Written by Suisheng Zhao.

President Xi Jinping has called for building a new model of big power relations with the US, in which China’s rise would not be accompanied by the conflict and war that has marred many moments in history when rising powers rubbed up against the incumbent power. But China has increasingly behaved as a typical muscle-flexing rising power looking to challenge the US primacy in the Asia-Pacific. The notion represents a significant reversal of China’s Taoguang Yanghui (“hide and bide”) policy.

Chinese leaders’ foreign policy-making often starts from a careful assessment of China’s relative power in the world. Conditioned by China’s circumscribed capabilities and geostrategic isolation immediately after the end of the Cold War, Beijing followed the Taoguang Yanghui policy set by Deng Xiaoping to keep a low profile and concentrate on building up its national strength.

Seeking peaceful coexistence with the US, the unwieldy superpower that held the key to China’s economic modernization, President Jiang Zemin proposed a 16 character formulation in 1993: increase trust, reduce problems, strengthen cooperation, avoid confrontation. Promoting a multipolar world, China tried “learning to live with the hegemon” and made adaptation and policy adjustments to the reality of the US dominance in the international system. China did not want to become the second “Mr. No” and repeat the failure of the Soviet Union in a competition for hegemony that exhausted its economic and military capacities. President Jiang avoided taking confrontational postures in response to US sanctions after Tiananmen in 1989, the US’ inadvertent bombing of the Chinese embassy in 1999, and the mid-air collision between a Chinese jet fighter and American EP-3 surveillance plane in 2001.

President Hu Jintao continued to focus on building China’s comprehensive national strength. Focusing on domestic stability, Hu’s foreign policy emphasized the principles of maintaining the status quo and averting crises in order to extend a period of strategic opportunity in which a benign external environment would allow China to pursue its modernization programs. Cherishing China’s rising power status, Chinese leaders were very cautious to hide their big power aspirations.

President Hu endorsed the concept of China’s “peaceful rise” originally put forward by his aid, Zheng Bijian, but quickly changed it to “peaceful development” because some Chinese scholars and officials expressed concerns about whether using the word “rise” might intimidate some of China’s Asian neighbours. During a visit to Europe in early 2009, some sensitive Western reporters pricked up their ears at Premier Wen’s statement that China would be a peaceful and cooperative big power. When asked for clarification of the phrase “big power,” the official Xinhua news agency released an English text that translated the word as “country” instead. While many Chinese were initially flattered by the G-2 idea amounting to a Sino-US cooperative, Premier Wen rejected the idea as “not appropriate” and reiterated that “China remains a developing country despite remarkable achievements and its modernization will take a long time and the efforts of several generations.”

Pursuing China’s Core Interests during the Global Financial Meltdown

Narrowing the power gap to the US and weathering the 2009 global financial crisis better than many Western countries, Chinese began to see a shift in the world balance of power in China’s favour. Anticipating a rapid US decline, China’s foreign policy behavior took a notable turn in the wake of the global slowdown. For many years, Chinese foreign policy was designed to serve domestic economic modernization by creating and maintaining a peaceful international environment. Fused with growing nationalism and wealth, China began to reverse the order and use its rising economic and military power to serve its expanded foreign policy objectives. With the US in financial turmoil and seemingly desperate for cash-rich China to come to its aid, the perception of a troubled US still attempting to keep China down makes Chinese leaders less willing to make adaptations. Although far from a full reversal of what had long been a mixed practice, the center of gravity has shifted toward less accommodation. Facing rumblings of discontent from the popular nationalists who saw the global downturn as a chance for China to reclaim its great power status, the Hu leadership began to take an unusually hawkish position to confront the Obama administration in its own neighborhood.

President Hu’s forceful and strident stands have been reinforced since President Xi Jinping assumed power. Believing China has never been so close to regaining the glorious position it enjoyed before around two centuries ago, President Xi set out to achieve a “China dream” of great national revitalization. Calling for a new model of big power relations, Chinese leaders for the first time openly acknowledged China as a “big power” and a peer of the US. Chinese leaders have included three essential features in describing the new model: no conflict or confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation. But Beijing has made it clear that “mutual respect” of each other’s “core national interests” is the bottom line. The new model, therefore, is not just another façade on the old rhetoric of peaceful coexistence. Now China and the US can coexist peacefully only if they respect each other’s core interests and make their strategic aspirations compatible.

“Core interest”, a new term in China’s foreign policy vocabulary, has suddenly become fashionable and appears more frequently in Chinese statements. Obviously chosen with intent to signal the resolve in China’s sovereignty and territorial claims that it deems important enough to go to war over, core interest is defined as “the bottom-line of national survival” and “essentially non-negotiable”. While China’s official statements on sovereignty and territorial integrity used to refer almost exclusively to Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang issue, Chinese leaders have since expanded the core interest issues to include territorial claims in the South and East China Seas.

Taking an unusually strong position to assert its sovereignty in these disputed waters, Beijing repeatedly attempted to prevent Vietnamese vessels from exploring oil and gas while it sent Chinese oil rigs to disputed waters with Vietnam, deployed ships to blockade the Philippines garrison on a contested shoal and rejected Manila’s bid for international court of justice arbitration, and scaled up land reclamation of “island-building” on the disputed reefs in the South China Sea. It also sent law enforcement ships and fighter jets to challenge the status quo of the Japanese administration of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands following the Japanese government’s decision to nationalize some of them, and declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering the Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands as well as the greater part of the East China Sea, including the Socotra Rock (also known as Ieodo or Parangdo), which has been effectively controlled by South Korea but claimed by China as the Suyan Rock.

The Challenge to the US Power in the Asia-Pacific

Rising to great power status in a region that is not only militarily dominated by the US, but is also replete with US allies and strategic partners, China has exhibited considerable sensitivity to perceived US containment. The US strategic rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific only compounds such insecurities and anxieties. With enhanced capacities resulting from decades of rapid economic growth and military modernization, China has strived to obtain regional dominance in the Asia-Pacific. The primary impediment in this endeavour is the US, an offshore power dominant in its own home region. Viewing the US as a significant threat to China’s aims and recalling the traumas of the collapse of the former Soviet Union and other communist regimes after the end of the Cold War, Chinese leaders have not only become suspicious of US intentions to prevent China from rising to its rightful place, but have also been convinced that the US and the other Western countries have come together to encircle China and undermine the Chinese regime.

Translating its wealth into a stronger military and more assertive regional posture, China’s coercive actions to exert its claims over disputed territories is thus a litmus test of China’s broader strategic intentions. Beijing has targeted not only its neighbours in the East and South China Seas but also, and perhaps more importantly, the US in the region. China’s stepped-up claims over the disputed territories are a central part of the growing contest for influence with the US in the region. Hugh White offers simple logic to describe the situation. America’s position in Asia is built on its network of alliances and partnerships with many of China’s neighbours, and the bedrock of these alliances and partnerships is the confidence America’s Asian friends have that America is able and willing to protect them. Weakening these relationships is the easiest way to reduce US regional power and enhance China’s power. This is a strategy known in China as “cutting skirt edges little by little”, meaning that cutting off the left and right arms and legs one by one of the US would eventually isolate and defeat the superpower. China is therefore keen to do anything it can to weaken the U.S. alliance structure in Asia, which it views as a central tenet of the US encirclement strategy.

As a matter of fact, Chinese scholars have debated if China should adopt its own “Monroe Doctrine” to “kick America out” of Asia. De-Americanization has become a popular term in China and has begun impacting China’s foreign policy. Taking advantage of the so-called “Host Diplomacy” to engage national leaders of Asian countries in summits hosted by China, President Xi has demonstrated clear intentions to drive the US out of the region. At the 2014 Shanghai summit of the Conference of Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia (CICA), he announced a new Asian security concept in which China is located at the heart of a new Asian diplomatic architecture that offers Asian management of Asian security problems without the US presence. This little-known regional summit had languished for years, but President Xi suddenly invigorated the CICA because its membership includes Russia, Iran, and Egypt, but does not include the US nor most American Asia-Pacific allies and partners such as Japan, the Philippines, and Singapore. As one observer suggested, “part of the real reason for China’s new emphasis on the CICA and its arbitrarily landlocked map of Asia is that, in this post-charm offensive phase, Chinese diplomacy seems comfortable only on a stage it manages.”

Many Chinese believe building a new model of big power relationship depends overwhelmingly on the US changing the way it works with China and adapting to the new reality of China’s rise because “China has never done anything to undermine the US core interests and major concerns.” Therefore, “the principal barrier in building a new model of big power relations between China and the US is on the US side. While no country is responsible alone for the problems, self-righteousness and lack of empathy can only intensify the China-US strategic rivalry. Leaders in both Washington and Beijing have to engage each other on points of mutual interest while working separately to secure their interests by maintaining a delicate balance of power to avoid the China-US rivalry turning into a new cold war.

Suisheng Zhao is Professor and Director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. He is also Editor of the important scholarly publication, Journal of Contemporary China. Image credit: CC by Steve Cadman/Flickr.