China and its Discontents

Archive for the ‘Cambodia’ tag

China’s New Diplomatic Strategy: Divide and Conquer

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The Financial Times’ recent article on China, “Beijing Considers Stronger Foreign Ties,” was a fascinating peak into possible Chinese foreign policy strategies into the future. For the past thirty years China has chosen non-alignment and non-intervention in other states’ internal affairs, largely because China was still too weak for stronger engagement and was wary of other states intervening in China’s own internal affairs. But FT speculates that China’s latest ploy, involving Cambodia blocking a final statement from the latest ASEAN Summit at Beijing’s behest, represents a new Chinese foreign policy of stronger alliances. FT goes even further, throwing out the possibility that China will also seek stronger military alliances, quoting Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute of Modern International Relations at Tsinghua University:

“We live in an international order dominated by the US’ military alliances,” he said. “China is not offering its neighbours security guarantees, so as China is rising, fears are emerging among them as to what our intentions might be.”

Two problems arise out of the strategies detailed in the FT article. First, the Cambodia ploy is, in the words of State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, a “divide and conquer” strategy. Successful alliances that abide by international norms don’t generally consist of one-sided exploitative relationships that foil mediation in disputes and anger the rest of the international community.

Second, if China were to offer a string of “security guarantees,” to not only its next-door neighbors but to states as far away as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, or even in Africa, it would have to actually back them up militarily. This is troubling, because it represents a strong departure from traditional Chinese military doctrine and capabilities. The PLA’s historical mission and capabilities have been geared towards defending its own territory and a large swath of its maritime claims within the First Island Chain. To extend its reach, it would need to develop a forward-deployed navy similar to the U.S. Navy. This would be quite a threatening move, and would overturn many of the assumptions I made in my previous post on AirSea Battle.

Ultimately, the question the Chinese need to ask is: what’s the point? Who would China be protecting a state like Pakistan from? India? Does China really want to get that deeply involved in such a messy and dangerous relationship? What are China’s real interests? I would posit that China is/should be mainly concerned with commercial shipping and its growing energy requirements. And the type of China-bloc envisioned by FT and Yan Xuetong is simply unnecessary to guarantee those interests. Yes–China will probably increase its naval presence in the Indian Ocean in the coming decades; but it should focus on securing free trade and a strong international system, not on alliances with client states that will blow up in their faces.

Written by Will

August 18th, 2012 at 9:50 am