Chinese leaders use strong rhetoric and fan nationalist flames to
compensate for the absence of a clear, well-developed strategy for
participating in the international order.
While many Western analysts focus on the balance of reformers and
conservatives in China's new leadership, most overlook the absence
of career diplomats and foreign affairs experts at the highest level
of power in Beijing. China is rising as a global power, but the
position that foreign policy occupies in the Chinese political
system is very low.
On Saturday, the government, led by the new Chinese president, Xi
Jinping, announced its new foreign policy team.
Yang Jiechi, the foreign minister since 2007, was elevated to the
State Council. His successor, Wang Yi, has overseen relations with
Taiwan and Japan and represented China in talks with the West over
North Korea's nuclear program. China also named a new ambassador to
the United States: Cui Tiankai, a career diplomat and a graduate of
the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins
However, neither Yang, who will continue to oversee foreign
relations, nor Wang, the new foreign minister, is among the 25
members of the Politburo -- the power center of Chinese politics.
None of the seven members of the even more powerful Politburo
Standing Committee -- which includes Xi and the new prime minister,
Li Keqiang -- is a foreign policy expert, though one of them, Wang
Qishan, has worked closely with the last two Treasury secretaries of
the United States, Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Timothy F. Geithner, in
coordinating the response to the global economic crisis of 2007-8.
China watchers have a tendency to overstate the sophistication of
Beijing's foreign policy and ambitions, but the truth is that
China's foreign policy is highly deficient. While the outsiders
often see China as a rising giant and a threat, Chinese leaders are
in fact largely nervous and insecure, uncertain of how to manage,
both at home and abroad, the inevitable tensions that arise from
their nation's rapid ascent on the world stage. For the newly
"elected" leaders, their first challenge would be how to fill the
foreign policy vacuum and how to solve the country's choice between
nationalism and globalism.
Words like "aggressive," "assertive" and "arrogant" have been
used to describe China's foreign policy, particularly with respect
to its protracted war of words with Japan over a set of disputed
islands in the East China Sea.
However, a country's foreign policy should be judged on the basis
of its actions as well as its rhetoric. When we conduct a careful
examination of Chinese policies and actions, we see that Chinese
foreign policy is actually ambivalent, even weak. Beijing does not
have a clear and well-developed policy on many issues, from the
disputed islands to North Korea to climate change. Strong rhetoric
is often used to compensate for weak or incoherent policies.
In fact, China's bark is often far worse than its bite: China has
not been at war with another country since a brief armed conflict
with Vietnam in 1979, and has been very cautious in its dealings
with its neighbors who occupy islands claimed by China in the South
China Sea. This explains why Chinese nationalists have at times
criticized the government's foreign policy for being as soft and
The absence of clear policy also partly explains why China lacks
decisive influence even over allies who depend most on its support,
like North Korea, Myanmar and Pakistan. …