China: What Is Driving Its Strategic Outlook?

Dr Bates Gill, Kippenberger Fellow – August 15, 2016

At least four critical factors shape Chinese foreign and security policy today – the first two are long-term and historical in nature, the second two are more contemporary.

The first is what Dr Gill called the forces of “historical geodemography” and the challenges it has posed to Chinese stability and security over many, many centuries. That is, the lengthy borders, large size and enormous population, making it perpetually vulnerable to foreign incursion while also giving it huge resources to maintain political, cultural and military sway. It huge domestic population also has meant that threats to regime survival more often than not arose from within, hence the importance of quelling political and social discontent across a vast Han population and, as China’s borders have expanded, across ethnically non-Han populations also.

The second driver is the national narrative of China as an aggrieved nation. Historically speaking, this is a somewhat newer factor, arising out of the “century of national humiliation” or “ 百年国耻” [ bǎinián guóchǐ] from the mid-19th to the mid-20th century. This narrative primarily targets China’s domestic audience and has been for more than 70 years deeply entwined with Chinese Communist Party ideology and justification for its rule at home.

This driver constantly reminds Chinese citizens that its backwardness and suffering of the 19th and early 20th century should be blamed on Western imperialism and later Japanese aggression, memories that cannot either be forgotten or forgiven. This narrative continues today and effects China’s relationships with both countries.

The country’s rapid growth in wealth and power is the third critical driver. In terms of economic growth, GDP grew more than 6000% from 1979 to 2015. In purchasing power terms, China’s share of global GDP in 2016 was larger than the US. It is the largest trading partner to well over 100 countries around the world including, as of 2015, the US. Military spending has expanded nearly 10-fold since 1988, to US$215 billion in 2015 – in second place behind the US on US$595 billion.

This power trajectory has both positive and implications for China’s relations with its neighbours – bringing tens of millions of people out of poverty and helping keep peace, but also enabling it to claim a level of power and coercive capacity it has not enjoyed in nearly 2 centuries.

This, says Dr Gill, means Beijing can now better realise self-interested security aims and is showing more willingness to flex its muscles to do so. “Overall, it adds up to a more worrisome future in the way in which China will conduct its foreign and security policy.”

How China will use this newfound power leads to the fourth strategic driver – the leadership and ambition of its paramount leader, Xi Jinping – the subject of Dr Gill’s 2016 Kippenberger Lecture. “Xi is so different from his reform-era predecessors such as Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao and has taken many bold and highly risky steps at both at home and abroad in pursuit of his declared “Chinese dream” of zhōnghuá mínzú wěidà fùxīng, or realizing “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.””

Dr Gill speculates Xi’s lesser concern with stable external relations is because domestic political, social and economic challenges have become even more pressing – and he appears to have concluded that a strong, more active and nationalistic assertion of China’s interests abroad is the best way forward for dealing with these.

The main constraint going forward? The reforms necessary to assure China’s society is secure, prosperous and contented going forward will almost certainly weaken the authority of the Chinese Communist Party. He suspects Xi will double down his approach in an attempt to solidify his standing and take great advantage of China’s growing power over the next few years.

“As such, the possibility/risk of an unintended/inadvertent crisis in the region—such as in the South China Sea or East China Sea—is real and appears to be growing.”

Dr Gill warns China’s strategic drivers will tend to go counter to the interests of New Zealand and the vast majority of Asia-Pacific nations. “The tightening grip of Party authority and associated crackdown on dissenting voices both at home and even abroad—including in New Zealand—also runs counter to New Zealand interests and values.”