The subtitle of Kerry Brown’s new book, China’s World: What Does China Want?, is a question that is on the minds of the world’s statesmen, policymakers, international relations scholars, global investment advisors, international business leaders and geopolitical thinkers. Given China’s growing global diplomatic, economic, and military footprint, the answer to that question will shape the geopolitics of the rest of the 21st century.
Indeed, China’s foreign policy is already shaping today’s geopolitics. The United States has “pivoted” to Asia largely because of China. In the minds of many strategists, China has replaced the Soviet Union as America’s new peer competitor. China’s aggressive moves in the South and East China Seas, its growing economic ties to the nations of Central Asia, and its growing military (especially naval) power are for some observers reminiscent of Imperial Germany’s challenge to Great Britain in the early years of the 20th century.
Brown, a professor of Chinese Studies at King’s College in London, who previously served in diplomatic posts in China and Indonesia, takes a more nuanced view of China’s foreign policy goals. China, to be sure, wants to play a larger role on the world stage, but that does not mean that it must clash with the United States. Chinese leaders are realists who understand that China would likely not fare well in a military confrontation with the United States. Brown does not endorse the fashionable notion (at least in the US) of a “Thucydides Trap”, whereby a rising power’s challenge to an established power inevitably leads to conflict.
Brown begins the book with a brief survey of China’s history since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), especially its troublesome 19th century. After the 1911 revolution, China fell prey to internal division, external conquest in World War II, and civil war, ultimately resulting in the Communist seizure of power in October 1949. Since that time, Brown writes, “the country has been on a mission to restore itself to the centre of the world stage.” China’s current leaders, in the tradition of Mao Zedong, promote their policies by emphasizing the themes of “national humiliation, struggle, liberation and rebirth.”
The “movers and shakers” of China’s foreign policy include the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the Ministry of State Security (MSS), the Central Military Commission (CMC), leading state and non-state companies in China, and top universities, intellectuals, and think tanks. But, Brown notes, “the core driving force of Chinese foreign policy” is President Xi Jinping, who has accumulated more power than any Chinese leader since Mao.
President Xi, according to Brown, has manifested a “strategic, hard-nosed” view of the outside world. Although China’s decision-making process is shrouded in secrecy, Brown believes that Xi has “mapped-out” a geopolitical “world of zones”, with the US in Zone 1, the ASEAN nations and other geographically close countries in Zone 2, the European Union (EU) in Zone 3, and the Middle East, Latin America, and Africa in Zone 4.
In separate chapters, the author examines China’s foreign policy approach in each zone.
China perceives the United States as both a strategic rival and an economic partner. It feels hemmed-in by US alliances with its close neighbors in East Asia and the Pacific Rim, but Brown believes that in the long run mutual economic dependency will force both great powers to resolve such matters peacefully. The one exception here is Taiwan. Brown sees Taiwan as a possible casus belli between China and the US.
One would have thought that another exception would be North Korea and the continuing efforts to de-nuclearize that regime. But Brown views China’s leverage over North Korea as quite limited, and disagrees with the many US observers who argue that China is playing a Machiavellian game by using its perceived influence with the North Korean regime to gain concessions on other issues from the US and other nations.
It is clear and quite natural that China views East Asia, the Pacific Rim and Central Asia as its sphere of influence. This is a simple matter of geography, and it explains China’s recent moves in the South and East China Seas and the Belt & Road Initiative. That same geography, however, should lessen the anxiety of those who believe that China seeks Asian hegemony. India and Russia should for the foreseeable future ensure the geopolitical pluralism of Asia, whatever China’s intentions are.
There is little doubt, however, that China is becoming a global power. It is, after all, the second largest economy in the world. Brown notes its increased trade with the EU and its growing role in the Middle East and the developing world. China is even competing for influence in the Arctic and Antarctica.
Brown believes that the outside world can influence China’s foreign policy goals and, more important, how it seeks to attain them. He thinks that China is “undecided about where it is heading.” Perhaps.
What is clear is that Napoleon Bonaparte was right. He once referred to China a “sleeping giant,” and prophetically remarked, “when she wakes she will move the world.”