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”?