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China’s Strategic Outlook: Expanding its footprint or just finding its feet

Line of Defence Magazine, Summer 2017/18

Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands, South China Sea, May 2015.Subi Reef in the Spratly Islands, South China Sea, May 2015.


In this Line of Defence interview, Dr Marc Lanteigne, Senior Lecturer at Massey University’s Centre for Defence and Security Studies explores the notion of China as an ‘expansionist’ power.


China’s expansionary approach to its economic and political influence is now widely acknowledged, as is the expanding footprint of its rapidly modernising military. Should this be cause for alarm, or is it ‘fair enough’ for an emerging world power that was – until very recently – a largely passive player in world affairs?

Much international media and political commentary ring alarmist bells over Beijing’s so called ‘expansionist’ turn under president Xi Jinping. But is the commentary informed, is it free from bias, and does it really understand what an expansionist power wants in the context of 21st century international relations?


LoD: Many commentators have been referring to China's international outlook as expansionist, and cite its actions in the South China Sea, for example, as evidence of this. Is China a territorially 'expansionist' power?

ML: It has been a staple of Chinese foreign policy for decades that the country 'does not seek hegemony'. Since the Dengist Era of the late 1970s, there was also a policy of not seeking to upturn the status quo in regional and international relations. However, under Xi Jinping, Chinese foreign policy interests have expanded considerably, both in terms of cross-regional diplomacy and moving away from the 'hide one's light' policies that dominated much of the 1980s and 90s.

Chinese foreign policy is marked by a greater confidence in global affairs as well as the desire to be more of a 'norm maker' than 'norm taker' in keeping with its great power status. President Xi has recently proclaimed a 'new era' in Chinese politics and foreign policy, and Chinese interests have become more visible in several regions, including Oceania, as a result of new initiatives such as the 'Belt and Road'.

In regard to the East and South China Sea, these disputes revolve around the interpretation of 'historical waters', which has placed Beijing at odds with some of its neighbours, including Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

In China's view, the South China has been Chinese waters since antiquity, and so does not see its current policies as expansionist. China has also been critical of US attempts to 'internationalise' the dispute, and Beijing sees the issue as best worked between itself and the other disputants directly.

China has also been critical of what it sees as attempts by the US and its allies to use international law as a blunt instrument to push Beijing out of what it sees as its 'blue national soil'. However, other claimant governments, as well as the US, see China's recent moves in the SCS, including building up infrastructure on disputed islets, as attempts to create 'new facts' in the waterway.


LoD: Is commentary relating to China's expansionism objective?

ML: Until recently, much international discourse regarding China's rise has focused on the country's integration into international organisations and regimes, with the suggestion that China would be largely a status quo power.

Unlike the Soviet Union, China has never attempted to create its own version of a Warsaw Pact or a Comecon, and instead sought to engage existing organisations, including those dominated by the US such as the WTO. Nor has China since the Dengist Era seen itself as a model for other countries, economic or ideologically.

However, under Xi, Beijing developed new initiatives, such as the Belt and Road, which do not include the US, and China has been recently been less deferential in suggesting that the country does have potential models to offer other states.

As well, as the US has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord and the TPP, doors have been opened for China to take the lead in major issues including free trade and the environment. Much of the debate about Chinese 'expansionism' can therefore be framed as the question of the waxing and waning of the power of China and the United States.

There have been suggestions that the Asia-Pacific is facing a situation not unlike the years before the First World War, a conflict which was at least partially blamed on rapid power transitions and tangled pacts and alliances. There are indeed cautionary tales from that era which should be looked at closely.

However, it is important not to over-apply twentieth century and especially cold war analogies to the current strategic situation in the Asia Pacific, and therefore it is important for New Zealand to look at China as it is now, and not how it was years or decades ago.

Unfortunately, media coverage about China in New Zealand has on occasion been incomplete or lacking in needed detail, which often places NZ at a disadvantage when engaging China, not only government-to-government, but people-to-people. So, when talking about expansionism, it's important to specify what the discussion is.

China is certainly widening its foreign and strategic concerns beyond East Asia as it becomes more comfortable with great power status, which means a growing number of rights but also responsibilities.

It has been proven throughout history that arrivals (and departures) of great powers are often disruptive to the international system. However, conflict in these cases is not a certainty, and there remain many areas where the China and the US are on the same page.

Thus, when talking about the question of Chinese 'expansionism' it is important to look at the debate from a variety of angles.


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LoD: How does Beijing view its so-called expansionism?

ML: China is entering a delicate period in its reform process both on the domestic and the international level, and is most concerned with maintaining stability on both fronts. There are also many links between the country's ongoing domestic reforms and its strategic thinking.

The country is becoming more dependent on trade for its economic – including energy – needs, and therefore many of the shifts in its military development have been described in Beijing as fueled by the need to protect Chinese citizens and assets abroad.

Case in point, the Chinese navy has had to intervene in the past few years to help evacuation Chinese citizens from Libya and Yemen due to the civil conflicts there, and China has also increased its participation in UN peacekeeping in the cases of Mali and South Sudan, and was also included in the counter-piracy coalition operations in the Gulf of Aden.

China has developed new organisations and regimes, including the Belt and Road as well as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the Silk Road Fund, which was widened and deepened Chinese economic cooperation with many parts of the world, including in unstable regions, and therefore there has been a focus in Chinese security thinking on power projection and the ability to send strategic assets farther and faster to missions related to military operations other than war (MOotW).

Recent events such as the launch of the PLA Navy's second aircraft carrier and the opening of a new military supply depot in Djibouti have been framed by the Chinese government as necessary to protect Chinese interests as the country matures as a great power.

Beijing has now moved away from its longstanding conservative stance on its foreign policy, and in a speech during the country's 19th Party Congress in October, President Xi called for China to develop a leading role in 'comprehensive national power and international influence' by the middle of the century, a far cry from the Dengist Era.

As Chinese power begins to approach American levels, and should the United States emerging policies of isolation persist, policy and potentially strategic differences between the two governments could become acute.

There is also the ongoing concern in China that the US and its allies are seeking to contain Chinese power and prevent it from accessing needed resources. The (now defunct) pivot / rebalancing policies as well as the 'Air-Sea Battle' concept were both interpreted by Beijing as thinly-veiled attempts at US-led containment of China. With the Trump government, there is considerably more uncertainty over Washington's longer-term goals in Asia.


LoD: What are the key drivers of China's military modernisation and naval investments? Given these, is China becoming a military threat within the region?

ML: At present, China is seeking to better its power projection capabilities with a strong emphasis on its naval power, which had been comparatively neglected throughout much of the history of the PRC until the turn of the century.

Not only are these initiatives designed to protect Chinese interests abroad but also to better thwart US-led attempts to contain Chinese power, especially since the US has maintained strong security relations with Japan, South Korea and until recently the Philippines, as well as warmed relations with Singapore and Vietnam.

At the 19th Party Congress, President Xi called for further military modernisation over the next two decades, and there are concerns that China seeks to leverage the US more overtly out of the Asia-Pacific during that period. It is also important to note, that the Chinese military budget was officially reported as US$151 billion, while American military spending remains well over US$600 billion.

In areas of disputed waters such as the South China Sea, China has undertaken what has been called a 'cabbage strategy', using layers of power including military, coast guard and civilian vessels, to enforce its claim to the waterway. This has also been referred at as an 'anti-access / area denial strategy' (A2/AD).

The concern is that because of the disputed status of the South China Sea, an incident between vessels from different claimants along the lines of the Scarborough Shoal standoff between Chinese and Philippine ships in 2012 could escalate quickly and unpredictably.

In addition to the new aircraft carrier, which has yet to be officially named, China is also developing other naval vessels, such as the PLA Navy’s first Type-055 destroyer – launched in July – which will allow for more blue water operations. There is therefore the question of how an expanded Chinese navy will interact with American strategic interests in the Pacific, even though President Xi has mentioned more than once that the Pacific Ocean is big enough for both nations.

Another wild card in the Sino-American relationship is the North Korea nuclear situation. While neither Beijing nor Washington wish to see North Korea become a nuclear weapons state, there are strong differences over the approach to resolving the issue.

China has rejected a military option to resolve the crisis, while the US has not ruled it out. Beijing is also concerned that too much pressure on the Kim Jong-un regime will cause North Korea to implode and create a massive regional crisis on China's front doorstep.

Beijing has also rejected what it calls the 'China responsibility theory', the assertion put forward by President Trump that Beijing should take the lead in punishing Pyongyang for its recent missile and warhead tests, and the Xi government has been critical of the US government's bellicose (and capricious) diatribes against the Kim regime.


LoD: Shifts in the order of regional and world power are historically destabilising, and China's strategic rise is often viewed in this context. What does New Zealand have to fear from China's rise, and how well positioned is NZ currently in terms of this shift?

ML: China's rise, and US responses, have placed New Zealand in a difficult position, and may prompt a foreign policy more in keeping with non-alignment given its extensive interests with both great powers.

The difficult relationship between NZ and the US since the 1980s over the nuclear ban has eased somewhat, especially in the wake of the Wellington Declaration in 2010, which greatly improved strategic relations and made New Zealand a de facto component of the American pivot policy under Barack Obama. New Zealand is also a member of the nebulous 'Five Eyes' intelligence arrangement.

However, New Zealand has had a free trade agreement with Beijing since 2008, is a member of the AIIB, and as of this year is also a member of the Belt and Road, although there has been little debate in NZ over what that might mean.

The rapid departure of the US from the TPP has also provided a window for China to play a stronger role in Asia-Pacific economic cooperation, but New Zealand also wishes to maintain strong relations with Japan, South Korea and ASEAN and so will have to balance its foreign policy as China increases its presence not only in the Asia-Pacific but also in the Pacific Islands region.

China has now put itself forward as the 'alternative donor' in the South Pacific, and therefore New Zealand is considering how to respond. The joint China-NZ development project in Rarotonga is one example of regional economic cooperation.

Recent US policy shifts under President Trump include the revival of the 'Quad' concept, meaning a closer strategic and military relationship between the US, Australia, India and Japan. Beijing has been harshly critical of such discussions in the past, and so far, there is no indication as to where NZ would fit in such as arrangements.

The Trump government has also spoken of an 'Indo-Pacific' policy in the region, and again there is no clear idea where New Zealand would fit within this potential new doctrine.

Asia policy under the Trump government has been erratic at best, and so it has been difficult for New Zealand, (and Australia), to get a clear reading on where it stands in Washington's changing regional policies. However, New Zealand's 'independent' foreign policy does place it at an advantage as it has a very positive reputation in both China and the US, and can therefore act as a stabilising voice in many East Asian strategic issues.



BOOK REVIEW: China as a Polar Great Power

Line of Defence, Spring 2017

China’s expanding Belt and Road policies: Challenges for Oceania

Line of Defence, Winter 2017


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