What Drives Chinese Foreign Policy: Vulnerability or Ambition?

February 13, 2014 • The World at Yale • Views: 1735

By Hannah Flaum

On Thursday evening, Professor of Political Science at Columbia University, Andrew Nathan, addressed an audience of Yale University students and faculty in his lecture: “What Drives Chinese Foreign Policy: Vulnerability or Ambition?”  Nathan’s lecture was the 54th annual Edward H. Hume Memorial Lecture, in honor of Dr. Hume and his work in health care and medical training in China and other Asian regions, presented by the Council on East Asian Studies at Yale University.

Map of the People's Republic of China (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

Map of the People’s Republic of China (Courtesy of Creative Commons)


Nathan focused mainly on what some economists and political scientists refer to as the “China threat” and discussed its debatable legitimacy.  In his evaluation of this theory ,” Nathan elucidated the central claims behind it as well as the challenges China currently faces in the four main geographic arenas with which its government is concerned.  The “China threat,” he explained, is the perceived threat that China will gain economic, military, and normative influence on a global scale and thus diminish the influence of the US and other Western nations.  While he believes that managing the rise of China presents logistical complexities, Nathan doubts the validity of the “China threat” and suggested that Chinese leadership acts out of weakness rather than strength.


First, Nathan discussed China’s perceived economic threat.  There is concern among economists, political scientists and the general public that China is stealing Western technology and using it to displace Western economies as the most technologically advanced and largest economy.  These parties also fear that Chinese currency will increasingly come into international use and join the dollar as a reserve currency or even displace other currencies as the major reserve currency in the world.  Nathan then explained China’s perceived military threat based on the fear that as the Chinese GDP grows, it will be able to build up its military.  He noted that currently, no one knows what the Chinese military budget is, although it is estimated to be just a quarter of the US military budget.  There is also a concern that its global economic interest will lead China to push the US military out of Asia – and when a new military (China) rises where an old military (US) already exists, there will be an inevitable clash between them.  Lastly, Nathan explained what he refers to as the “normative threat” China poses.  There is a concern that China is promoting an export autocracy through soft power propaganda or though the example of its own success.  Thus, China represents a threat to democracy and human rights.


Nathan, however, is skeptical of these economic, military, and normative threats. He cited China’s multiple geographic challenges as reasons for its vulnerability rather than dominance or strength.  There are four main geographic domains of concern for Chinese leaders, all of which pose significant obstacles for Beijing policymakers.


The first realm Nathan mentioned includes the area within the borders of China.  He noted that China is a multiethnic nation with certain regions dominated by ethnic minorities that do not identify with the larger People’s Republic of China.  Because of the conflicting ethnic identities, there is a modern government effort to “modernize” these minorities and coerce them into accepting PRC citizenship in order to increase unity.  The heartland of China is particularly volatile given immense and rapid social change due to the high dissatisfaction with the current regime especially with regard to environmental issues (including land and air quality), land seizure, inadequate retirement benefits, etc.  Despite what Nathan refers to as the heartland’s “odd consensus” that the current regime cannot and should not be challenged, it does not believe that the regime will be the final form of Chinese government.  From the Beijing policymaker’s point of view, it is necessary to keep the regime in power and the country together when both the society itself is difficult to manage and also when there are other outside forces to fend off.  Fully aware that Western nations want the Chinese government to fall, Beijing policymakers face pressure both internally and externally.  The second region includes the 19 bordering nations of China.  Russia, Mongolia, and India have all had wars with China in the past and have strong militaries, posing a threat to China because of their strength.  Other surrounding nations like Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc. pose a threat to China because of their instability.  Nathan noted that it is important to recall that each of these 19 nations has at some point been engaged in border disputes with China.  The third area, the regions surrounding China, is especially complex because all 19 bordering nations are embedded in intricate regional systems.  For example, Southeast Asia has both maritime and inland regions within it and thus China must contend with a variety of convoluted problems.  Lastly, the fourth domain is the entire world.  Economic (in the form of commodities and markets) and diplomatic interests are China’s main concerns on the global stage.  Beijing policymakers have little direct influence in global matters, but China benefits from stability in other nations as well as positive international relations because continued cooperation with other nations is critical to Chinese prosperity.


Because of the many geographical layers and challenges within them that Chinese policymakers must consider and manage, China is extremely vulnerable.  If these problems do not appear so critical, it is only because the Chinese government has been successful in handling them so far.  Therefore, China must be defensive rather than offensive and expansionist.  China will also never be hegemonic in its region in the way that the US has been and continues to be.  Finally, China will not want to fundamentally change the world order as it is in its best interest for the world order to remain stable.  Therefore, Nathan does not worry about the economic, military, and normative aspects of the “China threat” and instead, he sees the serious threats to China that come from the four separate geographical regions that threaten it.

Hannah Flaum is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at hannah.flaum@yale.edu.

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