How can we make sense of a People's Republic of China that is supposed to be, in the words of Deng Xiaoping, "biding its time and hiding its capabilities," but in fact is picking fights with most of its neighbors, including the United States? The Chinese were supposed to be using their deep reservoirs of "soft power" and practicing a highly skilled diplomacy aimed at assuring all that China is rising peacefully. But over the past year, Beijing has been rather more clumsy than the caricature of Chinese cleverness might suggest. China has in effect declared the entire South China Sea -- a body of water that is of critical importance for its abundance of natural resources and for its position as the maritime connection between the Indian and Pacific Oceans -- to be its territorial water.
Needless to say, this has not gone over well with Vietnam and other Southeast Asian nations. And, just when it appeared that China would return to a lighter touch in the face of strong U.S. resistance to its South China Sea claims, Beijing bullied and coerced Japan into circumventing its legal processes after a Chinese fishing trawler rammed Japanese ships in the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu island chains. In sum, China's exercise of power has been more hard than soft. Beijing seems to be neither "biding its time" nor rising peacefully.
A recent book helps explain how PRC leaders think about the world and what may lead China to engage in the behavior we and our allies find offensive. In The Mind of Empire China's History and Foreign Relations, Christopher Ford makes a persuasive case for hardwired cultural conditioning as an explanation for China's imperious behavior. China possesses, well, the mind of an empire. According to Ford, Chinese history has no precedent for stable coexistence among sovereign equals. Moreover, struggle over primacy within China and later with other states is a fairly continuous characteristic of Chinese history. Here is Ford:
The Chinese tradition has as its primary model of interstate relations a system in which the focus of national policy is in effect a struggle for primacy and legitimate stable order is possible when one power reigns supreme-by direct bureaucratic control of the Sinic geographic core and by at least tributary relationships with all other participants in the world system.
According to Ford, China has an enduring sense of global order. Beijing assumes that the "natural order" of the political world is hierarchical and the idea of truly separate and independent states is illegitimate.
But wait, some might argue, what about China's embrace -- if not sanctification -- of the Western construct of international relations: Non-interference in the affairs of other sovereign states? If China's natural place is atop a Sino-centric hierarchy, and other sovereign states are lesser entities that should pay deference to China, then why use the histrionic defense of Westphalian norms which codifies equal status among states?
According to Ford, as well as China scholars Jacqueline Newmyer and Michael Pillsbury, the answer may lie in Chinese strategists' cultural conditioning: Many Chinese strategic elites analogize this period in international politics to the Warring States Period. According to Newmyer, the Warring States Period was "a militarized age when roughly seven small kingdoms vied for ascendancy over the territory now considered China's Han core, before the state of Qin emerged victorious, unified China, and launched the dynastic era that lasted into the twentieth century."
During this period of Chinese history, roughly coequal sovereigns competed for primacy until, as Ford says, "a just and moral unitary Confucian state" dominated for two millennia and established the correct pattern of hierarchical relations with China's neighbors.
This period of Chinese history is not simply a matter of academic interest. According to Newmyer, Deng Xiaoping sparked a renaissance in the study of this period among China's strategic elites. According to Pillsbury, the People's Liberation Army studies this period to learn how to approach the contemporary period of international politics.
Thus, it could be that the current sanctification of Westphalian norms in China's foreign policy is merely a useful instrument in what Chinese strategists view as the competitive struggle for political hegemony ongoing today. Sovereign equality is accepted as a reality, at least for now, until China can establish a political order more in line with the Sino-centric hierarchy it naturally prefers. The concept of "non-interference" and respect for sovereignty is a useful way for Beijing to defend the territory China already controls and that which China claims.
In a competitive international setting, China would be highly attentive to the slightest adjustment in the distribution of power among states. The proximate cause of China's expansive South China Sea claims may have been a judgment that the current hegemon -- the United States -- was reeling from the financial crisis and distracted by two wars. The weakness of the strongest state in the system presented an opportunity for China to make its claim on the South China Sea more public and coerce the lesser "tributary" states along its periphery to accept Beijing's diktat.
The strong counter-reaction by Secretaries Clinton and Gates took the Chinese by surprise and left Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi stunned and furious. But precisely in his moment of fury, Foreign Minister Yang had much to reveal about how the Chinese elite think. In Yang's view, Secretary Clinton was "attacking China." And as Yang said, "China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact." This reaction makes a great deal of sense when seen through the prism of China's world view as explained by Ford, Newymer and Pillsbury. First, Beijing sees itself as in an intensive competition for primacy that parallels the Warring States Period. U.S. attempts to stand up for its interests and allies are not taken at face value, they are "attacks" on China. Second, the natural order of things is that the "small countries" must accept China's superior position. In Beijing's view, accepting your natural place in the hierarchy is not just a matter of power politics in the classical realist sense, it is right, proper, and the only way to establish a stable order.
When the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue heated up again, China was no less brazen. It cancelled diplomatic meetings with the Japanese, cut off the export of rare earth materials upon which Japan depends, and demanded an apology after Japan gave in to Chinese demands. If one analyzes China's behavior in accordance with its strategic traditions, once again Beijing's behavior makes sense. First, in China's view, the island chain is part of China -- China cannot be whole or strong again unless it retains absolute control over all of once dynastic China. Second, Japan -- a country that for centuries was supposed to be, and indeed was, a lesser state -- grew stronger than China in the late 19th century. It also visited upon China humiliating defeats in war that led to abuses of Chinese citizens and the loss of dynastic territory. China will never be satisfied that the natural order has been restored until Japan accepts China's superiority and apologizes for its past. And a policy of apology and redemption along the lines of modern Germany will not suffice: Japan must come to China as a supplicant, a child who wronged his parents.
Ford's analysis of China's "mind of empire" explains quite a bit about China's behavior. But of course no one book can cover China's foreign relations in all its complexities. While strategic culture matters, there are other motivations for China's policy such as resource needs, an absence of any legitimating idea of governance, and the push and pull of power politics within the international system.
But policymakers must also take seriously the Chinese cognitive prism. American policy toward China must seem very odd within the halls of Zhongnanhai. Since President Nixon, Washington has invited China into the "family nations" -- the current formulation is an invitation to be a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system. But this system is ill-defined. The irony is that just when the Chinese found some use for Western international law, the West was abandoning the sanctity of the Treaty of Westphalia (see Kosovo, Darfur, Iraq).
An even deeper problem is that from a Chinese perspective, the only international system that makes any sense is the one China is working to restore: A Sino-centric one in which (once China finishes its project of growing strong and unifying China again by reclaiming all "lost" territories) it can establish a just, moral and unitary Chinese order. Within that order, non-Chinese people will have to pay the proper respect and deference to the Middle Kingdom.
The problem for Beijing is that no one outside of China has much use for that kind of international system. The West (the democracies of the world) is quite satisfied with the current liberal order. The key American foreign policy task of the 21st century, then, is to better explicate, legitimate, and defend that order at a time when it is under tremendous pressure from China. A strong defense of the Western system will help avoid the tensions we have seen over the past year. Chinese leaders must see that power is not shifting, that the U.S. means to protect the world order it created, and that attempting to change it would lead China once again to ruin.
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images
Shadow Government is a blog about U.S. foreign policy under the Obama administration, written by experienced policy makers from the loyal opposition and curated by Peter D. Feaver and William Inboden.