China's rise on the international stage occupies a large part of academic and political debates. Some consider this rise as a natural event that will be contained within the current international system. While others fear "Thucydides Trap" that the military clash, between China the rising power and the dominant "United States", is inevitable.
China's increased international interactions are based on a strong economy, which was the fastest growing in the past two decades, placing it second in terms of national GDP, which grew from $0.73 trillion in 1995 to $14.7 trillion in 2020, expanding its share of global GDP from 2.4% to 17.3%.
However, economy alone is not enough to exercise an international presence, unless coupled with a distinctive vision of the international realities; that are able to interpret and establish a Chinese political specificity that -so far- respects the the international order's rules, and does not seek to undermine such rules.
Foundations of China's Foreign Policy
China's foreign policy foundations are based on two fundamental principles: respect the sovereignty and unity of states, and the principle non-interference in states' affairs. These two principles contributed to making the peaceful Chinese rise be invincible, and rejecting all activities that contradict such principles, even if interference was committed by Russia, as happened in an implied way in the Ukrainian crisis.
China's higher strategy can be inferred through thesis that shaped its new political doctrine, such as the Peaceful Rise, formulated as an integrated concept by The Chinese thinker, Zheng Bijan, in 2003. This doctrine was included in the Chinese strategy in 2004 via adopting it by the General Secretariat of the Communist Party.
In September 2005, Bijan published an article in Foreign Affairs entitled " China’s “Peaceful Rise” to Great-Power Status", in which the Chinese theorizer presents to the international community the pillars of China's rise through cooperation, development, and mutual benefit across the world.
According to the article, China is developing its capabilities through technological investments, and the legitimately generated resources, in order to make compensate the hydrocarbon energy sources shortage in particular. As a priority, China will work on promoting the domestic development, then it will move to global markets.
According to the article, China needs to wait until 2050 to be classified as a middle-class developed country. Through such article, Bijan sent a message to the media and thought community in Washington, throughout an American magazine, that fears of China's rise are unjustified, as China does not want and cannot break the rules of the present international order.
It can be said that a Chinese pattern has emerges since the beginning of its economic rise, that shows modesty in a manner that reduces the concerns associated with its rise to the status of the international system, in order to avoid angering the United States, thereby pushing it to curb the Chinese growth. Beijing does not want to drain its capabilities in side conflicts, that drive it away from its strategic objectives of expanding globally with peaceful tools.
This peacefulness is not an aim in itself, rather, it reflects China's rejection of military power by the virtue of its recent and ancient past. The peaceful Confucian culture tends to avoid clashes with different nationalities. The Great Wall embodies this culture of the Chinese collective mentality; for despite China's geographical breadth and possession of elements of power at that time, it pursued the defense strategy, and fell behind a wall fortifying itself with it from the invasion of the surrounding forces.
Thus, the peacefulness of the Chinese rise has psychological and historical factors. Though such strategy does not provide an integrated understanding of the logic by which China manages its regional and global expansion.
One of the concepts and theories, that shape China's political beliefs, is what one of the Chinese Renaissance founders and chairman of the Party's Central Military Commission, Deng Xiaoping, advised in a speech early 1990s to elite leaders and experts, in which Xiaoping, who assumed many vital positions, called for the principle of "hide and bide" in China's foreign policy engagement with international issues, and how China should show its capabilities.
This principle is all about China's development of its capabilities in various fields, quietly and relatively confidentially, without drawing attention, in addition to wait for the appropriate time to disclose the impact of these capabilities, after they have been increased with minimal international obstruction. Xiaoping also advised guiding the national efforts towards a comprehensive domestic development, away from external files.
By following this principle, China avoids shouldering the responsibilities and duties of the dominant state, while possessing the factors to oppose a dominant state when it may collide with the vital Chinese considerations, related to China's sovereignty and territory.
Issuing this principle, by a communist party leader, does not diminish its importance and role in determining the general trends of China, as the Communist Party is the state's thinking mind, and the source of its communal political legitimacy. More recently, attention was focused on the Party's role in China's official bureaucracy. for instance: there are demands to reveal how the Wuhan branch dealt with the first moment of covid-19 outbreak, and whether the Party was inadvertently facilitating to underestimate the severity of that pandemic situation, during the first outbreak, before the pandemic moved to the rest of the world.
In July 2020, former U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, stated that "securing our freedoms from the Chinese Communist Party is the mission of our time" in a sign that the Party is under intelligence and political monitoring.
Some data and incidents show that China's concealment of its capabilities, and waiting for its "time", is coming to an end, contrary to the principle of peaceful rise. The Sino-US customs war, under former U.S. President Donald Trump, may provide an introduction to the current Chinese foreign policy mix, of peaceful rise on a hand, and revealing the accumulated capabilities on another hand.
This reveal goes beyond showing force, to a political toughness that is hostile to regional and international parties, as shown below:
First: in the South China Sea, where China has not only rejected international arbitration over sovereignty, but it began militarizing this sea which leads to important waterways. China built industrial islands, on which military manifestations were built, in order to expand and consolidate its maritime scope.
Second: also in Taiwan, Beijing threatens to use force to suppress any domestic rebellion or outside interference, in what it deems to be a part of its sovereignty. China is pushing hard so that Taiwan would not obtain an international recognition, a file of tension between Beijing and Washington.
Third: the unilateral, bilateral, and multi-state strategic military parades and exercises have become part of China's military diplomacy, not to mention China's possession of superior military technology; driven by innovation and increased military spending, doubled in value during the past decade to $293 billion in 2022, according to the Stockholm Institute, compared to $145 billion in 2012. Altogether, this expenditure is dedicated for research, development, and defend China's territory. There is no declared external military deployment, except for a facility in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa coast.
Fourth: there are many announcements about China's partnerships in terms of security and policy, even if such partnerships' goal is economic and developmental. China signed comprehensive strategic agreements with key countries in some regions in terms of targeted areas of cooperation, such as Iran. Free trade agreements were concluded with many countries in a resource-rich Africa, and with South America, at the heart of the U.S. geopolitics.
These four points –for example but not limited to- confirm that the peacefulness of China's foreign policy is not something inevitable. Beijing justifies its positions as being a defense policy rather than being an offensive one, as China did not show strength and formed partnerships but to enhance its security and interests.
To complete point four, U.S. think tanks recommend monitoring China's "hidden" military capabilities. New U.S. Security Center published a study in June 2019 warning of growing Chinese military capabilities that, over the past two decades, were "pursuing" those owned by the U.S. military.
The study finds that the Chinese military is approaching a state of "technological parity" with U.S. operating systems, and that it plans to achieve "technological superiority" at America's expense. The Chinese military is supporting an economic force that indicates China will dominate the world's GDP by 2030.
The study draws attention to the Chinese military's unmonitored "black capabilities" that will unfold when a war breaks out, enabling surprising the enemy with unexpected attacks. China continues to harness more economic resources to serve ambitious programs, such as Assassin's Mace, inspired by a folklore weapon called Shashoujian in Chinese, which aims to destroy the enemy's technological capabilities, according to specialized military assessments.
U.S. Strategies vs the Rise of China
Realism theory model asserts that the effective deterrence is based on a physical aspect, related to capabilities and a moral aspect, that are related to the opponent's perception of that state's factors of strength, and the ability to use those factors of strength to respond to an attack, or to defend a vital and higher interest.
In this regard, China's show of power can be explained. Its growing capabilities and interests should be accompanied by a reliable applied force in critical situations.
It can be assumed that this show of power is directed primarily to the United States, which is still reluctant to assess the final objectives of the Chinese rise, and is therefore, confused in agreeing on an appropriate strategy to deal with Beijing.
Inside the United States, some believe that China's ultimate goal is to exclude America from the leadership of the international system. They call for a solid containment strategy, geopolitical blockade, and economic competition.
While others downplays Beijing's final goals, claiming that even if China has the capacity, it does not have the desire to form a new international order, for China is exerting its influence through the current international structures, formed by liberal capitalist logic after World War II. However, according to them, China is maintaining its own view, and is seeking to attract countries toward it. Thus, they call to pursue a strategy of positive engagement.
Washington's seems swaying between "solid containment" and "positive engagement" as an extension of Beijing's swaying between "peaceful rise" and the principle of "concealment and waiting".
U.S. and China Stances from the Ukrainian Crisis
The Ukrainian crisis may have temporarily outweighed the "positive engagement". At a joint press conference of the U.S. and Chinese foreign ministers in July 2022, the moderation of statements can be noted, as well as the two Ministers’ tendency towards calming down. This can be understood to be behind the scenes on key thorny issues, such as Taiwan, economic transactions with Russia under high sanctions, and the possibility of U.S. easing of Tariffs on Chinese exports under Trump reign, to control the rising inflation in U.S. markets.
So far, China remains a party that respects the rules of the international order. Even if it desires leadership, it will reach it without relying on military force as a priority, unlike Russia, which accepts the use of military force to secure its vital regional interests, with a "strategic" classification in its calculations.
It should be noted that the relationship between the Soviet Union and China was not warm, despite the ideological close, as both states disputed over different interpretations of communism. They also engaged in border clashes from the mid-1950s to the late 1960s, in which the Soviet Union threatened to carry out a nuclear strike against China. This era was known as soviet-Chinese discord, or the great communist discord.
The administration of President Richard Nixon (1969-1974) paid attentions to this strategic conflict and, at the time, the national security adviser and later Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, built U.S.-China relations, in order to prevent the Soviet Union from polarizing China and, integrating with it into a unified communist bloc against Washington.
With the collapse of the Soviet existential threat, and with Washington's adoption of China as the first threat to its national security, it makes sense to assume that Washington is implementing Nixon's reverse strategy, that is, to keep Russia away of China, not as how it was in the Nixon administration: to keep China away of the Soviet Union.
The Ukrainian crisis is likely to slow down this strategy, modify imbalances in suspicious intentions, and reduce U.S.-China confrontational positions. Both countries have an interest to act as a responsible forces in international crises. Besides that Moscow's explicit and widespread use of military force in Ukraine may raise Beijing's concerns that the Kremlin regularly may dare to use force, particularly in sensitive geographical areas of both countries, such as Central Asia, which Russia sees as a back yard, while China views it as a central region to the Belt and Road Initiative.
Regardless the implications of the Ukrainian crisis over the nature of Sino-U.S. relations, and whether they will distract the effort from the most important priority in the U.S. perspective, of dealing with China's international salience, American theorists are almost unanimous that what is worrying is not so much China's salience, as much as what worries them is the decline of U.S. leadership capabilities in the international system. It is no longer the only single pole of ordering agent, but international and regional figures trying to challenge American hegemony.
Several books on the future of America's position in the international environment were published. Professor Paul Kennedy's 1987 book “Rise and Fall of the Great Powers” was one of the first references that questioned Washington's continuity in its unique position as a regulator of sensitive international interactions.
In the opposite side, several publications argued this proposition, such as “The Future of Power” by Joseph Nye, published in 2011, in which he called for the adoption of a combination of solid, soft, and intelligent patterns of power, in order to preserve the United States' position in the international system.
In his 2005 book “The Opportunity”, Richard Haas assumed that conditions are appropriate for the "American moment" to change the course of history, by managing cooperation between leading countries to overcome international and regional challenges. This optimistic vision, as the author sees, calls for the supremacy of international cooperation, and avoiding drowning in new and old destructive forces.
Haas, once more, in 2013, in a new book "Foreign Policy Begins at Home", which was more realistic than his previous optimistic book, argued that the United States exaggerated its external "Overreaching", especially in the Greater Middle East, at the expense of the power of its internal foundations, that operate with "Underperforming".
Haas, therefore, called for two amendments that U.S. policies absorbed in subsequent years:
The first of which is to reduce interest in state-building activities in the Middle East, specifically Iraq and Afghanistan, focus on traditional foreign policy tasks, such as maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific region, improving North American integration, and reducing gaps between global challenges on the one hand, and rules and organizations designed to manage them on the other.
While second amendment relates to U.S. national security, by reducing U.S. foreign policy costs, and directing efforts toward rebuilding infrastructure and comprehensive public service development.
It is no secret for the U.S. foreign policy observers that its policy was amended, in order to be in harmony with the First Amendment in Obama's second term, and Trump's term.
As for the Biden administration, apart from continuing move to the East -taking into account its interest in some crises, such as the Ukrainian crisis and Iran's nuclear file- has pushed for Congress to pass a massive plan to modernize U.S. infrastructure, increase competitiveness, and innovate U.S. goods, services, and technology.
This plan, which worth exceeds $1 trillion, showed the results of the U.S. lawmakers' vote that they have relatively partisan consensus, with 19 Republican senators voting in favor of its passing the said plan.
This consensus suggests that there is a political goal behind it, which is to keep Washington "safe" from the capacity and prestige gap that continues to outperform China therewith. In order to achieve this goal, Washington should sponsor international arrangements with its allies and partners, to compete China with in its preferred field: economy and development.
To this end, U.S. diplomacy supported the launch of an intercontinental program at the June 2022 G7 summit, called “The Partnership for Global Infrastructure” which aims to mobilize countries' capacity to raise $600 billion, part of which will be devoted to finance development projects, parallel to China's Belt and Road Initiative, known as the New Silk Road.
In the face of this debate about the reality, future, and hierarchy of the international system, china's willingness to assume the responsibilities of managing the international system, and to "drain" its capabilities in international files, as Washington was working on for past decades.
The report “Biden's in the Middle East: A Search for a New Regional Equation” published by Strategiecs coinciding with Biden's visit to the Middle East, addressed the concept of polarity, which indicates a lack of desire and the ability of the great powers to take over international administration.
In preparation for the of depolarization to prevail, the report called on the major regional states of each region, including the Middle East, to adapt to the potential change in the international system, whose superpowers are moving to reduce their external burdens, and focus their domestic efforts, as well as to address transnational challenges, such as climate change, cyber security, and food security.
Regional studies provide a theoretical entry point for regional cooperation and integration pathways, particularly in addressing emerging risks such as food and water security, energy security, supply chains, counter-terrorism, organized criminality and drug trafficking, such as risks associated with geographical convergence, thereby stimulating their transnational resolution.
Finally, this paper does not adopt the Chinese threat thesis promoted by some international circles, it rather aims to monitor potential shifts in China's foreign policy behavior and international interaction, as part of Strategiecs' vision and objectives, to act as a platform that provides a Middle Eastern vision of international issues.