David Babayan (Armenia)
The failure of isolationism
One way or another, all components of China’s national power motivate it to expand its sphere of influence in such strategically important regions as Central Asia, the Far East and Southeast Asia. China has been a great nation throughout virtually all of its history. Still, China pursued a policy of isolationism for quite a long time, as did the United States. Why does it no longer hold to that policy? Why does it become involved in political confrontation when it can be avoided, especially when the outcome is uncertain? It is possible, of course, that China would choose to practice isolationism were it able to do so. Nevertheless, China no longer has that option for the following reasons.
First of all, when practicing isolationism in the past, China enjoyed undisputed cultural, military and economic superiority over its closest neighbors, and that provided some justification for its isolationism and made it practicable. The Celestial Kingdom considered itself to be the center of the world, and it looked upon those around it as barbarians. That was consistent with reality for quite a long time, especially considering that China had a huge population, rich mineral resources and a virtually self-sufficient economy. In 1820, for example, China’s gross domestic product comprised 32.4% of global GDP and China ranked first in terms of GDP. Even during China’s accelerating decline in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a special sense of superiority permeated China’s actions on the international stage. A striking example of this was the Chinese Emperor’s response to Britain’s King George III, whose envoys tried to draw China into trade relations by offering some British industrial goods as gifts: “We, Emperor by Heaven’s will, suggest that the King of England consider our mandate: the Celestial Kingdom which rules the space bounded by the four seas… does not value strange and costly objects… and has no use for your country’s manufactures… Accordingly we… have commanded your tribute Envoys to leave in peace on their homeward journey. It behoves you, O King, to respect our sentiments and to display even greater devotion and loyalty in future.”
Secondly, as previously noted, China felt humiliated when its isolation ended; or rather, its isolation resulted in humiliation. The world had changed too much, and thanks to scientific and technical progress countries with less population and territory than China began actively penetrating its territory and even imposing enslaving treaties. Thus, China’s isolation can be seen as the reason for its weakness in that it prevented the flow of scientific and technological thought to China. Isolationism also served the Chinese state badly by increasing Beijing’s confidence to the point where it finally lost touch with reality, and the state actually became a semi-colony of the leading powers of the time.
Thirdly, the modern world with its inherent processes of globalization and integration renders isolation impossible.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, the rapid development of the Chinese economy and its policy of self-reliance make isolation almost impossible. For example, during the 1970s China’s total trade volume amounted to only 13% of GDP, making it a state with little dependence on trade; but by 1995 the figure exceeded one-third of GDP. And as already noted, in 2007 China’s GDP came to $3.43 trillion; its foreign trade volume reached $2.17 trillion, or 63.2% of its gross domestic product.
In many ways, it was China’s economic development that made Beijing’s desire to extend its influence far beyond its borders inevitable. China needs a smooth flow of hydrocarbon resources in order to maintain stable rates of economic growth. However, China’s own reserves of hydrocarbons are insufficient to meet its growing needs. Therefore, it has to obtain them from outside the country. Meanwhile, China finds its increasing dependence on foreign sources for such strategically important raw materials to be almost intolerable. It violates the doctrine of self-reliance. Expressed in geopolitical language, Beijing’s ideal option for preventing this may be to increase its influence in hydrocarbon-rich regions. Central Asia is one such region that is geographically close to China.
That may entail a contradiction; there is a fairly widespread view that integration processes lead to interdependence, which in turn minimizes the likelihood of wars and conflicts because they are simply unprofitable. This argument is quite logical; unfortunately, however, all theories about interdependence and conflicts are nothing more than generalizations. They take little account of such factors as domestic economic interests, the relative strengths of the state and society, and the role of future expectations regarding interdependence. Research in this area began quite recently, but at this point the thesis that interdependence necessarily leads to peace has not yet been confirmed. There are examples in modern history where a very high degree of interdependence did not prevent war between states. Germany and Great Britain before World War II are a classic example of that. Economic ties between the two states were never as close prior to that or following World War I. Nevertheless, it did not prevent the two countries from going to war with each other. Moreover, some analysts tend to assume that there is an inversely proportional relationship between interdependence and conflict, where a low and medium level of interdependence reduces the likelihood of conflict, but a high level of interdependence increases the probability that conflict will occur.
The fundamental principles of China’s behavior on the world stage
In order to more accurately predict China’s behavior on the world stage, the main manifestation of which is Beijing’s policy in key regions of the world, we need to examine in general terms the fundamental principles that guide China in the international relations system and China’s vision of its place in that system, as well as the country’s current geopolitical situation and the imperatives that derive from its strategic goals. Chief among China’s fundamental principles is probably the safeguarding of peace throughout the world and opposition to acts of aggression and expansion—a basic component of China’s national defense policy. The very declaration of this principle means that Beijing sees itself as one of the poles, one of the world’s power centers. It is no coincidence that since the mid-1980s Beijing has been developing a theory for the transformation of the global balance of power from a bipolar to a multipolar structure. But this principle can be implemented in various ways. The safeguarding of world peace and opposition to acts of aggression and expansion may be either defensive or offensive in nature. In the first case, actions by a state that has declared this principle are reactive in nature, i.e., they respond to actions taken by a state or group of states. In the second case, actions by the state are preventive in nature, i.e., the state takes specific steps to prevent a situation from developing in a given direction. But in both instances the military component plays an important role. China is actively developing a comprehensive and multilevel military diplomacy. By 1999, the Chinese army had established relations with the armies of more than 100 countries worldwide. It opened military attaché offices in more than 90 Chinese embassies. Attachés from more than 60 foreign countries were already operating in China. By the end of 2008, the PLA had established ties with the armies of more than 150 countries and opened military attaché offices in 109 Chinese embassies around the world; and 98 foreign military attaché offices had been opened in China.
In April 1995, Beijing issued an official statement reiterating its passive security guarantee without preconditions to nonnuclear states and zones and for the first time undertook to provide an active security guarantee. Thus, China made it clear that it took its declared principles seriously and would seek to implement them. As if to confirm this, Beijing has shown that it remains firmly committed to the idea of expanding its political and economic presence in such regions as Europe, Latin America, the Middle East and Africa.
China’s vision of the boundaries of its security is of particular interest in this context. As early as 1984, China had adopted a doctrine that distinguishes between state borders and strategic borders. According to this doctrine, a state border is immutable, but a strategic border extends far beyond its limits. It runs not just across land and sea; it even extends into space. And without formally violating state boundaries, the Chinese intend to establish a strategic space around themselves.
Some experts believe that China’s geopolitics are based on the so-called doctrine of “three norths, four seas,” which was adopted by the Central Committee of China’s Communist Party in 1993. The Union of Military Sinologists in the Alumni Club of Russia’s Military Institute of Foreign Languages hosted a discussion on the geopolitical role of continental China during which that doctrine was addressed. The military sinologists noted that under this doctrine, which is in coded language to prevent foreigners from understanding it, according to the law of changes the center that China occupies will vanquish the “three norths within four seas” by 2019, and then “the 21st century will become the century of China.” The three norths are NATO, Russia (the northern part of Eurasia) and the United States of America. The experts agreed that the Chinese project began in 1959 immediately after Mao Zedong finally triumphed over all members of the military and political leadership that were under the influence of the Comintern. The following stages were envisioned for the project.
– Stage of Mao Zedong, 1959-1979, the first generation of leaders, slogan: “Liberation and Rebirth;”
– Stage of Deng Xiaoping, 1979-1989, the second generation of leaders, slogan: “Modernization and Growth;”
– Stage of Jiang Zemin, 1989-2009, the third generation of leaders, slogan: “Stabilization and Leveling;”
– Stage of 2009-2019, the fourth generation of leaders, slogan: “Greatness and Dignity.”
We do not know whether this doctrine exists or not, but China has already entered the “Greatness and Dignity” stage.
The term “Beijing Consensus” has appeared in the scientific literature; it refers to the verbal formulation and tactical principles of Chinese foreign policy. The Beijing Consensus is first and foremost a model of socio-economic development which the Chinese are successfully implementing and which differs significantly from the so-called Washington Consensus proposed by the US administration and many multiparty organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The essence of the Washington Consensus is that government’s most important economic task should be to indulge and adapt to the interests of the financial markets. The prominent Russian analyst Sergei Egishyants describes the Washington Consensus as follows: “It is a set of gentlemen’s agreements reached… jointly by the world’s financial organizations and the US Federal Reserve in order to gradually lift the measures adopted by states to regulate the activity of financial markets and eventually achieve full freedom of action for those markets.” Those agreements were called the Washington Consensus by one of its originators, American economist John Williamson. The essence of the Beijing Consensus is growth while retaining independence. Its features include “strong commitment to innovation and experimentation” (special economic zones), “protection of national borders and interests,” and “accumulation of asymmetric instruments of power” (in the form of strong foreign exchange reserves). It is apparent that this model is largely consistent with the geopolitical doctrines of China we have been discussing.
David Babayan is an Armenian political analyst, Cand. Sc. (History), author of the monograph “Modern Chinese Geopolitics: Some Trends and Shapes [Geopolitika Kitaya na sovremennom etape: nekotoryye napravleniya i formy], Yerevan, DE-FAKTO, 2010. (in Russian)
The views expressed may not coincide with those of ORIENTAL REVIEW.
Source: New Eastern Outlook