Foreign policy wonks around the world are paying close attention to the words and actions of Xi Jinping, China’s president-to-be, for clues to the country’s future foreign policies. For example, many observers in the US took Xi’s warm reception of former US President Jimmy Carter in Beijing in mid-December as a good sign of his positive intentions toward the US.
But while Xi will have undeniable influence on foreign relations, the truth is that Chinese policy rests on many other actors besides the country’s paramount leader. Tensions in the South China Sea this year have demonstrated that a myriad of ministries, military leaders and lower-level officials often shape Chinese foreign relations, as does Chinese public opinion. One reason is that China’s minister of foreign affairs ranks far lower than in other countries: As an ordinary member of the Communist Party Central Committee, the foreign minister holds the same rank as the more than 300 members [more than 200 actually] of that body, Susan Shirk said.
One of the world’s foremost experts on US-China relations, Shirk served as deputy assistant secretary of state during the Clinton Administration. She is currently a professor at the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, and a senior director of global strategy firm Albright Stonebridge Group. She is the author of several books, including “China: Fragile Superpower,” which addresses the role popular nationalism plays in shaping Chinese policy.
Shirk spoke with China Economic Review about how China’s fragmented foreign policy can lead to sometimes unpredictable outcomes.
You directed US foreign policy toward China as part of the Clinton Administration. How have you seen Chinese foreign policy evolve since then?
Today, China’s interests and international engagements have expanded beyond the Asia-Pacific neighborhood to Latin America, Africa, the Middle East – basically every part of the world. So Chinese foreign policy is more globalized than it was at that time. And China is still in the process of trying to figure out, beyond its economic interests, what kind of role it wants to play in those regions and the world. They’re making it up as they go along. I don’t think this is something that Deng Xiaoping necessarily envisioned. I think China remains torn between its traditional principles of non-intervention and the fact that it has a lot at stake in all of these situations. For example, China is really more dependent on oil from the Middle East and the Persian Gulf than the United States is. I think it feels cross-pressured to play some kind of role but still reluctant to risk its reputation in circumstances where there is a very uncertain outcome.
What is the Chinese view of the US “rebalancing” toward Asia?
There’s a lot of misperception and [a] blame game going on between the US and China. The Obama Administration came into office determined from day one to play a more active role in the Asia-Pacific region across the board in all respects – economic, multilateral, diplomatic and security. And of course what happened is that China’s behavior turned more assertive in ways that alarmed its neighbors and created a demand from them for a closer security relationship with the US. So from the US perspective, this is something normal. It’s part of a multi-faceted engagement in the region, and it’s also in response to a demand from our allies and friends in the region, who have become increasingly alarmed at China’s somewhat bullying behavior. Of course, the Chinese government has, especially in its propaganda at home, in its media public statements at home, framed the rebalancing as an effort to contain China. It’s certainly not an effort to contain China, but it is an effort to retain a security balance in the region, so that China’s neighbors feel more secure.
Your discussion of Chinese nationalism in “China: Fragile Superpower” was very interesting, and I’m wondering about your opinion on Chinese actions in South China Sea and the East China Sea. Some people interpret this as the government stoking nationalist sentiment to distract people during a leadership transition, and others would interpret it as the government being sort of held hostage by public sentiment. What’s your view of that dynamic?
Popular nationalism is an increasingly important concept for Chinese foreign policy. The East China Sea is really a focal point for that popular nationalism, because it involves relations with Japan, which have been a hot button domestic issue in China for a long time. The South China Sea is different. The South China Sea was not the focus of a lot of domestic attention until fairly recently. And I found it kind of puzzling that China’s rhetoric and its actions in the South China Sea became more assertive after quite a few years of trying to work things out with the other claimants, including agreeing to, in principle, a code of conduct with the other claimants. From my perspective, that was not driven by popular nationalism. That was something that emerged more out of the fragmented nature of the Chinese foreign policy process, and a lot of different bureaucratic actors who could benefit from trying to stir up sentiment on this issue, to get bigger budgets, get more ships, get more bureaucratic influence. And unfortunately, it looks like the Chinese government let its policies in the South China Sea be high-jacked by those interest groups within the state in a way that has been very harmful for relations with countries in Southeast Asia. So I see the two issues as being really quite different in that respect, one being more driven by the constraints of popular nationalism, and one being driven top-down by the nature of the Chinese foreign policy process.
One of the arguments of your book is that China has an internal weakness because of its political system that isn’t always very visible from the outside. Have you seen that in the leadership transition?
That insecurity was revealed in the continued secrecy around leadership politics, around the crackdowns on organizations or individuals who might somehow disrupt the lead-up to the leadership transition. There was extreme nervousness that was palpable to everyone. The sense of domestic insecurity that China’s leaders have is very evident. In fact, it was discussed openly at the party congress in the discussion about corruption, in which various senior leaders talked about how the future rule of the Chinese Communist Party was at risk. So that insecurity is not something that we are just projecting onto China, it is something that is articulated openly inside China. And I do think that insecurity makes these territorial disputes particularly dangerous, because there is a risk that in order to maintain domestic support, they make threats. And we’ve seen a lot of open threatening statements and even actions in both of these territorial disputes. And then they feel that they can’t compromise or back down in order to get a negotiated solution. If there’s an accident in one of these maritime disputes, how will they de-escalate? They worry that a severe domestic backlash could actually threaten the survival of party rule. That’s the biggest danger of the current situation.