What guides Chinese foreign policy?

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Answered by: Carl, An Expert in the Government of China Category
Chinese foreign policy is guided primarily by a historical sense of vulnerability. Beginning in the 19th Century, Chinese foreign policy had to learn to adapt to the fact that the oldest and most powerful culture in the world was no longer the strongest. British warships appeared in the southeast and defeated the Qing army, humiliating the government and leading to forty years of domestic unrest in the form of the Taiping Rebellion.

In the 1890s, China find itself again defeated in battle, this time by another Asian power, Japan. The cessation of Taiwan was a huge humiliation to Peking, as they had long regarded the Japanese as a junior partner in the traditional Chinese tributary system.

In both cases, military defeat was preceded by a naval power from the Southeast. The southeast of China, including the province of Guangdong, has been regarded since the Han dynasty as a geographical region set apart from the mainstream of Chinese culture. Although Cantonese speakers currently refer to themselves as Han Chinese, their dialect name in Chinese (Yue) is the same character used in the name "Vietnam". This area of China has long been regarded with suspicion, and the fact that the Taiping rebellion started here does not help either.

During WWII the Japanese again came from the East, annexing Shanghai and Beijing, and devastating Nanjing, the former imperial capital. As a result of these experiences, China views its territory and any challenges to its sovereignty with alarm, especially any outlying islands. Taiwan, the Paracels, and the Diaoyu islands all factor in their formulation.

Currently, the Chinese are working on developing an "anti-access" policy in regards to their regional security. Their concern is that a naval power (presumably the United States) will be able to position a fleet close enough to the Chinese coast to strike at their cities using both conventional air power and undersea missile launches. They want to deny access to both the first and second chain of islands of the Chinese coast.

They have termed Taiwan the "first chain" defense and the Marianas and other islands further east "second chain". Currently China has neither the military nor political capital required to project their influence this far west and must settle for "first chain" anti-access, but they are currently working on a long term foreign policy to better support this plan.

Although China also has a huge land border with 14 countries, in reality this is not much of a concern to the foreign policy decision making elite. They have signed and resolved all but one border dispute with their neighbors, the exception being a region in India bordering Tibet. They regard their army as capable to repulse any land attack from the West.

Currently, China is focused on maintaining security to their southeast, the region where the first British ships landed and eventually succeeded in forcing a century of military concessions and societal humiliation upon what was once regarded as the Middle Kingdom between heaven and earth. Although China does not think or speak in these terms any longer, it guides the decisions of both the elite and the everyday Chinese citizen, and must not be discounted.

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