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What does China want? Geostrategic ambitions in the 21st century

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Louis Devine

Chinese foreign policy has become increasingly “assertive” under President Xi Jinping. Explanations as to why usually follow a similar train of logic. After the 2008 Global Financial Crisis (GFC), Western capitalism and liberal democracy experienced a crisis of confidence. With this, the West entered a period of foreign policy retrenchment, epitomised by the election of Donald Trump and the UK’s vote to exit the European Union. Widespread recessions across most of the developed world following the GFC undermined the legitimacy of the so-called “Washington Consensus” – the view that privatisation and financial deregulation were the keys to economic success. Into this legitimacy vacuum stepped a new Chinese president with a newfound confidence in China’s global role. The Washington Consensus was now being replaced by the Beijing Consensus. Or at least, this is what many mainstream commentators tell us. Such analysis is not incorrect, but it is incomplete.

Chinese foreign policy is not reactive to the political dramas of the West. From Beijing’s perspective, the electoral rise and demise of Donald Trump has done little to alter its strategic calculus. President Xi has not led a revolution in Chinese foreign policy. While the rhetoric has changed from the days of “hide and bide” under Deng Xiaoping, Beijing’s long-term geostrategic ambitions remain unchanged. The implicit is now simply explicit.

But what are China’s long-term strategic ambitions? Mainstream analysis fails us most on this question. Perpetuating the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is presented as the raison d’etre for all of China’s actions, both at home and abroad. Again, this is not inaccurate; it is incomplete. Do China’s leaders want to stay in power at all costs? Sure. If the CCP was suddenly replaced by a new regime, would China’s strategic interests change substantially? Not at all, I argue. Russia’s interests in Eastern Europe did not substantially change after the Cold War. With or without Communism, the same is true of China’s interests in East Asia.

All of this begs the question: what does China want?

In brief, China wants to rise peacefully. It wishes to regain its historic place at the apex of the global system. But given the dependency on overseas trade and investment, China would like this global power shift to be as non-violent as possible. China’s desire to rise peacefully is not without its limits. Beijing will not countenance a violation of its “core interests”. So, what are these so-called “core interests”?

Most relevant is China’s perceived “territorial integrity”. Territorial integrity is simply a euphemism for reincorporating, namely, Hong Kong and Taiwan under mainland rule. Both are hot button issues for China. Any foreign commentary on the matter is usually vociferously decried as “foreign interference”. It should be noted that Hong Kong and Taiwan’s prosperity and social stability directly undercuts the CCP’s argument that Chinese culture is antithetical to Western-style liberalism. While Taiwan only democratised in the 1980s, it has been a thorn in the side of mainland China for much longer. An independent Taiwan – no matter its political system – allows the United States Navy to sail disconcertedly close to Chinese territory. Reunifying with Taiwan would deal a major blow to the United States’ military posture in the region.

Territorial integrity then, cannot be achieved with the current balance of power. As long as the United States’ aircraft carriers sail freely through the South China Sea, Taiwan remains independent. For this reason, the erosion of American naval supremacy in East Asia is a major long-term strategic goal for China. The People’s Liberation Army (China’s defence force) has made great strides on this front. Chinese “carrier-killer” missiles, new nuclear attack submarines, and a nascent aircraft carrier force are slowly but surely tipping the regional balance of power in China’s favour.

However, the sea is not just a strategic chessboard, it is also the major thoroughfare for global trade. Security and economics are invariably interconnected. This presents a difficult contradiction for Chinese strategists. Erode America’s naval might too soon, and the vital waterways carrying China’s manufacturing exports and energy imports are vulnerable to piracy. In the long-term, China hopes to replace the United States as a security provider for global shipping. For now, China needs to reduce its dependency on seaborne energy imports. Enter the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A stunning piece of geoeconomics, the BRI aims (at least officially) to recreate the historic Silk Road connecting China and Europe via Central Asia. As with most Chinese government ventures, it is difficult to tell aspiration from achievement. Still, the BRI is a step towards a long-held geostrategic dream once articulated by Chairman Mao: a unified Eurasian continent with no need for strategic dependency on the United States.

One problem remains, however. China’s economy is largely dependent upon American consumers purchasing its products. Chinese growth is still driven predominantly by exports. This leaves Beijing exposed to trade wars and tariffs – something which eventuated under the Trump Administration. To mitigate this, China hopes to transition towards an economy driven by domestic consumption. This requires a population with high levels of disposable income. Unfortunately, China remains a “developing country”, with a GDP per capita of $US10,000. Creating higher incomes requires moving up the global value chain in international trade. Instead of selling toys and cheap manufacturing goods, China hopes to dominate several emerging high-tech fields such as AI, telecommunications and quantum computing. “Made in China 2025” is Beijing’s industrial policy roadmap to achieve this goal.

None of these goals would change if China stopped being nominally Communist. Although he might not be liked in Western capitals, these economic and security goals predate Xi Jinping’s rise to power. China’s rise is the most consequential geopolitical trend since the advent of European colonialism five hundred years ago. Understanding the consequences of this trend requires understanding China’s interpretation of its own interests, rather than continually seeing the world from the perspectives of Washington, London, or Berlin.

Louis Devine is currently studying a Master of International Relations at the University of Melbourne. He is an incoming Schwarzman Scholar for the class of 2022.

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