Understanding Chinese Revisionism in International Affairs

This recent Tweet by the always enjoyable Dr. Daniel Drezner got me to thinking: Many IR scholars and policymakers seem to misunderstand the way China accumulates and uses power in the pursuit of revisionism.

The question of whether a great power is “revisionist” hinges on its degree of satisfaction with the international system, whose rules—in the current incarnation—are largely set by your friendly neighborhood hegemon, the United States, along with its friends in Western Europe. Putin’s Russia has emerged as a revisionist force because Russian imperialism in its near abroad, not to mention its general obstructionism in international institutions, amounts to a very public rejection of the rules of the game written and enforced by the West.

Expressed geopolitically, Putinism is an unsettling echo of 19th century imperialism of the blood and soil variety, the imperialism we are most familiar with: A great power gains control of territories directly, either by placing military forces throughout the annexed territory and exerting politico-military control behind the scenes while allowing a figleaf of local governance to continue, by annexing a “slice” of territory which happens to be home to the imperialists’ ethnic group, or else by eliminating both the government and the borders of the entire annexed country, swallowing it up as a hungry amoeba swallows hapless bacteria.

Those countries we think of as imperial powers—Britain, Russia, France, Japan, Germany, Spain and (yes) the United States, among others—have all used these “19th century methods” to gain territory and carve out spheres of influence. Following World War Two and again after the Cold War, however, Western policymakers attempted to impress upon the international system the notion that imperialism, like aggressive war, is illegitimate. Neoliberal institutions at the international level—the World Bank, the IMF, and the GATT/WTO—were meant to allow for peaceful post-imperial exchange of resources, much as the European Coal and Steel Community (and later the EU itself) was meant to solve the problem of European resource warfare.

(Let us call modern imperialists “hard power revisionists,” after Dr. Joseph Nye’s oft-quoted distinctions between “hard” and “soft” power.)

One must also admit that all this focus on Western ideas and the European theater limits the explanatory power of theory. “Hard power revisionists” in Europe are easy to spot, whether they are real (Vladimir Putin) or dubious (Slobodan Milošević), but Asia presents us with a very different situation. To be sure, there are outposts of “hard power revisionism” such as North Korea, but no one thinks seriously of the Kim Dynasty’s ability to rewrite the rules of the game normatively or militarily.

And then there is China—what kind of great power is the Middle Kingdom?

China’s revisionism is clearest to Western observers in the way China prosecutes maritime claims—that is, territorial claims over the East China Sea and South China Sea. Despite being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), China has at times attempted to treat the region as a quasi-territorial sea, which would allow China to deny the right of passage, rather than an Exclusive Economic Zone, which would only allow China the exclusive right to harvest sea resources in a 200-nautical mile zone of control as outlined in the treaty.

More importantly, China has thus far rejected all methods of arbitration outlined in Part 15 of the UNCLOS treaty, which establishes four methods for handling disputes—(1) a hearing before the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS); (2) a hearing before the International Court of Justice (ICJ); (3) ad hoc arbitration in accordance with UNCLOS procedures; or (4) a hearing before a special tribunal for the purposes of arbitration. China’s position is that other claimants can only negotiate with China bilaterally (as in the South China Sea disputes with ASEAN member-states) or that the other claimants have no claim (as is apparently the case in the East China Sea disputes with Japan). Most of the states involved have rejected China’s methods of handling maritime disputes, with the Philippines now bringing its claim against China in ITLOS. Not only has China actually refused to join the hearings, it has even gone so far as to accuse of the Philippines of “immorality” for turning to the UN for help.

To underscore the theme of revisionism, the Chinese attitude towards UNCLOS is perhaps best outlined by Singapore’s former leader Lee Kwan-yew:

I don’t believe the Chinese will submit their claims, which are based primarily on China’s historical presence in these waters, to be decided by rules that were defined at a time when China was weak.

Bear in mind that when Lee says “when China was weak” we’re not discussing unequal treaties of the late 19th century—China ratified UNCLOS in that distant year of 1996.

Despite the rhetorical warfare employed by China in its unrelenting pursuit of maritime claims, the country prefers clever logistics strategy to old-fashioned gunboat diplomacy. In an excellent multimedia presentation on how the Philippines and China have vied for control over the disputed Scarborough Shoal, the New York Times detailed China’s “cabbage strategy”:

In June of last year, the United States helped broker an agreement for both China’s and the Philippines’s ships to leave Scarborough Shoal peacefully, but China never left. They eventually blocked access to the shoal and filled in a nest of boats around it to ward off foreign fishermen.

“Since [the standoff], we have begun to take measures to seal and control the areas around the Huangyan Island,” Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong, of China’s People’s Liberation Army, said in a television interview in May, using the Chinese term for Scarborough. (That there are three different names for the same set of uninhabitable rocks tells you much of what you need to know about the region.) He described a “cabbage strategy,” which entails surrounding a contested area with so many boats — fishermen, fishing administration ships, marine surveillance ships, navy warships — that “the island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage.”

The more ships China sends to the East China Sea and South China Sea, the more the country looks like a “hard power revisionist,” and the more American policymakers sound like they’re dealing with a country like Russia. But this is only one layer of China’s imperial strategy. The other involves softer power—and is much older.

About a decade ago, China made a big push to celebrate Zheng He, a Ming Dynasty admiral who led “Treasure Fleets” in seven trips around Asia in the 15th century. Sinophilic accounts note how Zheng He’s ships spread Chinese culture, linked up Ming China to the Chinese diaspora in the near abroad, and peacefully demonstrated Chinese greatness to nations as far away as the Horn of Africa. More realistic accounts hold that Zheng He was not afraid to use military force to play regional kingmaker, secure trade routes, or even to acquire wealth. Naturally, the Chinese Government has emphasized the more pacific aspects of Zheng He’s Treasure Voyages, linking Zheng He to the ongoing propaganda narrative of China’s “Peaceful Rise.”

With these accounts of Imperial China as background, a new generation of revisionist scholars have painted a sympathetic portrait of the Chinese imperial project. Martin Jacques has certainly dabbled in this line of thinking, but Pankaj Misrha is the most compelling of these historians. Mishra has argued, in an unconscious echo of Samuel Huntington’s civilizational thesis, that Asia has long been comfortable with China as a civilizational leader:

For China was not only the Greece of Asia, imparting its Confucian cultures: Its empires were also at the center of a trade and diplomatic web extending from Nepal to Java, and the Amur region to Burma. China’s economy was central to the region; overseas Chinese merchants and traders were later to become crucial in the economic development of Southeast Asia.

China’s neighbors benefited both materially and politically from acknowledging its hegemony; they didn’t seek to “balance” its power in the European way by forming alliances.

The emperors in Beijing, in turn, seemed content with recognition of their legitimacy and authority as the dominant power (no one back then bothered with the nominal “equality” of our nation-state system that gives Vanuatu as many voting rights at the United Nations as India, but allots the greatest power and influence to the U.S.). Though militarily capable of enforcing territorial claims on neighboring states, China refrained from making them.

These historical accounts—of Zheng He and the tributary system—point to the possibilities of Chinese statecraft in the future. While Mishra doesn’t come out and use the “I-word,” China’s historical mode of imperialism was built around soft power, and insomuch as China is a revisionist today, it is mostly a “soft power revisionist.” As I noted on Twitter, a key difference between Putin’s imperialism and Chinese imperialism is that Putin’s path to regional hegemony is based on threats—“join us or else”—whereas China offers rewards to those who follow Beijing’s line. For Chinese, Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of “bide one’s time and hide one’s capabilities” remains operative. China’s policies are far more subtle than Russia’s, yet given China’s sheer size, even its “subtle changes” to geopolitics can be earthshaking.

Russia talks louder in part because it is a smaller country (in terms of population and GDP) with perceived security threats directly at its very long borders. Despite the security alliances between the United States and other countries in Asia, China faces no threat comparable to the NATO alliance. US engagement with, say, Vietnam is not as dangerous to China as expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep is to Russia. But Russia is also louder because Eastern Christendom has deep-seated suspicions of Western powers going back to the fall of the Byzantine Empire.

If Russians seem to inhabit a Hobbesian moral universe, it might be because the West has proven itself an unreliable ally at best—and an outright enemy at worst. Although China also has a history of negative interactions with the West, and the Communist Party propagandizes it in every museum and textbook, that history is conspicuously short compared to the thousands of years China spent all-but-isolated from the West. Rather than fume about the West for hundreds of years like the Russians have, China spent most of its history just like Don Draper, not thinking of us at all.

At this point we must ask what the actual effects of Chinese revisionism would be. As we’ve already mentioned, China’s maritime claims would alter Asia’s status quo by giving China the right to control passage by sea and air. At present, the right of passage in the South China Sea is guaranteed by Western-influenced international law—and American firepower. China’s rise seems sure to change the balance of power in East Asia, whether or not the United States can shift resources to the region. In addition, China has flexed its diplomatic and economic muscles with ASEAN, ending nearly fifty years of ASEAN consensus at the hands of China’s client state, Cambodia. China added insult to injury by offering an inadequate response to the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, leading some to believe that China was punishing the Philippines for defying China on its South China Sea claims. In these cases and others, Chinese revisionism is being felt at the regional level before it reaches a global scale.

Let’s talk about China’s influence on human rights and development for a moment. This is an area where China is already shaping the global discourse. Henry Kissinger has always been fond of China for a reason: In contrast to the missionary socialism of the Soviet Union or the Wilsonian school of American foreign policy, China prefers realpolitik, in which no regime is too authoritarian (or too democratic!) to do business with.

Of course, American policymakers are already used to great and minor powers deviating from the liberal internationalist agenda for reasons of realpolitik. In the 1990s, the Clinton State Department was often vexed by countries citing self-interest while undermining peace, security, and human rights efforts in Africa. There’s a case to be made, for instance, that France inadvertently prolonged the Rwandan conflict and genocide by siding with the Hutu government. China is cut from the same cloth, but is potentially immensely more powerful than France. China’s recent history in Africa is illustrative. For instance, even after South Africa turned its back on Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe, China has remained a stalwart friend of the regime. Under Hu Jintao, China characterized Western calls for African aid to be tied to reforms “bullying” and offered money without strings attached.

Of course, there are always strings.

During the history of the Chinese tribute system, one of the most important things for the Empire was that the tribute riches continued to flow. It didn’t matter if a country offered tribute to China and a regional rival, as the Ryukyu Kingdom did to both China and Japan. But if regime change in one of the tributaries threatened the status quo, China might intervene, as it did in the 15th century Ming-Ho war with Vietnam, which was fought to restore the pro-Chinese Tran Dynasty and ended in the outright annexation of Vietnam. Today, business deals and international trade have replaced past forms of tribute, but China is still mainly preoccupied with keeping the status quo in its relations with other countries.

When Zambian opposition leader Michael Sata campaigned against violence and labor rights violations in Chinese mining operations, China threatened to pull out investment in advance of the 2006 Zambian elections, a move which may have helped the incumbent government win reelection. China was then rewarded with a special economic zone in Zambia in 2008, which further inflamed anti-Chinese sentiment, despite promises of nearly $1 billion in Chinese investment. When Sata finally came to power in 2011 following violence at a Chinese-associated mine in 2010, Chinese policymakers scrambled to justify themselves to the new government. To Sata’s credit, his administration has kept up the pressure on China, though he hasn’t exactly kicked China out.

Elsewhere, as the Arab Spring kicked off in North Africa and the Ukrainian crisis unfolded, China’s primary concerns have been protecting Chinese nationals and economic interests. China was uncomfortable doing business with Egypt’s then-President Morsi when he came to Beijing in August 2012, but Morsi still managed to gain pledges of cooperation and promises of investment. In Ukraine, China has had to balance its traditional alliance with Russia with its desire to stay on friendly relations with the new government and get back some part of the $3 billion China loaned to Ukraine for agricultural development. Thus, for reasons of realpolitik, China has appeared to be on both sides of Putin’s great Ukrainian adventure.

On the face of it, China’s development aid strategy is an improvement upon Western demands which have often saddled African countries with shaky neoliberal foundations and/or done little to improve African infrastructure. Furthermore, although it is fashionable to accuse China of “imperialism” in Africa, China is not guilty of anything resembling Europe’s horrific legacy of imperial brutality on the continent. Compared to the history of Belgium in Africa, for instance, Beijing looks like a moral giant. That said, by focusing mainly on economics we are missing half of the picture. In terms of human rights in Africa and elsewhere, China has begun to shift away from its Opening Up Period policy of neutrality towards active opposition to Western attempts to enforce human rights norms.

Throughout 2012, China joined Russia to veto several UN Security Council resolutions calling for an end to human rights abuses in Syria. This year, China has come out strongly in defense of its client state North Korea and has, unsurprisingly, condemned UN discussion of human rights in China. Although China wielded its UN veto to protect client states in the past (one thinks of China protecting Mugabe the junta in Burma), there’s a new assertiveness in China’s use of the veto. Of China’s seven UN Security Council vetoes since gaining its seat in 1971, five have been used in the past seven years.

Finally, we must not forget that all of this is happening against the impressive backdrop of China’s emergence as the largest economy in the world, which begs the question of who will be able to rein in pariah states when the Chinese market alone is big enough sustain them, much as Russia today sustains Belarus and China sustains North Korea. In 1996, the popular Chinese nationalist book China Can Say No advanced the concept that China should no longer follow America’s lead in world affairs. Roughly twenty years later, we may be reaching a point where, thanks to Chinese power, authoritarian regimes of the Global South can also “say no” to the West and pay no penalties for it.

That is a kind of revisionism that Vladimir Putin might dream of, but would never be capable of bringing about.

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Send China to Burma

Dr. Steven Taylor noted earlier in the week that the SLORC junta in Burma (sorry, no Myanmar here) has agreed to receive aid but not aid workers.  Dr. T notes that this is par for the course in dictatorships:

One of the tried and true (and tragic) behaviors of hardline dictatorships is to reaction to internal disasters as if either they didn’t happen (something that is increasingly difficult to do these days) or to downplay the need for help from the outside (if not to reject it outright). It has to do with control (of information as well as what the population might learn) as well, I suspect, with embarrassment over the state of the country. No doubt there is a healthy dose of xenophobia thrown in for good measure.

The shroud being drawn across the disaster relief effort by the junta naturally creates a problem for donor countries, as there are zero guarantees that humanitarian aid will (a) go to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, (b) not be used politically by the government, and (c) can actually be delivered in a prompt and effective manner.

To an extent, the junta’s policy is understandable from the perspective of a hyper-paranoid autocratic elite which has almost no international friends and sees the crisis situation as a potential opening for outsiders intent on toppling the regime.  The human cost of this need for total control is difficult to estimate — surely it will add thousands to the final death toll from the storm — but SLORC likely looks to examples such as the North Korean famine as assurance that a hardline regime can remain in power despite massive loss of life.

So, what should the UN and the West do to make sure that relief aid can actually get to devastated Burmese communities?  They might want to call on China.

While an international pariah, SLORC, like the regimes in Sudan, Zimbabwe, and North Korea, has a significant ally in Beijing.  Westerners have thus far unsuccessfully tried to pressure China to change its friendly policies towards the Burmese government.  They ought to learn by now that China will always refuse to implement policies that might run contrary to the interests of one of its client states.  That said, while nothing will sever the Sino-Burmese relationship, the international community might be able to persuade China to put boots on the ground in Burma as part of the relief effort.  SLORC trusts China, after all, and is not likely to see Chinese relief workers as a security threat.

China might not agree to be the West’s proxy, but the country’s relatively recent history in providing relief operations suggests an openness to the idea.  Bringing Beijing on board would require illustrating the following benefits to Hu Jintao and his foreign policy hands:

  • Leading a significant relief effort will provide good PR for the Chinese government in advance of the Olympics and in the wake of the Tibet riots.
  • China, by distributing aid, could help stabilize Burma (and help SLORC stay in power).
  • Western countries could provide the bulk of the material cost, and even some of the air- and sealift, leaving China with the cost of manpower, which is significantly less than Western manpower costs.

Many in the West will be left scratching their heads and wondering where the good side is in this proposal.  China, a sometimes-adversary, comes out ahead, while the SLORC emerge unscathed and Western countries foot most of the bill.  Yet, as we watch the news from Burma, we cannot underestimate the scale of the tragedy nor the urgency of the situation:  between 20,000 and 100,000 already dead, millions displaced, and tens of thousands more threatened by malnourishment, disease, and floodwaters.  This is a rare circumstance where the lesser of two evils is easy to determine.

The question is, will any leaders in the West or the UN step forward and ask China to go to Burma?