China’s me-first foreign policy

China’s more assertive foreign policy over the last two years has played a key role in getting two arch-conservatives — Japan’s Shinzo Abe and South Korea’s Park Geun-hye — elected to lead their respective countries. Some Chinese observers believe that Abe and Park will be forced by China’s inexorable rise to come to terms with their giant neighbor. Don’t count on it. To much of its region, China’s behavior as it is coming of age as a modern superpower is eerily reminiscent of its past policy as a regional hegemon.

For a very long time, imperial China dominated its wider region. The Chinese imperial court considered itself the indispensable center of a regional order in which China had the right and the duty to set international norms and standards, and to intervene if these were broken. It was an ideological system in which Chinese principles had to be the starting point for all things.

Although the Chinese elites’ thinking was driven by ideas and cultural norms, their position came down to size, power and military strategy. And from the 16th to the mid-18th centuries, it worked. But from the 1780s on, China’s regional role was in decline, it lost wars and unnecessary military engagements followed.

China’s current leadership transition is taking place at a point when the country again has to reevaluate its regional and world engagements. The last couple of years have been disastrous in China’s foreign policy. Its regional engagements have backfired, one after the other. Some of this comes from what historian Paul Kennedy calls imperial overstretch: to move faster and further than what material resources and political prowess allows for. It is quite possible to believe both that China is a rising power and that it has overstepped the mark on what it’s able to achieve through pressure within its own region.

Look at its relations with Japan. After a series of statements from Beijing, some of them very aggressive, the Japanese have elected an administration that takes a hard line on China. Last fall’s barrage of harsh words from China — on the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute and other matters — played right into the electoral strategy of Abe and the Liberal Democratic Party.

History, of course, plays a main role in the Sino-Japanese relationship. But it is hard to see how China’s regional strategy — any regional strategy — has much to gain from alienating the one East Asian power that would be able to impede China’s position in the region.

The situation with regard to South Korea is similar, though not identical. Until very recently, there was a reservoir of goodwill toward China in South Korea. China was respected as the fountain for a common culture. Korea, after all, retained its traditional links with China until the early 20th century. In spite of Beijing’s long-standing support for the dictatorship in North Korea, most young South Koreans whom I met in the 2000s highly valued their country’s ties with China.

No longer. Recent South Korean opinion polls show that people’s views of China have nose-dived since Beijing’s failure to condemn the North’s sinking of a South Korean naval vessel and its shelling of a South Korean island in 2010, and Pyongyang’s recent missile tests. Park’s election campaign made good use of the fear of an unruly neighborhood. She seeks to strengthen Seoul’s alliance with the U.S., and has said that North Korea will only join the “family of nations if it realizes that assistance from China cannot last forever.”

Personal history, of course, plays a role in these two cases too. Park is the daughter of former South Korean dictator Park Chung-hee, who in the 1960s and ’70s saw Chinese communism as the main challenge in the area. And Abe is the grandson of a former Japanese prime minister whom the Chinese 50 years ago considered a major war criminal. Such family ties will not make reconciliation easier.

Why, then, has the Chinese leadership helped create a situation in which its most eager opponents have triumphed? One reason is historical Chinese attitudes on international affairs. The Chinese Communist Party has always believed that China ought to stand at the center of regional affairs. Recently, the expression of this regional hierarchy has become more shrill.

Perhaps this is a reflection of China’s new economic muscle. It could also be that some leaders in Beijing have been so impressed by sweeping Western predictions of China’s future predominance that they have started to believe it themselves. The sometimes stunning lack of knowledge of and experience in foreign affairs among the new generation of Chinese leaders have not helped.

Outside its immediate region, China’s foreign policy problems are also set to multiply. One is handling of the U.S.. Another is dealing with rising powers elsewhere. I have just spent a month in India, where the leadership has very little faith in China’s will or ability to approach other rising powers in a mutually cooperative fashion. “The current Chinese leadership,” one top policymaker told me, “… tend to look for what is best for China, in a rather crass and shortsighted manner.”

Will Beijing find a way to improve its handling of foreign affairs? One inspiration could be the generation of Chinese foreign policy experts who came out of the late 19th and early 20th century. Given a raw deal to begin with because of Western and Japanese aggression, they still managed to advance China’s interests considerably. They were able to do so, in the main, because they could report back to Beijing expressing their own views, without always having to reflect official dogma.

China needs to learn from its past that a good foreign policy must be more than only seeking what is best for one’s country to the detriment of others. It is rather to seek to create a region, and eventually a world, where as many as possible believe that China’s rise can also be to their own advantage.

Odd Arne Westad teaches international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science and is the author of, most recently, Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750.

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