Written by Jo Inge Bekkevold.

At the 19th Party Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing in October last year, China’s leader Xi Jinping stated that China has now entered a new era. This signalled a change in China’s Grand Strategy. Barring being hit by a major crisis like war, a country’s grand strategy is not something that is changed overnight – grand strategy is adjusted in a gradual fashion to cope with internal economic, demographic and political changes, as well as changes in the global and regional security environment.

Hence, Xi Jinping has not changed China’s Grand Strategy overnight. However, by announcing that China has entered a new era, Xi Jinping put the official stamp on the changes in Chinese policies that have emerged after the global financial crisis; of China pursuing a foreign policy more in line with China’s new position as a great power.

The history of the People’s Republic of China from its establishment in 1949 can be divided into three distinctive eras. During the first period from 1949 until 1979, China’s foreign policy was driven by the twin goals of overthrowing the imperialist legacy and securing China’s sovereignty. Over the following three decades, from the reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s until the global financial crisis in 2008-2009, China’s foreign policy was driven by the overall goal of catching up with the West through integration into global trade and multilateral institutions.

During this period, China broadly adhered to Deng Xiaoping’s formula of ‘keeping a low profile, and avoid taking leadership in international affairs’. In the new third era, China’s goal is to become a powerful country in terms of economic, military and soft power. China is no longer concerned with keeping a low profile, and China is ready and willing to take leadership in international affairs. The more ambitious goals announced by Xi Jinping are the result of long-term structural changes in China’s position in the international system and China’s geostrategic outlook.

China’s more ambitious foreign policy indicates that Beijing is shifting from a careful approach countering other great powers’ influence towards a more risk-accepting policy driven by an ambition of consolidating its own interests.

China’s new position in the international system

When Deng Xiaoping emerged as the leading figure of China’s post-Mao era in the late 1970s, he took charge of a country with an economy in dire straits. China’s GDP in 1980 was one-fifth of Japan’s, half of the United Kingdom’s, and less than one-tenth of the United States’. In 2012, Xi Jinping took charge of the world’s second-largest economy and the second most powerful military force. China’s GDP is now ten times larger than that of Russia, more than twice the size of Japan’s, and five times larger than India’s. China’s military expenditure is now higher than the combined military expenditure of the three great powers: Russia, India and Japan. Naturally, the worldview of Xi Jinping and his Politburo colleagues is different from that of their predecessors.

Mitigating a growing «China Threat» perception taking root in the mid-1990s, Deng Xiaoping’s ‘keeping a low profile and avoid taking leadership in international affairs’ became a guiding principle, a strategy that was later rephrased as “Peaceful Rise” and “Peaceful Development”. Deng Xiaoping’s formula served China well for a number of years, but it no longer suits China’s position in international affairs. China’s economic growth has led to growing expectations from China’s own leaders, from the Chinese public, and of China from the international community.

First of all, China’s leaders themselves assume that China’s new economic muscle entitles it to a position of greater international respect, an assumption that influences Chinese foreign policy making and strategic thinking. Furthermore, the Chinese people now expect their leaders to take a stronger position on foreign policy issues, one that reflects China’s new position as a great power. Finally, the international community has raised the bar for Chinese contributions to the global economic order, and in resolving a wide range of international challenges and conflicts.

China’s new geostrategic outlook

In addition to China’s more powerful position in the international system shaping Beijing’s strategic thinking, China has also gradually changed its geostrategic outlook. Geostrategy is the geographic direction of a state’s foreign policy, and such a strategy could either endorse or try to revise the underlying geopolitics. One of the most fundamental geopolitical shifts in recent history is China’s ongoing maritime transformation, adding sea power to its traditional role as land power. After the Cold War, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, China has for the first time in history been free from any major land based threats to its security. This has allowed China to shift its geostrategic outlook towards the sea. China’s building sea power is a means to an end, and as China goes to sea, the strategic rivalry between the United States and China in East Asia has become more prominent. Although China’s Navy (PLAN) still has limited war-fighting capability beyond the Near Seas, increased Chinese naval capabilities and power projection at sea challenges the U.S. as the dominant sea power in East Asia.

In the 2015 Defence White Paper, China revealed an unprecedented maritime emphasis, stating that “the traditional mentality that land outweighs sea must be abandoned”. However, China is a hybrid, being both a sea power and a land power. Nothing reflects this hybridity better than the Belt and Road Initiative, encompassing both a land based as well as a sea based leg. Nonetheless, the Belt and Road Initiative is above all part of China’s strategy to strengthen its position in the Eurasian heartland. Through the Belt and Road Initiative, China seeks to secure stability on its western frontier, secure access to energy and mineral resources, establish expanded land transit and access to the Indian Ocean, consolidate influence and manage great power relations in its own backyard in Eurasia, and improve access to the Middle East, Africa and Europe. China going to sea and its inroad into the Eurasian heartland both reflect a shift in strategic thinking in Beijing.

From fear of encirclement to consolidating its own influence

China’s strategic thinking since 1949 has been guided by a “fear of encirclement” and Beijing’s efforts countering the strategic dominance of the three great powers India, Russia and the United States on its periphery. China’s partnership with Pakistan has  been part of this strategy. Although China’s military doctrine is mainly centred on an A2/AD concept, China’s more ambitious foreign policy indicates that Beijing is shifting from a careful approach countering other great powers’ influence towards a more risk-accepting policy driven by an ambition of consolidating its own interests.

Simultaneously building sea power and consolidating its position as a land power on the Eurasian continent is a costly strategy. Beijing not only runs the risk of imperial overstretch, but also runs the risk of the great powers on its periphery engaging in a new encirclement policy. Russia is today leaning closer to China than ever before, but the United States, Japan, India and Australia are all signing up to a new Indo-Pacific strategy that could challenge Beijing’s new ambitions.

Jo Inge Bekkevold is Head of Centre for Asian Security Studies at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies (IFS) and former career diplomat. His research focuses on China’s rise and Asian security issues. Bekkevold is currently engaged in research projects on Chinese geopolitics and China’s relationship with Russia and India. His recent publications include China in the Era of Xi Jinping: Domestic and Foreign Policy Challenges with Robert S. Ross (Georgetown University Press, 2016). Image Credit: CC by Kancelaria Premiera/Flickr.

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