No longer “keeping a low profile” – The shifting face of Chinese foreign policy


Taoguang yanghui, keeping a low profile, has been one of the essential “24 characters” introduced to guide Chinese foreign policy by Deng Xiaoping since 1990. An approach characterised with a relatively minimal international presence besides pursuing opportunities of internal and economic development, we have now entered an era where China will no longer follow this strategy.

The implications of this shift have been gravely forecasted already with veteran commentators of international relations calling upon the works of Hans Morgenthau, who envisioned the rise of China. Morgenthau, in doing so, warned of the dire need for the United States to be able to continue maintaining a defensive containment of any “hegemonial power in Asia” to ensure continued international stability.

Beginning to characterise the later years of former president Hu Jintao, current incumbent Xi Jinping has now directed China to pursue “a new type of international relations, of win-win cooperation, upholding justice, of pursuing shared interests and championing a new vision featuring common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security”.

These new approaches to the world stage have already seen China influence some change in the global order and this will likely continue with the commitment by Xi’s government to the ambiguous goal of the “Chinese Dream”. This loosely defined term was coined to affirm China’s “rejuvenation” and its blueprint to produce a rich and strong socialist country supported by widespread alliance building by 2049.

However there are issues about China’s approach to seeking closer cooperative ties in the international community, frequently leading to it conducting what has been termed “dictatorship diplomacy”. Many of the partners China has been willing to commit to further cooperatively have nowhere else to turn to, due to having been labelled pariah states.

China would support these regimes despite questionable track records of human rights abuses, in order to secure economic and political ties even with embargoes placed against them. China has been willing to effectively undermine efforts of UN sanctions to redress dictatorships in Angola, Sudan and perhaps most notably was discovered to have been the last pipe line of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi in his pursued for weapons, with unearthed contracts valued up to 200 million American dollars.


Deng Xiaoping billboard in Lijiang, Yunnan

In the case of Sudan, we see China’s involvement having particularly dire repercussions, a key source of energy for China, Sudan was in receipt of an enormous amount of infrastructure, finance and weaponry in return for around 80 per cent of its oil production.

David Shinn, former American ambassador to Ethiopia signalled his concern at the growth of Chinese military presence in Africa and noted Chinese manufactured weaponry made up around 25 percent of arms going into Africa. When South Sudan broke away to become the 54th country on the African continent we saw a civil war erupt that led China to participate in its first overseas peacekeeping role, even moving to conduct diplomatic mediation.

The case of South Sudan civil war was however a tragic instance where China not only armed and funded a conflict but then intervened to solidify its control over raw resources. What is perhaps all the more concerning is that arguably China’s participation in a peacekeeping role undermined international peacekeeping efforts.

In the effort to ensure impartiality in such a role, the U.N tries to ensure that nations deployed to conflicts do not have vested interests, to prevent issues arising in their capacity as a peacekeeper. China without doubt did not fit this criteria.

China’s previous foreign policy insisted upon “undertaking no leadership” militarily and not being viewed as “running after hegemony” in international affairs.  This is one of the initial steps it has openly taken in undertaking a leadership role in providing international security, how it has approached this role has left a definite imprint of the new foreign policy’s characteristics.

2009 Tamil demonstration in London in support of people suffering horrific violence and conditions in post-war Sri Lanka.

2009 Tamil demonstration in London in support of people suffering horrific violence and conditions in post-war Sri Lanka.

In many respects critics of these kind of evaluations will point to powers such as the United States being just as willing to carry out these methods, with South Sudan strongly resembling recent self-inflicted incursions into Iraq and Afghanistan. It is sadly correct that other nations have been able to secure trade and resources through such methods, however unlike China when the extent of the machinations behind the campaigns are unearthed they are forced to withdraw their support for other such ventures.

The instance of Sri Lanka is particularly troubling for this reason. The Sinhalese regime lost the backing of European and American funding, training and supplying because of its brutal treatment of the Tamil ethnic minority in its war against the Tamil Tigers becoming widely covered in the media.

Yet despite this, China was more than willing to ignore the condemnation that followed. The Sinhalese regime turning to Beijing were able to secure a veto that protected them at the U.N. China not only again undermined international stability but did so in the attempt  to secure influence in the highly desirable strategic setting of the Indian Ocean. In attempting to do this we arrive at perhaps the most concerning effort undertaken by China.

The “string of pearls” is a debated term that is used to describe the potential enormous chain of naval havens for Chinese maritime influence across South China to the African East coast and beyond.

Formulated by Booz Allen Hamilton during the Bush administration the “string of pearls” for some time has been dismissed, some academics defending Chinese policy by comparing modern China’s presence across the world to the 15th century Ming dynasty, whose fleets under the Eunuch general Zheng He simply worked to establish trade and communication for China.

Further evidence at the time indicated a lack of permanent Chinese military installations being constructed, as well as often difficult diplomatic relations with countries along the proposed route. This however has changed.

2015 saw the signing of an agreement transforming China-Dijbouti relations. The African nation shifted from simply allowing resupplying of Chinese military ships patrolling the Gulf of Aden to permitting the establishment of China’s first overseas military outpost.

The implications are indeed arguably still speculative, but to examine China’s recent past it would not be foolish to point out it affords at the very least a significant strategic development for the People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) to secure China’s enormous political and economic investments in the region.

China’s global role has changed significantly over time. Even before its foreign policy approach shifted, we saw the 2010 U.S commitment to a “strategic pivot” or “return” to the Asia-pacific region to assert its interests in the region, after years of focusing efforts on the Middle East. The region has been dealing with the enormous territorial claims of China that many are concerned will cause friction due to the overlap of two world powers’ influence.

In many respects these fears are understandable, “trade follows the flag” is an established theory linking the growth of international trade and security concerns.  China has evidently demonstrated its willingness to carry out security roles to help establish economic zones.

With its increasingly more numerous partners, many of whom appreciate the previously absent service offered by China often as an alternative source of security. Chinese academics such as professor of international relations Shen Dingli point to the effectiveness of the strategy, with American military garrisons helping protect and encourage economic interests globally while expanding its own influence and international reputation. (Continues below)

China is now willing to demonstrate its commitment to provide security for the creation of trading zones that could help rival U.S influence.  In providing security for these zones we will likely see further commitments to power projections in the Asia-pacific areas containing U.S influence by China.

Already in place are the artificial island chains created to house PLA-N ships that will likely be accompanied by the formation of an entire new Fleet with the PLA-N 2015 restructuring well underway. Alongside this China has worked to encourage its long term ally Russia to assist in its more involved role and surprisingly, we have indeed seen the Russian Pacific fleet receive new ships for the first time since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

“Keeping a low profile” was for some time all that China would offer its international partners. What we are now seeing from China in an incredibly short period of time is a willingness to commit to provide a leading role in security, more likely than than not accompanying efforts to secure Chinese protected zones of economic influence.

Perhaps most concerning of all is that these initial steps indicate China’s ability to quickly develop its military presence in these areas. With the barebones of military development occurring roughly along where the “string of pearls” was predicted, we must ask if we are witnessing what could occur if the rest China’s mercantile projects are adapted in a similar way.

Between its frequent use of dictatorship diplomacy, moves to foster it’s protected economic zones and potentially enormous sets of maritime assets to secure these, it is understandable that concerns surrounds the shifting of China’s new international role.

It effectively blunts traditional U.S ability to maintain a perimeter around China that provided comfort to international relations theorists, who asserted it was necessary to prevent the rise of a destabilising rival hegemony.


One comment

  1. Cheap Chinese products ( read aid) carry a Big Price tag in the long run


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