Category: foreign policy

Chinese Foreign Policy Under Xi Jinping

Following the conclusion of the , a new , the top leadership body of the Chinese Communist Party, has been named.  has revolved around whether or how China’s new leaders will pursue much-needed economic and political reforms.  An equally important question concerns the future direction of Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping.

To repeat Zhou Enlai’s assessment of social upheaval in France in 1968, it is “.”  Very little – if anything – from the backgrounds of these individuals can illuminate whether China will adopt a new approach to foreign relations in the coming five or ten years.

An assessment of China’s foreign policy under Xi is “too early” for several other reasons.  Although general secretary of the party, Xi Jinping will not become head of state, or president, until the National People’s Congress in March 2013.

In addition, who will hold key positions in China’s foreign policy system (waijiao xitong) remains unknown.  The most important vacancy to be filled is the director of the Central Foreign Affairs Office (zhongyang waishi bangongshi).  The post is currently held by , who is China’s highest-ranking official in foreign policy after the party’s general secretary.  The CFAO coordinates policy within the party-state bureaucracy, always a challenge, and provides research and advice on foreign affairs to China’s top leaders.  Other key posts to watch are the , the head of the  and the head of the CCP’s .

Finally, Xi and the new Politburo Standing Committee may not launch new initiatives of their own for perhaps one or two years – once key positions are filled, working relationships are formed among the new leaders, and power is consolidated.

In this context, the best clues to Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping may be found in the lengthy that outgoing general secretary Hu Jintao delivered at the opening of the party congress.   Despite being laden with socialist slogans and Chinese political jargon, the report both sums up what the party believes has been achieved since the last congress and outlines principles to guide the party’s work until the next congress.  Consistent with past practice, Xi Jinping as incoming general secretary  of this year’s report.

The report has a mixed-message on foreign policy issues. On the one hand, the report underscores that China will continue to press ahead with policies that have raised anxiety and concern in East Asia.  In the section on “,” Hu Jintao called for China to become a “maritime power.”  In particular, Hu said that the party “should enhance our capacity for exploiting marine resources, develop the marine economy, protect the marine ecological environment, resolutely safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests, and build China into a maritime power.”  In other words, expect greater Chinese activity in maritime Asia, including increased fishing and perhaps hydrocarbon exploration in disputed waters and a growing presence of the civil maritime law enforcement agencies, including the China Marine Surveillance force, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command and the Maritime Safety Agency.

The section on  indicated that the comprehensive modernization of China’s armed forces will continue.  In this regard, the report called for developing a military “commensurate with China’s international standing” to address “interwoven problems affecting its survival and development security as well as traditional and non-traditional security threats.”

On the other hand, the  of the report contained a glimmer of potential “new thinking” that might feature more prominently in the next few years.  In particular, the report outlined how China will endeavor “to establish a new type of relations of long-term stability and sound growth with other major countries.”

The phrase “new type of relations” (xinxing daguo guanxi) echoed language that appeared for the first time in Hu Jintao’s  at 4th U.S.-China  in May 2012 (which was swamped by attention to the Cheng Guangchen case.)  The core of the concept is a recognition of the security dilemma and the need to avoid conflict typically associated with power transitions in world politics.  Although it remains a , the inclusion of this new phrase in the work report of the congress indicates the priority that has been attached to developing it.  Given the clear implications of conflict between the U.S. and China for the region, this aspect of the report is noteworthy and encouraging.

Finally, the work report underscores the dominance of the most important factor in China’s foreign policy: domestic politics.  Only about 10 percent of the report addressed externally-related issues (i.e, defense policy, Taiwan and foreign policy).  The remainder emphasized the economic and social challenges that the party must confront – roughly matching perhaps the amount of time that China’s top leaders spend on foreign affairs.  In this sense, Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping is likely to remain inherently reactive and not proactive.

[The originally appeared in .]

Much Ado About The Sansha Garrison

In June, Beijing raised the “administrative status of the Xisha, Zhongsha and Nansha islands” from a county-level administrative office to prefectural-level city named Sansha based on Woody (Yongxing) Island in the Paracels (Xisha) archipelago in the South China Sea. In July, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA)  garrison in the newly created city also based on Woody Island.

Analysts and pundits have viewed the announcement of the new garrison with alarm.   viewed the decision as “a sign of [China’s] growing reliance on hard power” in the South China Sea.  equated the announcement with a decision to create “a permanent forward-deployed military force within striking distance of such contested waters,” a view echoed by the .  Still  a division of at least 6,000 soldiers would be deployed to the region and that the garrison might command units from the PLA Air Force and Navy.

Such conclusions, however, are misplaced.  In particular, they misunderstand the role of garrisons(jingbeiqu, also called garrison commands or garrison headquarters) in the PLA and how China has organized the defense of the islands and reefs it controls in the South China Sea.  From a military perspective, the significance of Sansha garrison should not be overstated.  Alone, it will not lead to an increase in combat units in the region nor does it portend a new effort by China to militarize the disputes in the South China Sea.

In the PLA, division-level military garrisons do not command main force combat units such as infantry or armored divisions or brigades.  They also do not command PLA Navy or PLA Air Force units.  Instead, as described in China’s , garrisons and other division-level military sub-districts (junfenqu, also called prefectural military commands) are administrative headquarters established in major cities responsible for supporting the military work conducted by the municipality, such as conscription and national defense mobilization tasks. Garrisons and military sub-districts fall under provincial-level military districts (shengjunqu) and are jointly commanded by the municipality’s party committee and government. As with division-level units, they are headed by Army senior colonels, who are assisted by a handful of staff officers. Depending on their location, garrisons and military sub-districts may command PLA border defense units (up to regimental size) that share responsibility with civilian public security forces (gong’an budui) for guarding China’s borders and providing early warning of an attack.

By our count, the PLA now has about 39 division-level garrisons and nearly another 300 military sub-district headquarters throughout China. In addition, there are four corps-level garrisons in the centrally administered cities of Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, and Chongqing, and the Hong Kong and Macau Garrisons, which report directly to Central Military Commission. Comparatively speaking, at the same organizational level, the PLA Army currently has only about 31 infantry and armored combat divisions (though the number of combat brigades one step below a division has increased to roughly 50).  The PLA has far more division-level organizations than combat-ready divisions.  Thus, by itself, the establishment of division-level garrison such as the one for Sansha does not suggest the deployment of large numbers of forces.

In short, create a city or other prefectural-level administrative unit in China and a garrison or military sub-district will often be established as well.  The Sansha garrison is merely the newest among hundreds of division-level organizations in the entire PLA.  noted that the new garrison had been upgraded from People’s Armed Forces Department (wuzhuangbu) that was part of the previous county-level administrative office.  Moreover, consistent with the 2006 white paper, the Ministry of Defense spokesman stated that the  were “defense mobilization… city guard, support for the city’s disaster rescue and relief work, and [direction of] militia and reserve troops.”

So far, no border defense units have been assigned to the Sansha garrison.  Instead, the existing Xisha (Paracels) maritime garrison under the PLAN’s South Sea Fleet is responsible for the actual defense of the islands in the South China Sea under China’s control.  The Paracels maritime garrison is one of six division-level maritime garrisons (shuijingqu) that fall under the command of one of the three regional fleets in the PLA Navy.  Maritime garrisons are responsible for conducting defensive operations (fangwei zuozhan) in their designated area and may command PLAN combat units.

Although it is not clear when the Paracels maritime garrison was established, reports of the unit first appeared in the Chinese press in 1985.  Nevertheless, China’s deployment of troops to the South China Sea began almost three decades earlier, in the 1950s when the PLA occupied Woody Island in the Amphitrite Group of the Paracels.  Following several confrontations with South Vietnamese forces in the Crescent Group of the Paracels in the mid-1950s, Premier Zhou Enlai in 1959 instructed the PLA to establish a base on Woody Island and in 1960 regular patrols around the Paracels were initiated.  In 1971, the PLAN began to upgrade and expand the infrastructure in the Paracels, which has continued steadily until to the present day and includes a military-capable airfield built over 20 years ago. To date, there has been little to no evidence that the airfield has been used to accommodate “a permanent forward-deployed military force within striking distance of such contested waters.”

The Xisha maritime garrison is commanded by a senior captain (equivalent to an Army senior colonel), the former head of the PLAN’s 1st Marine Brigade, a main force combat unit in the South Sea Fleet.  The number of troops in the maritime garrison is unknown, but a 2002 report from Taiwan stated that China has deployed around 590 troops on the features in controls in the Spratlys (while Vietnam had around 2020).  The Ministry of Defense spokesman stating, “the Sansha military garrison and Xisha maritime garrison are separate military organs executing duties according to their respective responsibilities… the Xisha maritime garrison… is responsible for maritime defense and military combat.”

What, then, is the significance of the establishment of the Sansha garrison?  First, from a military perspective, it is a minor development.  It likely will not command any combat units nor will it result in a substantial increase in the Chinese forces in the South China Sea.  Rather, it is designed to enhance coordination with the local government.  Its importance is political, part of what  unabashedly described as China’s effort, “to display its sovereignty over the South China Sea.”

Second, because the PLA has maintained a military presence on the features it holds in the South China Sea for decades, the creation of the garrison  about  of the PLA in Chinese foreign policy or policy in the South China Sea. Instead, the establishment of the garrison reflects the bureaucratic upgrade of an existing department following a change in the administrative status of the associated locality.

Third, militarily, any forces on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea are vulnerable and hard to defend. As retired U.S. , “Putting garrisons on Woody Island or elsewhere in the Paracels would effectively maroon these guys, so the only advantage would be just showing the flag — to say, ‘We are serious.’”

Finally, the general reaction to the creation of the Sansha garrison reflects the limited understanding among analysts and observers of the PLA’s organization despite Beijing’s efforts to describe the structure of the Chinese armed forces in biannual white papers and media reports. For example, none of the Pentagon’s annual reports to Congress on Chinese military power  this level of organization.  In the case of Sansha, the Chinese government could have better explained its decision, while commentators might have examined what garrisons actually do before jumping to ill-founded conclusions.

[This piece was co-authored with Dennis J. Blasko and originally appeared on .]

Investigating the Chinese Threat

Yesterday, I testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee — the first time that I had ever appeared before a Congressional committee.

As for the purpose of the hearing, the title says it all:  “Investigating the Chinese Threat, Part One: Military and Economic Aggression.”  Topics addressed included the military modernization, cyber espionage, and trade policies, among others.

My testimony examined China’s recent behavior in the South China Sea, a topic that I’ve been writing a lot about lately.

As a witness, I was asked to prepare and submit a written statement, of any length.  During the hearing, however, I only had five minutes to speak.  For an academic used to lecturing for 50 minutes several times a week, that is the equivalent of asking a chef to cook without salt.

The other witnesses were Dean ChengJohn Tkacik, and Larry Wortze, all, as it turns out, past or present employees of the Heritage Foundation.



All Quiet in the South China Sea (for now)

I just published a short piece on the South China Sea on the Foreign Affairs website.

In the piece, I argue that China, for now, has adopted a more moderate approach to managing its claims in this dispute.  In particular, China seeks to restore its tarnished image in East Asia and to reduce the rationale for a more active US role in the region.  China’s more moderate approach in the South China Sea provides further evidence that China will seek to avoid the type of confrontational policies that it had adopted toward the United States in 2010.

Read “All Quiet in the South China Sea: Why China is Playing Nice (For Now)

Clarification of China’s Claims in the South China Sea?

Ambiguity about the extent of China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea has been a key source of concern in this dispute.  In the 1990s, China issued a series of domestic laws detailing its maritime claims under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, including 12 nautical mile territorial seas and 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zones (EEZ). Nevertheless, Chinese maps continue to contain a “nine-dashed line” around the South China Sea. The line first appeared on an official map produced by the Republic of China in 1947.  After 1949, China continued to use the line on its official maps, but never defined what the line included or excluded.

In a recent press conference, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs appeared to take an important step towards clarifying China’s claims in the South China Sea – and suggesting what the line might not mean.

First, the spokesperson, Hong Lei, distinguished between disputes over “territorial sovereignty of the islands and reefs of the Spratly Islands” and disputes over maritime demarcation. This affirms past statements, including a note to the United Nations in May 2011, that China will advance maritime claims that are consistent and compliant with UNCLOS. Under UNCLOS, states may only claim maritime rights such as an EEZ from land features like a nation’s coastline or its islands.

Second, and more importantly, the spokesperson further stated that “No country including China has claimed sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.”  By making such a statement, this phrase suggests that the “nine-dashed line” doesn’t represent a claim to maritime rights (such as historic rights), much less a claim to sovereignty over the water space enclose by the line.  More likely, the line indicates a claim to the islands, reefs and other features that lie inside.

To be sure, China could advance a large claim to maritime rights in the South China Sea from the islands and other features in the Spratly Islands. Although UNCLOS only permits states to claim a 200 nautical mile EEZ from islands that can sustain permanent human habitation, sovereignty over a single island can generate an EEZ of approximately 125,000 nautical miles.

Nevertheless, even articulation of a large but UNCLOS-compliant claim would offer several advantages in terms of dispute resolution.  It would clarify where China’s EEZ claims from islands in the South China Sea overlap with the claims of littoral states from their coastlines.  As a result, disputed and undisputed areas would be clearly identified.  It would also allow states to invoke the dispute settlement mechanisms of UNCLOS, Part XV, which would a negotiated settlement to overlapping claims.

Of course, this recent statement doesn’t represent a full and complete definition of the nine-dashed line.  Nevertheless, it does at least rule out one possible definition and provide an opportunity for other states to press China to further clarify its position.

 [This post originally appeared on The Diplomat]

China’s Strategy in the South China Sea

In this article in Contemporary Southeast Asia, I examine China’s behavior in the South China Sea disputes through the lens of its strategy for managing its claims. Since the mid-1990s, China has pursued a strategy of delaying the resolution of the dispute.

In the article, I make several arguments:

  • The goal of China’s strategy is to consolidate its claims, especially to maritime rights or jurisdiction over the South China Sea, and to deter other states from strengthening their own claims at China’s expense, including resource development projects that exclude China.
  • Since the mid-2000s, the pace of China’s efforts to consolidate its claims and deter others has increased through diplomatic, administrative and military means, especially the use of civil maritime law enforcement agencies
  • Although China’s strategy seeks to consolidate its own claims, it threatens weaker states in the dispute and is inherently destabilizing.  As a result, China’s delaying strategy in the South China Sea includes efforts to prevent the escalation of tensions while nevertheless seeking to consolidate China’s claims.
  • Chinese compromises or concessions over maritime rights and especially territorial sovereignty are unlikely, as the perceived value of controlling the islands and waters is only likely to grow. Instead, China may seek to moderate the manner in which it seeks to pursue its claims.
  • What could change China’s calculations, however, might be improved security ties between other claimants and the United States. If coupled with what China might view as increasing assertiveness by these states in the dispute, China might then view its position as weakening and be more likely to use force.

Read the article.

Revising Deng’s Foreign Policy

At the end of December, the Jiefangjun Bao, the official paper of the People’s Liberation, carried a brief article on page three of the print edition – with a small revelation about a key principle of China’s foreign policy. The article described a speech delivered by Gen. Ma Xiaotian, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the PLA, to the China Institute for International Strategic Studies, a PLA-affiliated think tank in Beijing.

As reported, Ma’s remarks contained standard boilerplate for a year-end review: “China’s overall security environment was favorable,” but “will continue to undergo complicated and profound changes.” What came next, however, was unexpected. Ma used a revised version of the last eight characters of Deng Xiaoping’s famous “24 character” guideline for China’s foreign policy from the early 1990s: “keep a low profile and achieve something” (taoguang yanghui, yousuo zuowei). The reformulated version states that China should “uphold (jianchi) keeping a low profile and actively (jiji) achieve something.”

Ma’s use of Deng’s revised guideline in an official Chinese newspaper is important for several reasons.

First, it provides, in print, confirmation that Deng’s long-standing guidance has, in fact, been revised. President Hu Jintao made this revision to Deng’s guideline in the summer of 2009, but because it was the subject of significant debate, the revised text rarely appears in official media sources.

Second, despite media reports of the growing influence of the military in Chinese politics, Ma’s use of the revised foreign policy guideline reveals the consensus between party and military leaders on questions of basic policy principles, including foreign policy.

Third, it highlights the problem of using only English-language media from China. Although the use of the revised phrase is quite apparent in the Chinese version of the report, it’s translated in the English version as “keeping a low profile and making a difference” – suggesting that the guideline hadn’t been revised.

For an excellent scholarly study of Deng’s guideline, see “Lying Low No More? China’s New Thinking on the Tao Guang Yang Hui Strategy,” by Chen Dingdigng and Wang Jianwei from the University of Macao in the Fall 2011 issue of China: An International Journal.

[This was originally published in The Diplomat.]

China’s Maritime Assertiveness

Michael Swaine and I have just written an article for the China Leadership Monitor that examines China’s assertiveness in the Yellow, East, and South China Seas.  We assess whether, to what degree, and in what ways the PRC has become more assertive along its maritime periphery in recent years. It also assesses the external and domestic forces motivating Beijing to become more or less assertive over time and the prospects for Chinese assertiveness with regard to maritime sovereignty issues in the future.

Read the article

International Relations Theory and China’s Rise

Whether China’s rise as a great power will be peaceful or violent is a question that animates scholars and policymakers alike. Power transition theory and offensive realism reach pessimistic conclusions about China’s potential for armed conflict because of the benefits of aggression. Nevertheless, applications of these theories to China’s rise fail to examine the size and scope of these benefits and to compare them systematically to the costs of conflict that other scholars have identified. To fill this gap, this article applies different international relations theories to identify potential benefits in one defined issue area, territorial conflict, and then weighs these benefits against the likely costs. The potential benefits of territorial expansion are limited, a finding that weakens confidence in the predictions of power transition theory and offensive realism but increases confidence in more optimistic arguments about China’s rise based on economic interdependence.

Read the article