than America’s and because China will eschew hegemony and limit its role to acting as primus inter pares of the nations.

Liu rejects the concept of peaceful rise arguing that China cannot rely solely on its traditional virtues of harmony to secure the new international order. Due to the competitive and amoral nature of great power politics, China’s rise can be safeguarded only with “martial spirit” and amasses military force sufficient to defeat its adversaries.

In Western Europe, soft power and multilateral diplomacy have been the dominant tools of foreign policy in the post-Cold War era and for the majority of Western European states of today, the military action is all but excluded as a legitimate instrument of state foreign policy. This “leading by values” doctrine has been prevailing in Europe from the 1990s up to now.

In Asia, by contrast, the states consider themselves in potential confrontation with their neighbors. It is not that they necessarily plan of waging war but they simply do not exclude it. The concept of sovereignty has an absolute character and is considered paramount.

Noninterference in domestic affairs is taken as a fundamental principle of interstate relations. Aggression is defined as the movement of organized military units across borders. This comprehension can be called “a normal Westphalian state order”.

In America, neoconservatives argue that democratic institutions are the prerequisite to relations of thrust and confidence, non-democratic societies are inherently precarious and prone to exercise force. Therefore, the US is obliged to exercise its maximum influence or pressure to bring about more pluralistic institutions where they do not exist and especially in countries capable of threatening American security. In this conception, regime change is the ultimate goal of American foreign policy in dealing with nondemocratic societies. Peace with China is less a matter of strategy than of change in Chinese governance.

Finally, Liu Mingfu stated that… no matter how much China commits itself to a peaceful rise, conflict is inherent in US-China relations. The relationship between China and the US will be “marathon contest” and “duel of century”. Moreover, the competition is essentially zero-sum game; the only alternative to total success of one side is humiliating failure of other side.

China’s security culture in the post-Cold War era

China has become more adaptable and flexible in terms of strategic behavior. Chinese participation in UN peacekeeping operations has increased significantly. However, the state-centric or Westphalian conception attributed to China still applies rather well.

Key strategic contingencies remain like a possible military conflict with Taiwan, a special patron-client/servant relationship with the regime of North Korea, old historical scars caused by European powers and Japan, all these still persist in the Chinese psyche.

In 2001 China co-founded with Russia the multilateral Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and in 2003 China acquired partner status to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). From strategic point of view, important features can be found also in the expanding and deepening bilateral cooperation between China and Russia.

China’s worldwide and strategic approach retains sovereignty and non-interference in the affairs of other states at the core.

As a centrally-planned and –led state dominated by the Communist Party of China (CPC), the key societal priorities are ensuring political control and maintaining social stability. Step-by-step approach and carefully measured actions both in domestic as well as in foreign policy have been “trademarks” of China.  On the other hand, unprecedented and extensive economic growth has increase China’s “comprehensive national power” to the new level.

What is distinctive in China’s case is how these different features have been combined – a growing self-image based on unique economic success and a cultural heritage. This dichotomy matters especially much in such crucial foreign policy issues like the use of military force in international relations.

China has used its military force infrequently in international relations since WWII:

  • against US-led coalition in Korean war 1950-53
  • two Taiwan Strait crisis 1954 and 1958
  • armed conflict with India in 1962
  • indirectly involved in Vietnam War, mainly military support to North Vietnam in 1970’s
  • short armed conflict with Vietnam in 1979
  • since the end of the Cold War, some minor incidents in South China Sea and in Indian border during last few years

The list above indicates that recently China’s engagement in militarized and armed conflicts has been low, while those historical actions might also be considered “defensive” in Chinese and Western strategic discourses.

China’s historical enmity with Taiwan remains still a potential flashpoint, although China has made a rhetorical switch from “armed liberation” to peaceful liberation” in the first decennium of 21st century. One-China policy is the all-important concept to China both in international relations like in the UN as well in the bilateral relations with other countries, in particular with the US.

The tightening relations of China and the US have sparked numerous scenarios of the possible war between these giants, “thinking of unthinkable” like the American think tank RAND Corporation calls it. There are two basic scenarios: in the first, China invades Taiwan and in the second, the US decides to block the exits of the South and East China Seas in order to cut China’s global maritime access.