|China loses control of its foreign policy
By Terry McCulleyTo some people, President Xi Jinping’s efforts to consolidate his control over China’s military and government are a welcome development, especially given China’s haphazard approach to crisis management. Xi’s actions might even be interpreted as a sign that China is transitioning towardshu a more “advanced” political system in which the military and foreign policy are controlled by a strong civilian chief executive.In reality, Xi’s attempt to tighten his control over China’s vast and unwieldy bureaucracy reinforces global fears that China is starting to lose control of its foreign policy. This disturbing truth goes a long way towards explaining why the international community was so alarmed by China’s announcement of a new “Air Defense Identification Zone” (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, followed shortly
thereafter by a “no-fishing zone” in the South China Sea.
Even if these new zones were carefully planned years in advance, they also represent part of a larger pattern of aggression – propelled by China’s hostile and uncompromising form of nationalism – that is beyond the ability of China’s leaders to control.
That is what really underlies the collective anxiety of the United States, Japan, and Southeast Asian countries every time China makes aggressive moves overseas. Ironically, China’s new zones of control only serve to underscore deep concerns among a global community that is starting to realize that China is incapable of controlling the nationalist sentiment which has hijacked China’s foreign policy.
Interestingly enough, some commentators have suggested that China doesn’t even have a foreign policy – or at least nothing that’s remotely coherent. This lack of long-term vision makes Chinese foreign policy even more susceptible to being steered in a dangerous direction by those who stand to benefit from aggressive nationalist posturing.
For instance, in a New York Times op-ed, China scholar David Shambaugh asks, “Does China Have a Foreign Policy?” and then proceeds to answer the question in the negative. This absence of strategic planning makes China’s foreign policy vulnerable to the whims of zealous nationalists and hawkish PLA officers seeking to instigate conflict in order to acquire more power and resources.
Indeed, China security analyst Andrew Scobell suggests that China’s military has engaged in “roguish” behavior motivated by a desire to acquire a greater slice of the government’s budget. According to Scobell, examples of such “roguish” behavior include missile tests near Taiwan in 1995-96; the collision between Chinese and US military aircrafts in 2001; an incident involving a Chinese submarine and a US aircraft carrier in 2006; and the unannounced anti-satellite missile test in 2007. Scobell says that such “roguish” actions could indicate that “PLA leaders are going their own way to pursue power and resources with little regard for civilian leaders or consideration for the larger implications of their activities.”
Another scholar, Professor Huang Jing of the National University of Singapore, has likened China’s young military officers to the hawkish young Japanese officers of the 1930’s who were partly responsible for Japan’s invasion of China. In an article published by The Telegraph, Professor Huang is quoted as saying that young PLA officers are leading China on a collision course with America by “taking control of strategy and … thinking [about] what they can do, not what they should do … This is very dangerous.”
In other words, after devoting so much time and resources towards modernization today’s PLA has a bunch of new toys to play with. The PLA also has greater capacity to project power overseas now, so it’s only natural that some military officers are itching for an opportunity to test out their new capabilities and equipment. In fact, Scobell indicates that PLA officers are eager for exposure to real-world combat because China hasn’t had a major war since 1979, when China attacked Vietnam in a brief but bloody conflict.
This desire to accumulate combat experience and test out new equipment – coupled with the PLA’s bureaucratic interest in obtaining more power and resources by instigating or exaggerating foreign conflicts – means that Xi needs to keep a close eye on the PLA in order to prevent a dangerous miscalculation. Sure enough, last month’s close encounter between Chinese and US naval vessels in the South China Sea provided a frightening glimpse of how adventurous PLA maneuvering can lead to real confrontation.
Of course, it’s quite possible that last month’s close encounter wasn’t adventurism but rather a carefully planned maneuver. China is eager to determine how the US military responds to various scenarios, and China is particularly interested in gauging America’s response to provocations at sea because this helps China plan for a possible clash with the US military over Taiwan.
In such a scenario, the United States would have the initial advantage due to its superior naval power, so China’s current strategy is to quickly knock-out American naval vessels with conventional weapons – especially its new “aircraft carrier killer” DF-21D missiles.
Yet even if the recent close encounter in the South China Sea was part of a carefully planned strategy, Professor Huang still doubts that Beijing’s civilian leaders can rein in young PLA officers, saying that nowadays Beijing “can no longer control much of anything”. This is exactly what concerns the international community, as China’s complex web of competing bureaucratic interests – infused with aggressive nationalism – has spawned a Chinese foreign policy that is hawkish, unpredictable, and uncontrollable.
Xi Jinping is well aware of this problem and has attempted to bring a semblance of discipline to China’s foreign policy by creating a “State Security Committee” headed by Xi himself. This “State Security Committee” is modeled on the US National Security Council, except that China’s version is responsible for coordinating both domestic and foreign policy. Not surprisingly, China scholars such as John Lee have noted that the PLA was initially opposed to the creation of a “State Security Committee”, as it stands to reduce the PLA’s influence over China’s national security policy.
Nevertheless, merely setting up a new committee won’t drastically alter the fervent nationalism and adventurous spirit within the PLA and greater Chinese society. The alarming truth is that regardless of how much President Xi consolidates his power, there is only so much he can do to reduce the enormous influence that individual Chinese citizens and soldiers – emboldened by China’s aggressive form of nationalism – have on China’s foreign policy.
Protecting Chinese citizens overseas
One perverse consequence of China’s extremely nationalistic culture is that Chinese citizens are increasingly willing to push the limits overseas, all the while feeling safe knowing that nationalism will compel Chinese leaders to protect them if something goes wrong – or indeed, if they wind up breaking foreign laws or encroaching on foreign territory.
This holds true regardless of whether the Chinese citizens involved are fishermen veering into foreign waters; traders encroaching on foreign markets; or adventurous military officers. Instead of admonishing citizens who break foreign laws, Beijing typically rushes to their support and orders Chinese media outlets to portray Beijing’s leaders as doing everything in their power to protect Chinese citizens abroad.
The Communist Party has little choice but to passionately defend its citizens overseas – even if they are breaking the law – as otherwise the Party’s monopoly on power will be gravely threatened by nationalist forces.
For example, international newspapers last year reported that upwards of 50,000 Chinese citizens were engaged in illegal gold-mining in Ghana, causing massive environmental destruction in the process. In response, Ghana launched a crackdown on illegal gold-mining which specifically targeted Chinese citizens (even though a small number of other foreigners were also involved).
According to Chinese media reports, Beijing immediately lodged a strong diplomatic protest and rushed to protect its citizens by dispatching a team of central government officials to conduct an investigation in Ghana. Xinhua also reported that Shanglin County – the place in China where many of the goldminers came from – sent its own team of officials to help Chinese citizens return home from Ghana, even offering to pay their airfare.
As the story unfolded, Beijing took pains to show that bold action was being taken – even going so far as imposing retaliatory measures against Ghana. According to the Guardian, China tightened its visa policies for Ghanaian citizens and even delayed the disbursement of China’s development assistance to the country. Faced with such harsh retaliatory measures, Ghana eventually acquiesced by releasing all 169 Chinese citizens detained for illegal gold-mining.
Even though China’s outlandish retaliation risked damaging its long-term relations with Ghana, Beijing was obliged to take swift action – particularly after coming under pressure from cyber-nationalists who had seen images of Chinese citizens injured during the crackdown.
These days, Internet forums are the primary vehicle for expressing nationalist rage in China, and Chinese leaders simply can’t build a great firewall high enough to stop the spread of graphic images and pent-up anger online. Much of this pent-up rage is actually rooted in China’s own internal problems, but Chinese citizens can only safely direct their anger toward outsiders because any serious criticism of the Communist Party is quickly snuffed out.
In this case, Beijing responded to cyber-outrage by making a public spectacle of its iron-clad will to tackle the problem in Ghana. For instance, a spokesperson for China’s embassy in Ghana was quoted by the South China Morning Post as saying that China’s government attaches “great importance to Chinese citizens mining gold in Ghana” and that “a joint investigation team comprising officials from the ministries of foreign affairs, commerce, and public security [was sent] to the West African country to protect their safety and lawful rights”.
The South China Morning Post further reported that Beijing not only asked Ghana to prevent robbery against Chinese citizens, but also asked Ghana to stop detaining Chinese citizens. In other words, nationalist pressure forced Beijing to effectively demand that Ghana stop enforcing its own laws against illegal mining. Ghana enacted these laws to prevent environmental destruction and ensure that all mining activities were subject to taxation, but apparently nationalist pressure compelled Beijing to insist that Chinese citizens shouldn’t be subject to Ghana’s duly-enacted laws.
Despite the crackdown, Ghana’s illegal gold-mining problem won’t improve any time soon because certain local actors benefit from Chinese extraction activities. Ghana’s government receives billions of dollars from China to build infrastructure projects, and it’s well-known that local officials worldwide pocket bribes from their dealings with China. In addition, the international press reported that some Ghanaian entrepreneurs have established joint ventures with Chinese citizens engaged in illegal gold-mining activities.
The China-funded infrastructure projects in Ghana and other countries are usually designed to facilitate resource extraction; gain diplomatic influence; and alleviate China’s unemployment problem, as thousands of Chinese laborers are sent to work on these projects overseas. In many countries, the displacement of local labor in favor of imported Chinese workers provokes intense anger among locals who are denied job opportunities and the chance to learn new technological skills.
In addition, local resentment towards Chinese immigrants is magnified by the perception that Chinese traders have the unfair advantage of being connected to a colossal China-dominated global supply network. These types of grievances have caused rising tension between locals and Chinese immigrants, even leading to violence against Chinese communities in such far-flung places as Tonga, Papua New Guinea, and several African countries.
Many local communities are also furious that Chinese companies are causing environmental damage as well as human rights violations. In both Ghana and Myanmar, for example, locals have expressed outrage that Chinese companies are importing Chinese-made equipment and using it to plunder local resources, destroying the environment and abusing human rights in the process.
The fact that Ghana’s crackdown targeted Chinese immigrants – as opposed to illegal miners from other countries – underscores the intensity of local anger towards the destructive methods of Chinese companies in Ghana.
Local animosity towards Chinese immigrants in Ghana and other African countries has certainly damaged China’s foreign policy, but China’s biggest diplomatic setback in recent years occurred right in its own backyard – Myanmar, where the conduct of individual Chinese traders and large Chinese companies has aroused such revulsion towards China that it’s unclear if Beijing can ever recover its once-dominant influence in the country.
Myanmar’s change of heart
Myanmar’s decision to “open up” in 2011 wasn’t simply a matter of offsetting Beijing’s political influence in the country. It was also fueled by a backlash against the growing dominance of Chinese traders over Myanmar’s economy. Many of these Chinese traders entered Myanmar illegally through semi-autonomous regions along Myanmar’s border with China – particularly Wa territory, which serves as a proxy for Chinese power projection in Myanmar and a vehicle for illegal Chinese immigration into the country.
Myanmar’s so-called “Kokang” region was another semi-autonomous area that served as a gateway for illegal Chinese immigration into Myanmar before it was attacked by the Burmese military in 2009, sending a flood of ethnic Chinese refugees across the border into China.
The “Kokang” ethnic group is actually a mixed bag of ethnic Chinese who settled in Burma many years ago along with more recent illegal Chinese immigrants, many of whom obtained false identity documents by paying off local officials. Indeed, one of the reasons why the Burmese military decided to attack the Kokang in 2009 was to stem the tide of illegal Chinese immigrants and their dominance over Myanmar’s economy.
The predominance of Chinese traders in Myanmar – both legal and illegal – and the perception that Chinese immigrants are cheating the system by skirting local laws has precipitated widespread animosity towards China (and Chinese immigrants) in Myanmar.
This intense hostility is still prevalent in Myanmar today, as evidenced by last month’s arrest of several Chinese individuals who were illegally conducting business in Myanmar while there on tourist visas.
Although it’s not uncommon for people to conduct business while on tourist visas, the nature of this case demonstrates the extreme
sensitivity surrounding Chinese business activities in Myanmar. The group was arrested while exploring for natural resources in Kachin state, and their arrest shows the eagerness of Myanmar’s government to assuage public anger towards China for exploiting Myanmar’s resources and destroying the environment.
It was precisely these grievances which sparked the Kachin conflict in 2011, as Kachin people had become outraged by the destruction of their ancestral homeland by Chinese companies that were extracting resources in collaboration with Burma’s military. Certain Kachin leaders were also profiting from these extraction activities, and during the 2000s older Kachin leaders were actually pushed aside by younger Kachins who wanted to take a harder line towards the Burmese military.
Some younger Kachins were even hoping that armed conflict would break out, thereby enabling Kachins to win back ancestral homelands that Burma’s military had steadily encroached upon and plundered over time. Rising anger among Kachin people towards the Burmese military eventually came to a head over the Myitsone dam, which became a rallying cry for citizens across the nation who were infuriated that Burma’s military was collaborating with Chinese companies to plunder Myanmar’s resources and destroy its natural beauty.
By the late 2000s, a consensus had crystallized between Burma’s military and average Burmese citizens that something had to be done to prevent China from taking over Myanmar’s economy. This is what triggered the attack against the Kokang in 2009 and the military’s decision to “reform” in 2011. Together, these landmark events were designed to curb the influence of Chinese officials, Chinese state-owned enterprises, and individual Chinese traders in Myanmar – particularly in northern Myanmar, where Chinese business interests had become so prevalent that Mandalay had earned the nickname “The 2nd Beijing”.
Northern Myanmar’s disproportionately large Chinese population was recently confirmed by the Irrawaddy, which cited a population survey conducted by Australia National University showing that 20% of Mandalay and a whopping 50% of Lashio is now Chinese. The Burmese government is attempting to address this issue by checking the authenticity of identification documents held by Mandalay residents – particularly individuals who can’t speak Burmese, which according to the Irrawaddy suggests the authorities will be targeting Mandalay’s large population of illegal immigrants from China’s Yunnan Province.
As a result of this tension, Myanmar’s troubled relationship with China now alternates between outright hostility and neighborly friendliness. Even Aung San Suu Kyi has said that it’s crucial for Myanmar to maintain good relations with its neighbors – especially China, which Myanmar still depends on for technical expertise, military equipment, and infusions of cash from projects such as the oil-gas pipelines. As such, the Burmese government still bends over backwards to appease China, and recently even arrested an activist for burning a Chinese flag during a protest against the Letpadaung copper mine.
Nevertheless, Myanmar’s fateful decision to offset Chinese influence in Myanmar by “opening up” in 2011 was a major blow to Beijing’s political and economic interests. Chinese investment in Myanmar has fallen dramatically ever since, and Myanmar stands out as a prime example of how Beijing’s inability to control the behavior of Chinese citizens limits China’s ability to control its own foreign policy.
Nationalism on the high seas
Individual Chinese citizens have also entangled China in numerous conflicts with its neighbors on the high seas, including the incident which led to China’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal, a coral reef in the South China Sea that was previously controlled by the Philippines. China seized the reef in 2012 on the pretext of protecting Chinese fishermen who were accosted at Scarborough Shoal by the Philippines.
Relations between China and the Philippines have been on the rocks (or perhaps on the reef) ever since, and once again China has resorted to imposing retaliatory measures such as subjecting Filipino banana imports to lengthy customs inspections. Unfortunately, it’s become common practice for China – under nationalist pressure – to blackball other countries using various kinds of retaliatory measures. Such arrogant and audacious tactics have provoked outrage in many countries, who accuse China of using access to its huge market as a weapon while insisting that other countries open their doors to a flood of Chinese imports.
The most disturbing example of China’s defiant approach to international affairs occurred in 2010, when China decided to halt exports of rare earth metals to Japan after a Chinese fisherman was arrested by Japan near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Shipments of rare earth metals to other countries were also impacted by China’s export restrictions, and it was this incident more than anything which convinced global leaders that it was time to start cooperating in order to convince China that it can’t unilaterally thumb its nose at well-established global norms.
Even China’s erstwhile ally Russia has begun to distance itself from China by cooperating with some of China’s neighbors in order to discourage reckless behavior by China. In particular, Russia has explored various forms of cooperation with China’s historic arch-rivals Vietnam and Japan, both of whom have bitter outstanding territorial disputes with China.
Russia’s budding ties with Japan are especially significant given their long history of icy relations dating back to Russia’s humiliating defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05); Russia’s occupation of the Southern Kurils (or what Japan refers to as its “Northern Territories”) in the closing days of World War II; and their ongoing rivalry during the Cold War.
Although the Southern Kurils dispute lingers on, the historic rapprochement between Russia and Japan certainly puts China on notice that the global community is in a stronger position to collectively ward off any future delinquent behavior by China.
As for the Chinese fishermen who were accosted by Japan and the Philippines, it’s hard to say whether they just made an honest mistake or were part of Beijing’s grandiose plan to assert authority over contested territory. In a sense, it doesn’t really matter because either way Chinese leaders would have been compelled to quickly dispatch their cavalry to protect the fishermen – lest China’s leaders be accused of failing to defend Chinese citizens or capitulating to “pawns” of the United States. As both these incidents demonstrate, the impact of individual citizens on China’s foreign policy is so great that even fishermen can inadvertently embroil China in foreign military conflicts.
The ‘Chinese Dream’: Escape
To prevent further incidents abroad, the Chinese government can’t very well ask its compatriots to stop doing business overseas. On the contrary, Beijing has been actively encouraging outbound investment to offset China’s flagging economic growth and reduce unemployment – both of which pose a threat to the Communist Party. China’s “go out” campaign actually began in the 1990’s under Jiang Zemin, but more recently it’s received a huge boost under Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping in the form of generous government support – particularly to state-owned enterprises.
Many people were actually hoping that Xi Jinping would reduce government support to state-owned enterprises, but apparently this vested interest group is just too powerful – even for China’s strong and charismatic new president. However, Xi Jinping has managed to implement some financial reforms, and his ability to enact reforms will only increase as Xi continues to strengthen his grip on power.
Moreover, Communist Party leaders have bolstered Xi’s ability to push reform proposals though China’s most powerful body – the Central Politburo Standing Committee – by stacking the Central Committee with allies from Xi’s so-called “elitist” faction. The hope of Party leaders who helped engineer Xi Jinping’s rise to power is that Xi will be well-positioned to spearhead critical reforms needed to prevent the collapse of the Party (not to mention China itself).
This represents a marked contrast to former President Hu Jintao’s tenure, which many have criticized as a “lost decade” in which crucial reforms were forestalled due to Hu’s relative weakness and a divided Central Committee that was split between the “elitist” and “populist” factions.
Despite Xi Jinping’s rising status it’s doubtful whether he can really address China’s caustic mix of rising inequality, pervasive corruption, and the myriad health and environmental problems which have fueled protests across the country. Indeed, social unrest has become so widespread that China now devotes an enormous chunk of its budget towards internal security, and domestic security will certainly figure prominently on the agenda of Xi’s newly-created “State Security Committee”.
Official statements describing the State Security Committee – Xi’s pet project which former Chinese Presidents pursued but weren’t powerful enough to create – have declared that it will strengthen China’s response to “anyone who would disrupt or sabotage China’s national security”.
In other words, Xi’s leadership of the State Security Committee is designed to impress upon everyone that Xi Jinping is the ultimate defender of China’s interests, security, and sovereignty.
From his powerful and lofty perch, Xi has attempted to steer Chinese nationalism in a “healthy” direction through his “China dream” slogan and by resurrecting several Mao-era campaigns. These carefully-planned PR stunts along with Xi’s powerful status are all designed to show Chinese citizens that Xi is “redder than red” – the supreme patriarch of Chinese socialism and the ultimate defender of China’s interests. In this respect, Xi is styling himself as some kind of latter-day Chairman Mao – only this time China’s supreme leader has a slightly more profound understanding of public finance.
However, Xi’s attempt to co-opt nationalist fervor by proclaiming he’s the flag-bearer of Chinese patriotism and primary defender of Chinese sovereignty will only increase adventurism by Chinese citizens. After all, Xi’s new “China dream” slogan not only strives to build a large middle class, but also envisions a “strong China” and a “strong military.”
With such explicit backing from China’s top leader, it’s certain that adventurous PLA officers, fishermen, and traders will take Xi’s slogan as a green-light to continue their aggressive actions overseas. History has proven that once Chinese nationalist forces are unleashed they’re impossible to control, and Xi’s sloganeering will only fan the flames of Chinese adventurism abroad.
Xi’s agenda also includes a supposedly wide-ranging crackdown on corruption within the Party, but everyone knows this campaign just isn’t capable of solving China’s deep-rooted culture of corruption. Rather, Xi’s anti-corruption drive is merely another publicity stunt aimed at placating widespread antipathy towards the Party, and many analysts have noted that it’s also being used to attack Xi’s political enemies.
Besides, even if Xi sincerely wanted to tackle corruption, China’s vested interests are so powerful and have so much at stake that President Xi – despite his enhanced power – simply doesn’t have the political strength to make anything more than cosmetic changes to a system that is rotten to the core.
As China’s socio-political system decays, Chinese citizens are becoming more and more desperate to find a way out. And the impetus to escape China’s miserably over-crowded and polluted cities has become even greater in recent years, with toxic haze paralyzing China’s major cities on a regular basis. This has spurred countless numbers of Chinese to seek greener pastures and bluer skies overseas, with Chinese immigrants fanning out to all corners of the globe. Indeed, for many Chinese citizens their “China dream” is to get the heck out of China as soon as possible. And once they leave there isn’t much Beijing can do to control their behavior.
Thus, even if Xi is somehow able to reduce adventurism in the PLA there’s little he can do to regulate the conduct of fishermen, traders, and other Chinese immigrants overseas – many of whom are so desperate to escape China and earn a living they’re willing to do anything, including breaking foreign laws. After all, finding loopholes is one of China’s great national pastimes, so it’s not surprising that some Chinese citizens are tempted to flout social and legal norms overseas.
As the Ghana and Myanmar cases demonstrate, Chinese citizens will continue push the limits, evade the rules, and test the patience of governments and peoples overseas. Invariably, unlawful behavior by some Chinese immigrants will ignite more backlashes against Chinese communities overseas (even if only a few are actually breaking the law). Beijing will then be compelled to rush out and support all its citizens – including the lawbreakers – by engaging in trade retaliation and other kinds of aggressive tactics. This will then prompt countries across the globe to further strengthen their cooperation to discourage reckless behavior by China.
Xi’s new “China dream” slogan is pretty cute, but if Xi thinks he can tame China’s aggressive nationalism or the behavior of Chinese citizens overseas, he must be dreaming. As time goes by, Xi Jinping and other Chinese leaders will continue to lose their grip on China’s foreign policy, and our world will become an ever more dangerous place to live.
Terry McCulley is a freelance writer who focuses on East Asia . You can send Terry comments and questions to his e-mail address, which is his first name followed by email@example.com