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Readjusting China's Foreign Policy

Addressing the media on the sidelines of the 3rd Plenum of the 11th National People’s Congress (NPC) on March 7, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi gave a brief review of the main challenges the country faced currently, and its position on them. The annual session of the NPC, China’s Parliament, has been forced to become more open in recent years following calls from both the international community and domestic activists. Reading into Yang’s observations, it appears some temporary adjustments are being made in foreign policy, but no major decisions are going to be taken now.

It was no surprise that the USA was central to China’s immediate foreign policy concerns. Yang Jiechi remarked that the US-China relationship had a good start after President Barack Obama took office last year, but US arms sales to Taiwan ($6.4 billion) and Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama “caused a serious disturbance in the US-China ties and posed difficulty to the cooperation between the two countries”. He emphasised that US must respect China’s core interests and major concerns with credible steps.

The next area of importance, and concern, was the developments in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Yang extended support to Pakistan’s fight against terrorism to bring peace and security in the region, and to Afghanistan’s development. Yang made a pointed remark that military means cannot provide a fundamental solution to the Afghan issue.

The Iran nuclear issue concerns China intimately with billions of dollars invested in Iran, especially in the energy area. China cannot support a US led UN sanction on Iran which prohibits trade in Tehran’s energy market. Yang continued to press for dialogue to resolve the impasse. He defended China’s investment in Africa against western criticism of exploitation, positively reviewed Brazil-Russia-India-China (BRIC) co-operation, and noted the need to restart the six party talks on the North Korean nuclear issue.

While dismissing a growing view across the world that China was acting “tough”, he tried to explain that it only stuck to its “principle” to defend its core interests and dignity. Most significant was Yang’s underscoring that China was still a developing country and will remain in this state for a long time to come by cautioniong the jingoistic elements in China’s defence establishments and think tanks that challenging the USA and the world at the same time will only go against China.

It is, perhaps, for the first time the question can be asked if the usual unison on foreign policy exists any longer in the Chinese hierarchy. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) always had exercised a major role in relations with the USA, Russia, Japan, and neighbouring countries like India and Pakistan. On territorial issues, it had a bigger say. But when executing policy, the Foreign Ministry conducted the exchanges. Lately, it appears opinions of PLA officers in Foreign policy are becoming more emphatic. Obviously, the opinions emanating from the military have their own overtones. These, however, are not freewheeling opinions, but cleared in advance by the appropriate authorities.

In the past one year, PLA statements and writings seem to be becoming more militant, and daring those who are perceived to be opposed to China’s growing power projection. A recent book, “The China Dreams”, written by Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu and published by the PLA publishing house, challenges the USA. A few months earlier, a well known Chinese naval expert, Admiral Yan Ying, declared China’s need to establish military bases abroad with the clear hint to the Indian Ocean. Of course, the Chinese Defence Ministry subsequently declared that it did not require foreign bases now while the warning has been given to the outside world.

There are increasing indications that the PLA may be seeking to dictate, and not only influence, foreign policy in important areas. If this continues, it will be alarming.

In this context, an article by two unidentified Chinese economists carried by the Communist Party mouthpiece, the People’s Daily (Feb 15) is noteworthy. The central point was that American strength was in the decline, Europe’s role in global politics was continuously declining, and the role of China and Russia in influencing world affairs was increasing. This conclusion was drawn from the effect of the global economic crisis.

The Chinese leadership had concluded that US President Barack Obama was a peace nick unlike his predecessor George W. Bush. When Obama visited China last November, he showed a willingness to give China whatever it wanted including the position of arbitrator of South Asia in exchange for US sanctions on Iran, and bringing North Korea to the table for a final push to dismantle its nuclear industry. Obama got nothing. Strangely, Chinese President Hu Jintao did not direct this dialogue. Chinese officials were allowed to pressure Obama and the US in various directions.

Offended and insulted, and under domestic pressure on his return, Obama took a hard line. A $6.4 billion arms aid to Taiwan was cleared, Obama met the Dalai Lama in the White House briefing room, and trade restrictions on Chinese exports dumping mounted. Strong US support to the internet company Google signalled it would stand by the company against Chinese internet attacks and restrictive laws. The Google issue is now a major case between the two countries.

A section in China’s top leadership does realise that they are far behind in challenging the US, despite the latter earning negative points in places like Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan. China has significant economic, strategic and security interests in these countries, especially in Pakistan and Afghanistan. It just cannot afford to enter into a confrontation in these areas.

Suddenly Beijing is realising that the US power is hardly in the decline. If it dumps its $800 billion US treasury bonds to attack the US economy as suggested by some PLA analysts, its export based economy will go down in a hole.

China’s disappointment with Russia was reflected in Yang Jiechi’s briefing. His only reference to Russia was in answer to a reporter’s question, and his cryptic reply was that the China-Russia oil pipe line may be operational next year. The distrust between China and Russia is becoming palpable. No major Russian military transfer to China has occurred since 2004. Russia has also long delayed agreements on oil sale to China. A People’s Daily article last September castigated Russia as untrustworthy, having historically let down China.

Historical differences between China and Russia continue. Despite setting up the Shanghai Co-operation Organization (SCO) where these two countries play prime roles, Moscow is not really convenient with China’s intentions in Central Asia. On the other hand, Beijing is highly suspicious of Russia’s moves in old Indo-China influenced region, especially on recent Russian military supplies to Vietnam, which includes naval crafts.

While no particular mention was made on India by Yang Jiechi, or even by Premier Wen Jiabao in his address to the NPC, a studiously cautious approach can be discerned over the last several months.

It is no doubt that India’s mature handling of the economic meltdown and constant growth rate has impressed Beijing. But New Delhi’s new attention to the Indian Ocean, upgrading defence capability, topped with successful diplomacy is competing China. It sees India in various permutations and combinations like an India-US partnership, an India-US-Japan co-operation, a Japan-India partnership and even an India-US-Russia co-operation, all of which are seen as challenges. Of specific interest now, according to writings by party strategists India is viewed as well poised to control the Indian Ocean.

But in the midst of major quarrel with the US to see who blinks first, issues with India have been set aside temporarily. From now to the 12th Party Congress (2012) when new leaders take over, China is expected to be in a consolidating track on foreign policy unless something goes wrong seriously.

What China is urging the US to understand is that while most differences and disputes can be either resolved or set aside, no Chinese leader can dare to be seen as soft on two core issues–Taiwan and the Dalai Lama’s activities on Tibet. The crux of China’s foreign policy is stuck here.

(The author, Mr Bhaskar Roy, is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience. Email:

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