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China's diplomatic lens goes far beyond supplier chains

Its global expansion involves the big picture of political, military, historical and cultural imperatives

As a Chinese national, I am pleased to see Dr Parag Khanna's creative and interesting interpretation of China's foreign policy from the supply chain perspective ("The world through the lens of Chinese supply chains"; ST, April 12).

However, the reality is much more complex.

China's foreign policy has been motivated by concerns far beyond those of supply chains, to include political, military, historical and cultural reasons as well.

According to Dr Khanna, China views the world almost entirely through the lens of supply chains, in contrast to legalistic approaches that dominate Western thinking. Moreover, he thinks 21st-century China is following the 17th-century Dutch model.

There are indeed certain similarities between Amsterdam's strategy 400 years ago and Beijing's today.

However, the key difference is that the Dutch used "economic diplomacy" as both a means and an end but, for China, its geoeconomics is clearly at the service of its geopolitics.

If ancient Chinese had the same business mindset as the Dutch, Admiral Zheng He's massive 15th century "Treasure Fleet" voyages should have brought the Ming dynasty "an empire of enclaves" like those from Holland did.

In fact, the prime purpose of Zheng's voyages was to show the rest of the world the great glory and power of the Chinese empire, rather than to expand trade.

Not too long ago, China's foreign policy was still completely led by politics and ideology during the Mao Zedong era. Former leader Deng Xiaoping, through initiating reform and opening-up in 1978, wisely rectified China's foreign policy to a more pragmatic approach, focusing on trade and economic ties.

Deng's diplomatic philosophy can be simply summarised as the "Eight-Character Mantra": tao guang yang hui, you suo zuo wei, meaning "hide one's capacities and bide one's time, and seek achievements".

That was why Deng expediently chose to temporarily "set aside dispute and pursue joint development" when it came to territorial disputes such as those involving the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and the South China Sea.

Deng's successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao followed this economics-focused diplomacy. Such a conservative strategy was necessary, especially when countering the "China threat" theory externally, and it did help China achieve its "peaceful rise" in a relatively short time, at least in terms of economic power.

Now, it is China's time to proactively seek more achievements.

Economics is still at the top of President Xi Jinping's new diplomatic agenda. China hopes that its stronger geoeconomics can make up for its inherently weaker geopolitics, and, according to Professor John Wong at the National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute, China will eventually learn that there are limitations to its economic diplomacy.

BEYOND ECONOMIC CONSIDERATIONS

If economics were the entire story, it would not be necessary for China to risk becoming more assertive in handling long-standing territorial disputes, given that many joint development arrangements are in place.

More importantly, both the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and the South China Sea are viewed as vital for China's further development, not only because of their huge economic potential but also because of their strategic locations.

Without them, it would be impossible for China to grow into a truly maritime power, a critical element underpinning a global superpower.

Moreover, from a historical and cultural perspective, China has been extremely sensitive over territorial issues, adhering to the long-held principle that "we will never yield an inch of land".

The territorial disputes with Japan provide the best example. To China, the two violent invasions, the Sino-Japanese War of 1894 and the Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945, by the relatively small island country of Japan, are the Chinese nation's humiliation. China, currently on the rise, will of course not allow itself to lose face again, even if confrontations may not be economical.

From a political power-game perspective, territorial disputes can also be used to foster nationalism and support for the regime. According to Singapore's Ambassador-at-Large Bilahari Kausikan, the South China Sea is more important to China than to the United States as the Chinese Communist Party uses it to justify its legitimacy based on history.

Also notably, China has been investing hugely in setting up numerous Confucius Institutes across the world, as a means of advancing the country's soft power internationally. Obviously, such "cultural diplomacy" has little to do with supplier chains.

Dr Khanna also cites, to support his argument, the Hong Kong-based company Hutchison Whampoa, which runs both ends of the Panama Canal.

However, it is arbitrary to consider most private companies Chinese diplomatic tools. Indeed, Hutchison Whampoa's largest owner, tycoon Li Ka Shing, recently emphasised that business is business and that businessmen should not be expected to bear political responsibility for the state.

NOT MISSIONARY BUT WITH A MISSION

According to Singapore's former foreign minister George Yeo, China by self-proclamation is not a missionary power like the US. That is true but China has its own mission - the "Chinese Dream".

President Xi described the "Chinese Dream" as achieving the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation".

However, its substance remains widely debated because the "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" has not been well-articulated or specified. Mr Xi has not explained the criteria and indicators required to determine "rejuvenation".

Does it simply refer to restoring China's former glory as the greatest-ever economic and political power in world history? The Han dynasty is generally considered a golden age in Chinese history and the Tang dynasty is regarded as a climax in Chinese civilisation. But China clearly does not want another feudal and imperial Han or Tang dynasty.

A more rational and precise interpretation of Mr Xi's "rejuvenation" should be that China hopes to restore its historical position as a global leader, a dominant power in the world. To put it simply, China wants to be respected by the rest of the world again.

To realise such a mission, China needs not only economic rejuvenation but political, military and cultural rejuvenation as well. Then, economic diplomacy alone is not sufficient.

Contemporary China has been eager to learn from the West but never to simply copy it.

China will continue to pursue its own development path, following an independent foreign policy towards peace.


  • The writer, a Chinese alumnus of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, is a senior investment analyst and independent commentary writer based in Singapore.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 29, 2016, with the headline 'China's diplomatic lens goes far beyond supplier chains'. Print Edition | Subscribe