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The spectre of great power competition with a rising China has prompted a sprawling debate in the United States. For decades, American engagement with China sought to make Beijing a “responsible stakeholder” in the U.S.-led international order.[1] Reflecting shifting consensus in Washington, the 2017 National Security Strategy declared this strategy a failure, but the unpredictability of President Donald Trump has undermined attempts to implement an alternative.[2] As the United States seeks to craft a new grand strategy to cope with China’s evolving behaviors, it will be important to incorporate a fine grain analysis of the motivating factors behind Chinese foreign policies.

Assuming China’s foreign policy is fundamentally driven by a grand strategy to engage and win great power competition may lead to ineffective responses from the United States…

The common perception that China’s centralized state leadership is empowered to pursue Chinese dominance over international affairs is tempting, but illusory. Its actions abroad are better understood as a manifestation of the Chinese leadership’s responses to various, and occasionally conflicting, domestic political, economic, and social pressures. For example, President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, enshrined in the Chinese Communist Party’s Constitution in 2017, signals China’s intent to be a major power, but the initiative is less coherent and centralized than it appears. Xi’s launch of his vision for the Belt and Road in 2013 is more accurately described as the rebranding of a host of disparate and pre-existing projects than the launch of a new strategic initiative.[3] Assuming China’s foreign policy is fundamentally driven by a grand strategy to engage and win great power competition may lead to ineffective responses from the United States and other international competitors.

The study of grand strategy itself is a messy field that can be roughly divided between three theories. First, structural determinism suggests that the international environment’s structure determines policy outcomes. Second, liberal internationalism avers that leaders have the agency to design grand strategies to affect the international environment [4]. Third, social constructivism, which likewise argues that actors have agency, highlights ideational factors over the material factors the other two theories emphasize.

Structural determinist and liberal internationalist theories most strongly influence the two poles of American policy debates regarding China’s rise. Structural determinism supports the present consensus that China’s growing power makes it an unavoidable competitor the United States should seek to contain. By contrast, the liberal institutionalism that inspired earlier U.S. policy towards China suggests America has the agency to shape China’s rise.

Both approaches, however, are overly state-centric and would benefit from a more nuanced incorporation of subnational and transnational factors. Using China as a test case, Shahar Hameiri and Lee Jones argue that states, in general, are far more fragmented, decentralized, and internationalized than traditional treatments of rising powers recognize, and this subnational disaggregation of governance impacts their foreign policies.[5] Heads of state and national ministries no longer hold near monopolies over their countries’ foreign affairs. For example, although central government agencies conclude China’s arrangements with the other member states involved in the multilateral Asian Development Bank’s Greater Mekong Subregion economic cooperation program, implementation falls to Yunnan’s provincial government, China’s main representative, and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. The result is a complex, multilevel, and transnational governance regime.[6]

No doubt, China is a rising power whose economic and military capacities have skyrocketed in recent decades, as epitomized by Belt and Road and its assertive naval stance in its near seas. Still, U.S. responses to these foreign policies would benefit from more analysis of the domestic pressures that can make China’s actions unpredictable to state-centric international relations models.

Contending with Domestic Political and Social Forces

Xi Jinping’s primary concern as president is maintaining the regime security of the Communist Party and securing his place at its head. New authoritarian leaders commonly implement political purges to consolidate power. Early in his tenure, Xi used an anti-corruption campaign to recentralize control of economics and security in the Chinese Communist Party’s small leading groups, many of which he chairs.[7] Xi’s crackdown on activists, lawyers, journalists, and public intellectuals has further dismantled the social networks that previously could disturb social stability by fomenting nation-wide public opinion incidents.[8]

In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Chinese President Xi Jinping, center, attends the opening session of China\'s National People\'s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Friday, May 22, 2020. (Ju Peng/Xinhua via AP)

Repressive tactics may neuter the effectiveness of grassroots organizations, but they do not eliminate the grievances fueling them. To prevent the channeling of grievances into more radical actions, China must convince its citizens the costs of authoritarian rule are worth the benefit of the exceptional economic growth rates of the past four decades.

China’s increasingly assertive authoritarian governance would suggest an ability and predisposition to impose the foreign policies it wants on China’s many state and private organs. However, a closer look at China’s investment in Central Asian infrastructure and its confrontational policies in the South China Sea suggest this is not the case. In these two regions, China is obliged to pursue the specific, and sometimes divergent, foreign policy interests of various subnational actors. In turn, Xi and the Communist Party leadership seek to forge a powerful, coherent narrative that these various and competing interests are all part of China’s grand strategy. Chinese foreign policy is therefore strongly shaped by economic interests from below and the need to respond to international pressures with strength.

Pacifying Domestic Social Forces with International Development in Central Asia

China possesses the capacity to become the dominant force setting the rules in Central Asian international affairs. The vast development projects of the Belt and Road Initiative are already reorienting the region’s economy to dependency on China. Russia’s dominance of regional trade has dropped from the 80 percent share it had in the 1990s to just two-thirds of Beijing’s current share.[9]

The Chinese-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization provides a ready-made institutional forum for it to exert regional dominance. Established to address terrorism, separatism, and extremism, the organization evolved out of early diplomatic efforts in the 1990s to address Beijing’s concerns that the currents of anti-Soviet jihad from Afghanistan and the new independence of the Central Asian states could inspire unrest in the similarly Turkic and Muslim Uighur population in Xinjiang province. Beijing’s policies to address these concerns have only become more draconian, manifesting in the brutal repression and mass internment of Uighurs in Xinjiang today. However, despite its advantages and apparent concerns, China’s behavior in the region has not been hegemonic.

China’s Ministry of Education does invest in Confucius institutions in the region that promote Chinese language and culture, but it largely cedes social-cultural hegemony to Russia.[10] The Russian language remains Central Asia’s lingua franca, helping to preserve Russia’s political, media and cultural ties.[11] Although China has dramatically expanded its security relationships with the Central Asian states over the last decade, Russia still retains greater security ties to the region.[12] Xi even routinely states the Belt and Road Initiative is complementary to Russian economic interests and the Russian-led Eurasian Economic Union.[13]

Inclusion of the region in the Belt and Road Initiative is driven primarily by Beijing’s preexisting desire to develop Xinjiang as one pillar of its strategy to minimize social instability there. If the Belt and Road Initiative plans are successful, Central Asia may provide Xinjiang better trading links than China’s coastal provinces can.[14] Additionally, hydropower from Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan could meet a developing Xinjiang’s growing electric power needs[15]. Belt and Road Initiative projects in Central Asia and elsewhere also provide the overdeveloped Chinese steel and construction sectors with new markets.

China employs the Belt and Road Initiative grand narrative to carefully convey power in international affairs, while giving it the flexibility to avoid direct hegemonic confrontations with potential competitors such as Russia.

The parochial, rather than hegemonic, motivations behind China’s engagement in Central Asia suggests scattershot Chinese plans to develop infrastructure globally are arguably driven more by state-owned and private companies pressuring state entities to undertake Belt and Road Initiative projects than by the grand strategy of national leadership.[16] China employs the Belt and Road Initiative grand narrative to carefully convey power in international affairs, while giving it the flexibility to avoid direct hegemonic confrontations with potential competitors such as Russia.

Fragmented Domestic Sources of Foreign Policy Incoherence in the South China Sea

In the South China Sea, China takes a less coherent approach than is often described. Here, China has built military outposts on islands in disputed waters, and the aggressive tactics of the Communist Party’s People’s Liberation Army Navy are often cast as part of Beijing’s increasing willingness to challenge the United States.[17]

Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) shipmen during an operation in the South China Sea. (AFP/Getty)

The activism of the Beijing-controlled navy regularly makes headlines, but from 1989-2010 commercial fishing vessels from Hainan province caused the majority of conflicts with foreign coastguards.[18] Tasked with Chinese administration of the disputed waters, Hainan has a clear interest in maximizing its access to fisheries, regardless of the diplomatic ramifications for national foreign policy. To support its interest in maximalist territorial claims, the provincial government equips and funds the professionalized Tanmen Maritime Militia of fishing vessels, built with reinforced hulls and ammunition storage.[19] Conversely, the interests of land-locked Yunnan province, which leads the implementation of Chinese economic integration with the other Southeast Asian states and takes on further transnational governance roles related to crime and narcotics, suffer due to Chinese confrontations with neighboring states at sea.[20]

Hameiri and Jones argue Chinese aggression in the South China Sea is less representative of a rising power engaged in a hegemonic competition with the United States than a result of the specific interests of Hainan and China’s offshore oil companies outcompeting the interests of Yunnan and, to some degree, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.[21] Drilling by Chinese oil companies in disputed Vietnamese waters, which sparked a diplomatic crisis in 2014 when Chinese ships rammed Vietnamese vessels attempting to harass Chinese operations, provides one illustrative case.[22] Notably, Xi and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs both sought to improve relations with Vietnam before and after the crisis, further supporting the argument of Hameiri and Jones that the central government’s actions can be the reactionary product of a variety of competing domestic interests.[23] In 2020, the potential for drilling and fishing tensions have increased, further narrowing Beijing’s policy options given its need to maintain an image of superiority in the region.[24]

The Strategic Implications of Chinese Foreign Policy Incoherence

The lack of coherence and flexibility in Chinese foreign policy does not contradict its status as a rising power. Contemporary states are more internationalized and disaggregated in foreign policy behavior than ever before. The diversity of interests across Chinese economics and politics ensures there will be contradictions in the foreign policy actions of various state entities across national ministries and provincial governments.

Xi’s public narrative that the Chinese Communist Party wields China’s significant capabilities to achieve a centralized vision signals to foreign and domestic audiences that the Party is in control. The danger of assuming the central state acts predominantly on a grand strategy is that its foreign policy intentions can be misinterpreted. The use of potent tactics such as American tariffs on Chinese goods and escalated U.S. naval operations in the South China Sea may not be necessary to meet core American strategic imperatives, and they require the Chinese to respond in kind to ensure Xi’s leadership retains its image of centralized strength. The underlying incoherence of Chinese foreign policy means Chinese actions can be unpredictable and potentially dangerous in the case of South China Sea naval confrontations.

Joint U.S.-China crisis prevention and management mechanisms have diminished during the Trump administration as strategic dialogue and military-to-military ties languished.[25] Confronted with poor communication channels and higher frequency of naval operations, the United States should take into account China’s inflexible need to display power in response to overt challenges.

To be more effective, U.S. foreign policy responses to China’s rise need to recognize the fragmentation of and sometimes contradictory actions of Chinese foreign policy entities. Antagonistic zero-sum competition with China only serves to limit its options, pushing it to act in the aggressive manner of the belligerent rising power American policymakers fear it already is.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects may increase some states’ dependency on Beijing, but they are not designed to create long-lasting, deep ties between Chinese actors and their counterparts. Conversely, many Indo-Pacific states are seeking greater balancing cooperation in response to recent aggression from Beijing. Recognizing the problems with its current blinders, the U.S. should begin developing a new strategy focused on enhanced regional engagement to dampen China’s latent hegemonic capacities in Asia, without the overt confrontation that would force Beijing to play the role of a hostile rising power its grand strategy narrative of strength and power demands.

Ian J. Lynch is an independent foreign policy analyst with a Masters in Middle East, Caucasus, and Central Asian Security Studies from the University of St Andrews in Scotland. He previously led the development of girls’ education programs in Afghanistan between 2013 and 2018.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] “Responsible stakeholder” was coined by Robert Zoellick, “Whither China? From Membership to Responsibility,” Remarks to the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, Sept. 21, 2005, https://www.ncuscr.org/sites/default/files/migration/Zoellick_remarks_notes06_winter_spring.pdf.

[2] Zach Cooper and Mira Rapp-Hooper, “China, America, and the End of the Responsible Stakeholder Theory in Policy Roundtable: What to Make of Trump’s National Security Strategy?” Texas National Security Review 1, no. 1 (December 2017), https://tnsr.org/roundtable/policy-roundtable-make-trumps-national-security-strategy/#essay5.

[3] Ankit Panda, “How Old Is China’s Belt and Road Initiative Exactly?” Diplomat, February 11, 2019, https://thediplomat.com/2019/02/how-old-is-chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-exactly/.

[4] Rebecca Friedman Lissner, “What is Grand Strategy? Sweeping a Conceptual Minefield,” Texas National Security Review 2, no. 1 (November 2018), 53-73, http://dx.doi.org/10.26153/tsw/868.

[5] Shahar Hameiri and Lee Jones, “Rising Powers and State Transformation: The Case of China,” European Journal of International Relations 22, no. 1 (2016), 72-98. See also, Shahar Hameiri and Lee Jones, “Global Governance as State Transformation,” Political Studies 64, no. 4 (2016), 793-810.

[6] Hameiri and Jones, “Rising Powers and State Transformation: The Case of China,” 89.

[7] Carl Minzner, End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 105.

[8] Ya-Wen Lei, “What Should We Know about Public Opinion in China,” in The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power, ed. Jennifer Rudolph and Michael Szonyi (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2018), 49.

[9] Edward Lemon and Bradley Jardine, “How is Russia Responding to China’s Creeping Security Presence in Tajikistan?” Russian Analytical Digest 248 (March 6, 2020), 6–8, https://css.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/center-for-securities-studies/pdfs/RAD_248.pdf.

[10] Sebastien Peyrouse, “Understanding Sinophobia in Central Asia,” Diplomat, May 1, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/understanding-sinophobia-in-central-asia/.

[11] Sally N. Cummings, Understanding Central Asia: Politics and Contested Transformations (New York: Routledge, 2012), 161.

[12] Bradley Jardine and Edward Lemon, “In Russia’s Shadow: China’s Rising Security Presence in Central Asia,” Kennan Cable, no. 52 (May 2020), https://www.wilsoncenter.org/publication/kennan-cable-no-52-russias-shadow-chinas-rising-security-presence-central-asia.

[13] For example: Lee Jeong-Ho, “China and Russia Forge Stronger Eurasian Economic Ties as Vladimir Putin Gets Behind Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Plan in Face of US Hostility,” South China Morning Post, April 26, 2019, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3007883/china-and-russia-forge-stronger-eurasian-economic-ties.

[14] Raffaello Pantucci, “Central Asia: The View from China,” European Union Institute for Security Studies, (January 2015), https://www.iss.europa.eu/content/central-asia-view-china.

[15] Sebastien Peyrouse, The hydroelectric sector in Central Asia and the growing role of China. China and Eurasian Forum Quarterly 5, no. 2 (2007), 131-148.

[16] Hameiri and Jones, “Rising Powers and State Transformation: The Case of China,” 73. Similarly highlights that the incoherent foreign policy outputs of the diverse and independent interests and agendas pursued by fragmented and decentralized state apparatuses and quasi-market actors in rising powers like China are often mistakenly interpreted as grand strategies.

[17] For example: Julian Borger and Lily Kuo, “US-China Tensions Soar as ‘New Cold War’ Heats Up,” Guardian, October 16, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/oct/16/us-china-new-cold-war-tensions.

[18] Hameiri and Jones, “Rising Powers and State Transformation: The Case of China,” 88.

[19] Todd Crowell and Andrew Salmon, “Chinese Fishermen Wage Hybrid ‘People’s War’ on Asian Seas,” Asia Times, September 8, 2018, https://asiatimes.com/2018/09/chinese-fisherman-wage-hybrid-peoples-war-across-asias-seas/.

[20] Hameiri and Jones, “Rising Powers and State Transformation: The Case of China,” 89.

[21] Hameiri and Jones, “Rising Powers and State Transformation: The Case of China,” 87-88.

[22] Nguyen Phuong Linh and Sui-Lee Wee, “Vietnam, China Trade Barbs After Vietnamese Fishing Boat Sinks,” Reuters, May 27, 2014, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam-china/vietnam-china-trade-barbs-after-vietnamese-fishing-boat-sinks-idUSKBN0E70CF20140527.

[23] Shannon Tiezzi, “Xi Jinping Meets Vietnamese Leader,” Diplomat, August 28, 2014, https://thediplomat.com/2014/08/xi-jinping-meets-vietnamese-leader/.

[24] Zachary Williams, “China’s Tightening Grasp in the South China Sea: A First-Hand Look,” Diplomat, June 10, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/06/chinas-tightening-grasp-in-the-south-china-sea-a-first-hand-look/.

[25] Daniel Russel, “The 3 Flashpoints That Could Turn a US-China ‘Cold War’ Hot,” Diplomat, June 3, 2020, https://thediplomat.com/2020/06/the-3-flashpoints-that-could-turn-a-us-china-cold-war-hot/.

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