China’s need for a new foreign policy

Author: Peter Baofu, Universiti Utara Malaysia

As China fast approaches superpower status, its current policy of non-interference in world affairs will soon become obsolete.

China’s need for an updated foreign policy is more urgent than ever, and its new global outlook will undoubtedly carry global implications.

Qin Gang, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, summarised his country’s policy of non-interference succinctly when he outlined in 2007 the direction of Chinese foreign policy. He stressed that ‘China … will not interfere with other countries’ internal affairs’ and ‘will not impose our own ideology on other countries’. And the principle of non-interference has served China well in the past, allowing it to single-mindedly focus on internal socioeconomic development and to adroitly create an international environment favourable to its own ‘peaceful development’. China is now poised to become the world’s next dominant superpower as a result.

In light of this new global context, the increasing obsolescence of the current Chinese foreign policy can be clearly seen from two perspectives: the costs of adhering to its current policy of non-interference and the benefits of becoming more outwardly-engaged.

In regard to the first perspective, non-interference has cost China dearly under certain circumstances. A good first example is the recent civil war in Libya, as it proved a difficult case for China to handle. The two countries developed good economic relations under the Gaddafi regime, through the supply of oil and the sale of weapons. But China also did not want to encourage the spread of the Arab Spring to its own shores, which partly explains why Beijing did not initially support the rebel forces. Because of this delay, Libya’s post-Gaddafi leaders recently hinted that both China and Russia would not be considered favourably in any future business deals.

Second is the treatment of Chinese nationals abroad. When 13 Chinese sailors were killed on the Mekong River after being hijacked by drug traffickers in October 2011, China asked the Thai government to investigate the incident without any forceful condemnation. If the US were involved, on the other hand, the reaction would have undoubtedly demanded much more, and included the possibility of unilateral military action.

Third is the underestimation of the value in confrontation. China is one of the Security Council’s five permanent members with veto power, but it has exercised this power only seven times in the last four decades, while Russia has used it more than 120 times, and the US more than 80 times. Consequently, other Security Council members have occasionally neglected China in international deliberations, safe in the knowledge that Beijing seldom uses its veto power.

And the fourth example relates to unfair business deals. The US routinely rejects asset acquisitions by Chinese firms in the US on national security grounds, with its recent objections over Huawei Technologies’ acquisition of 3Leaf Systems as one example. Meanwhile, strong protests from the US over China’s censorship of Google (on the grounds of Chinese national security) have allowed the internet giant to resume business as usual in China.

In regard to the second perspective about the benefits of a more engaged stance, the first example deals with the war on piracy in the Gulf of Aden. As China’s economic expansion travels further afield, the need to protect its shipping lines also increases. This was an important consideration for China to join the international naval forces in the Gulf of Aden, and the decision will help protect its own shipping in the region.

Second, with China an important engine of global economic growth, its need for natural resources is growing fast. Because of this, China has become more assertive in its claims over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (among others), due to the region’s huge oil and gas reserves.

Third, as China becomes more integrated with the international monetary regime it is also becoming more outspoken in its criticism of US monetary policy. For instance, China joined the EU in criticising US quantitative easing in 2011, as this policy could result in the US dollar’s depreciation, thus keeping US exports more competitive at the expense of Chinese exports.

And the fourth example concerns military affairs: China can no longer tolerate US domination in East Asia, and has been working on the development of carrier-killer missiles, aircraft carriers, stealth fighter jets, anti-satellite weapons, nuclear submarines, electromagnetic pulse weapons, UAVs and cyber weapons to counter this domination.

With the passage of time the principle of non-interference in Chinese foreign policy will give way to something more mature and in line with China’s new-found global power. But this is not to say that all will go well with its new foreign policy: there will inevitably be costs and benefits on both sides of the debate when it comes to a more engaged foreign policy — and these will also need addressing in their own time.

Dr Peter Baofu is a Visiting Professor at the Universiti Utara Malaysia