Sam E Lewis
Does China have a Diplomatic Strategy?
China has been asserting itself on the world stage ever since Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon very publicly shook hands in 1972, signalling a new era for the world – where the leaders of a nation of almost one billion people realised they needed to open up after their failed bid to create a self-reliant state. For anyone that wants a reminder of what that looked like, venture no further than North Korea today. Since then, China has truly made it, perhaps no better epitomised than the wonderful opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, an event which truly showcased the best of China, much to its credit.
Fast forward to the present, and in the recent report for Parliament’s China Research Group, Alexander Downer, Australia’s former Foreign Secretary, stated “China has become increasingly aggressive and in many respects hostile to the interests of the Western world”. Is this part of some long term plan? By its very definition a country’s diplomacy should seek to improve its relations with the world, rather than worsen them, but then again some of the best Statesmen of the past centuries didn’t care much for world opinion – Palmerston’s gun boat strategy may not have won friends but it was successful and ultimately continued Britain on its path to the zenith of its power in the 1920s. But Britain was powerful for a multitude of reasons which still resonate today, most importantly its soft power, followed closely by its democratic political system. Is China then, on a similar course to 19th Century Britain?
The first lens we might be able to peer through to establish more is China’s hard power. In the course of just 20 years since 2000 they have increased their military spending from just over US$50 billion to over $US270 billion. In recent months as the US has shown more public support for Taiwan’s sovereignty, the CCP haven’t been afraid to cross lines they previously wouldn’t, dropping the term “peaceful” from their annual pledge to reunify China at the National People’s Congress in March of this year. On top of this, they ordered the PLA to fly over the Taiwanese Air Defence Zone at least 40 times during October and November of this year, causing Taiwanese planes to scramble in order to escort them away from the island. They are a nuclear power in addition to a naval power and have built military bases in both the Paracel and Spratly islands in the South China Sea. They have also flexed their muscles on the border with India too, showing they’re not afraid to use their military in battle. The result of all this show of hard power? For one, certainly not the respect they’d wanted. Instead they have driven the usually non-aligned India, which since its independence in 1947 has specifically chosen not to pick sides, into the Quad, a loose alliance with the US, Japan and Australia for company. They have also brought France, Germany and the UK into the fold, as these three nations have started freedom of navigation exercises through the previously peaceful South China Sea.
What about soft power? The US has a terrifyingly powerful army too which it likes to throw around yet is loved for an array of soft power reasons, top among them Hollywood which churns out films even the Chinese love. So, has China, with its 5000 years of history and fascinating culture, not to mention genuine sporting prowess as shown by Olympic success in the past 20 years, been able to capitalise on this naturally strong asset? Er, not quite. Confucius institutes were meant to be the grandly designed way to channel this asset, teaching Chinese as well as spreading knowledge of China’s history. Yet, they sinisterly cleansed the teaching material of any mention of recent Chinese history the West already knew about, most noticeably the Tiananmen Square massacre. Not to worry, what about the other great soft power, the Chinese film industry, which has created artistic masterpieces such as ‘Hero’ and ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’? Hyper nationalistic films such as ‘Wolf Warrior’ instead, whilst based on the real story of Chinese soldiers rescuing citizens from the civil war in Yemen, ends with the unrealistic villain, a white American no less, saying he’ll always be superior to the Chinese before being shot by the hero of the story in an act of defiance. These types of films were lauded on the Chinese mainland, but perhaps not too surprisingly failed to catch on elsewhere.
This leads me onto my next point. ‘Wolf Warrior diplomacy’ was inspired by the movie above, but is it effective? Let’s have a look at the greatest Disciple of this movement, Zhao Lijian, who never misses an opportunity to stick it to the West at their own game on an app banned for his compatriots. From posting a doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to a child’s neck, to promoting a false narrative that COVID-19 pandemic started in the US., there’s no lie this “Diplomat” won’t spread. You’ll never lose points in Zhongnanhai for casting foreigners as baddies sure, but at what cost? His ideological rhetoric has pushed Australia further towards the US, and has drawn condemnation from almost all of the Western powers. Far from dividing the opposition, something Sun Tzu suggested doing in the Art of War in order to win, Zhao and other Chinese Foreign Affairs minions have driven the west closer together. All of this when the leader of the free world was a man that didn’t treat his allies very well. China had the opportunity to split the West and it didn’t. Far from being a Machiavellian move of genius following a clear strategy, they missed an open goal.
Well, what have they been successful at then? We’ve identified hard power hasn’t made them any friends whilst their soft power, despite the ability to transcend ideology and encompass China’s fascinating history instead is tainted by Socialism with Chinese characteristics, and finally the Diplomats, far from seeing opportunities to cooperate, have done their best to close them off with stupidly fierce and fiercely stupid rhetoric. Had Mao and Zhou Enlai acted like this, China would likely have remained in angry isolation far longer than 1972.
What about the signature foreign police initiative the One belt One Road initiative? Investing around the world seems to be a good policy for any country. This is in particular an area where the West has receded in recent years – gone are the days of the Marshall Plan and investment in war shattered places which established American world dominance. China’s investments have helped build roads in Africa, reinvigorate major ports in Greece, and improved the overland rail route through Central Asia finishing at its terminus in Britain. A magical feat promoting growth, improving the living standards of many, and drawing the world closer together. At least, until the fine print is read. Lacking other means of investment, often corrupt officials in these destinations desperately signed up for loans without the pesky Western oversight of political and economic reforms which China seemed uninterested by. When the time came to collect the debt which they couldn’t pay, instead of defaulting, these Governments could do nothing more than give up the very assets they’d used Chinese money to build. For example, Sri Lanka simply gave the lease to Hambantota port to China , sparking anger across the sub-continent and beyond. Zambia too, in lieu of being in unsustainable debt to the tune of $6.4 billion by the end of 2017, were rumoured to risk losing substantial public assets, such as Kenneth Kaunda International Airport which had been used a security on the debt. Both of these cases have not highlighted a benevolent China, uninterested in a country’s internal affairs, but one that is very much aware that offering unsustainable levels of debt would mean Chinese State Owned Enterprises could possess important public assets around the world within the matter of years.
So, does China have a Diplomatic strategy or not? The answer must surely be if it does have a Diplomatic Strategy, it’s not a very effective one. Not only has their hard power driven countries which were previously unaligned with the West to take a stance alongside the US, at the same time their soft power, which usually helps to improve the image of a nation and win the hearts of the world has done the exact opposite, not helped by the approach of their Wolf Warrior Diplomats. Finally what initially seemed to be filling the vacuum left by the Americans has made the Third World far more cautious of engaging with Chinese enterprise in future, lest small countries struggle to repay the debt and ultimately lose important national assets, a nightmare they already suffered from during the era of European colonisation, and one they do not wish to experience again. It is an odd view we hold in the West that autocratic centralised economies must inherently have impressive long term plans that all of the political leadership of that country get behind. That wasn’t the case during the Thousand Year Plans of 1930s Germany, nor the Cold War years Soviet Union both of which collapsed specifically from a lack of a Diplomatic Strategy which led to over extension within their respective empires. It seems that Socialism with Chinese Characteristics hasn’t fallen too far from the roots of its ideological tree.