“We’ll wait until we’re strong and then we’ll kick ass!”
No this is not the motto of the Korbel School (despite how appropriate it may be) and neither is it the REAL (secret) meaning of “tao guang yang hui” the strategy/maxim put forward by Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping.
However, that maxim, which in fact literally translates as “hide brightness, nourish obscurity” but is more commonly referenced as the distillation of China’s policy of “keeping a low profile” in international affairs, has come under question in recent years as China has engaged in increasingly “abrasive” foreign policy manoeuvres.
But is this behaviour a sign of a new “grand strategy” in foreign policy being executed by the increasingly confident Chinese, or on the other hand, worrying symptoms of an overly bureaucratic and ill-equipped foreign policy machine responding in an ad-hoc and detrimental way to incidents beyond China’s borders which it cannot control?
These were some of the points raised and addressed by Thomas Christensen, Director of Princeton University’s China and the World Program and a foremost China scholar in the U.S., during a talk he gave at Denver University last week. The talk was hosted by the Center for US-China Cooperation at the Josef Korbel School and in it, the much-published graduate of Cornell, MIT and Princeton and former Assistant Secretary of State sounded a warning bell about China’s actions on the world stage since the financial crisis of 2008.
As China’s power grows, it has a very ill suited foreign policy structure to deal with the challenges of being a global power, said Christensen, citing the Asian giant’s response to developments ranging from President Obama’s decision to meet with the Dalai Lama in Washington to Japan’s detention of a drunk Chinese fishing boat captain who crashed into a Japanese vessel.
Although comfort may be taken by some from the fact that the top China scholar concludes there is no such new “grand foreign strategy” of increased nationalistic assertiveness on the world stage, as some have claimed (moves to see that China’s burgeoning economic clout comes along with greater acquiescence on behalf of other countries to China’s will more generally on issues that it feels strongly about), Christensen said that equally as disturbing is what he in fact concludes is the case: That recent events and China’s reaction to them have proven that it is not yet well-equipped to deal with the challenges it has and will increasingly continue to face as a rising world power.
“For bureaucratic reasons, China is incapable of having a new grand strategy,” said Christensen. “The complexity of the issues facing China in terms of foreign policy is growing but their system is too underdeveloped.”
He cited the fact that China’s highest-ranking foreign policy official, in contrast with key military officials, is not considered a “top” official, according to his ranking within China’s heavily-bureaucratic government. “They don’t need to listen to the foreign policy guy,” he said.
Meanwhile, agencies which have some or other responsibility over responding to and shaping China’s foreign policy are disparate and discoordinated – not helpful for those seeking to make decisions and execute an effective strategy.
A major problem that feeds into the foreign policy crisis, said Christensen, is that China is rather more concerned with things going on inside its borders at the moment to be placing the emphasis that it ought to be on its relations with the world.
Domestic stability – the question of whether the Chinese Communist Party will be able to maintain control over a population which is growing in size, affluence and its levels of education and ability to interact with the outside world – is the fundamental pre-occupation of the leadership.
“Moderates in China say that unless the Government comes up with a plan to liberalise politics in the next 10 years they are going to have a real problem,” noted Christensen.
Booming growth rates of recent years slowed last year and are forecast to dip further this year. This will create issues for the Government in finding employment for its massive population. After relying on export-driven growth, it must create domestically driven demand, but it “doesn’t know how”, he added.
The China scholar emphasised that the future of China is critical to the US and to the world today.
“If it’s bad for China, it’s bad for us, if it’s good for China, it’s good for us. It’s not a zero sum game,” he stated.
The world needs a China who it can call on for effective and progressive leadership on issues such as climate change, financial stability and more.
If you want to see more of Christenson’s talk, check out the Center for US-China Cooperation at the Josef Korbel School’s website: http://www.du.edu/korbel/china/