China's International Behavior: Activism, Opportunism, and Diversification

By Medeiros, Evan S. | Joint Force Quarterly, December 2007 | Go to article overview

China's International Behavior: Activism, Opportunism, and Diversification


Medeiros, Evan S., Joint Force Quarterly


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China has arrived as a truly global actor. Its economic and political interests now span the globe, having gradually moved beyond the Asia-Pacific in the last decade. Beijing is active on issues and in regions previously peripheral to its diplomatic calculations. Its foreign policy decisions are influencing global perceptions, institutions, relationships, and processes. China's global activism is altering--but not transforming--the conduct of international relations at virtually all levels of the system. Within Asia, China has become a preeminent power, engaged in multiple dimensions of regional economic and security affairs. Indeed, it has become a fulcrum of change in the regional order, ensuring that its pivotal role will deepen in the coming years. Moreover, it is no longer appropriate to talk of drawing China into the existing international community of accepted norms, rules, and institutions. On balance, it is already there.

These trends beg questions: What is China up to in international affairs, and why? What are its aims as a regional power and as an emerging global actor? How is it pursuing them? Are its approaches consistent with America's current economic and security interests? What types of diplomatic challenges does China present to U.S. diplomatic and security interests?

To some extent, China's leaders have articulated answers to these questions. Its policymakers claim that they seek "to foster a stable and peaceful international environment that is conducive to building a well-off society in an all around way." They assert that the themes of "peace, development and cooperation" now define Chinese foreign policy in pursuit of building a "harmonious world" in international affairs. It is not that these claims are patently untrue or a clever strategic prevarication. Rather, they are simply insufficient to explain the multiplicity of diplomatic strategies, interests, and actions. In other words, there is more to China's foreign policy. This article aims to fill these gaps.

To this end, this article examines China's current international behavior, which is a collective term encompassing both foreign relations (bilateral and multilateral) and the foreign policies used to pursue them. It argues that China's international behavior is best understood as being comprised of multiple layers, each adding to our understanding of the strategies, drivers, and tools informing China's diplomacy. The layers are the historically determined lenses through which Chinese policymakers view the world and think about Beijing's role in it; perceptions of the current international security environment; five core diplomatic objectives in regional and global affairs; specific foreign policy actions in pursuit of national objectives; and the multiple challenges facing China in achieving these objectives.

Each section of this article addresses one of these layers. The conclusion addresses the implications of China's international behavior for U.S. security interests, with a focus on the degree of convergence and divergence in U.S. and Chinese global interests in the coming two decades.

Foreign Policy Outlook

China's international behavior is influenced by at least three historically determined lenses that color the manner in which its policymakers and analysts look at the world and think about China's evolving role in international affairs.

First and foremost, there is a strong and pervasive belief within China that the nation is in the process of reclaiming its lost status as not only a major regional power but also, eventually, a global one. Policymakers, analysts, and media write about the rise as a "revitalization" (fuxing) or "rejuvenation" (zhenxing) of China's rightful place in the world as a great power. In Chinese eyes, their country is undergoing its fourth rise in the international system over the last 5,000 years.

A second and related view among strategists is the notion that China is a victim of "100 years of shame and humiliation" at the hands of foreign powers who sought to split and Westernize it. …

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