Does Beijing Have a Foreign Policy?

By Wang, Zheng | International Herald Tribune, March 2, 2013 | Go to article overview

Does Beijing Have a Foreign Policy?


Wang, Zheng, International Herald Tribune


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 University.

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 accommodating.

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. …

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