Beyond the mainstream media: The ‘why’ of Chinese foreign policy

Nov 17, 2023
China and Australia puzzle.

China is very important for Australia. The recent Prime Ministerial visit to Beijing, the first in seven years, underscores that. The fundamental question we need to ask ourselves across all the various sectors of Australia’s multi-faceted China-interested community is, are we getting China right? Do we know as much as we think we know? If we’re not, and if we don’t, the potential for missteps and miscalculations are very high, and the implications for heightening tensions and divisions are very negative.

I would argue that while the relationship is certainly warming after a long chill, which is of course positive, the basics on both sides are still very much the same. For us to maintain a course of warmth and cooperation, we need to be doing everything we can to ensure we navigate with sophistication and nuance. And I’m not sure that we are.

The way we talk about China sets up the options available for what we do. A lot of recent commentary on China talks about its growing “muscularity” or “assertiveness”, or its leaders’ “strongman tactics” or “wolf warrior diplomacy”. The image that emerges is of a China that is confident to the point of arrogance, and increasingly unafraid to “shirtfront” its way to achieving its interests. So, we in the West tend to understand China as a challenge that needs to be managed, a problem that needs to be solved. And how do we do that? Well, as Assistant US Secretary of Defense Ely Ratner and National Security Council Coordinator for the Indo-Pacific Kurt Campbell argued in a 2018 article in Foreign Affairs, engagement, integration and trying to bind China into the existing liberal order have failed. They argue that the US (and friends) should give up on that, and instead, project a stronger and more competitive US abroad. The shorthand for this approach could arguably be understood as containment and deterrence. The goal is to counter Chinese “illiberal’ influence, defend US interests (considered as synonymous with global stability and prosperity brought about by the order the US defends and upholds), and maintain the liberal rules-based order (for an interesting discussion of Ratner and Campbell’s analysis, see here). This perspective is broadly accepted and widely influential in shaping policy towards China.

I think it’s worth pausing to ask ourselves – is moving away from engagement “working” any better? Are we seeing deterrence and containment, or however you want to describe non-integration approaches, change China’s ways in the international system? Are the things we were concerned about diminishing? Is China backing down? Is it getting less assertive and aggressive?

Measuring these things is of course difficult – the best job that I have seen is Harvard professor Alistair Iain Johnston’s research from a decade ago, ‘How New and Assertive is China’s New Assertiveness’. It would be great if he could update that and we could see how things are going (Alistair? If you happen to read this, what do you think?).

But failing that, let’s turn to the dominant discourses and narratives which clearly suggest that China continues to grow as a concern for the world order, for US interests, etc. Ely Ratner’s recent speech to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) certainly seems predicated on a clear and present worry about the threat China poses/continues to pose. He talks for example about “the challenges posed by the PLA’s growing capabilities and by how it is choosing to use these capabilities in threatening and destabilising ways”. China is described as “the central threat of our times, undermining the stability of the world to serve its own hegemonic ambitions” in a State Department report in 2020. China is still a problem, according to US policymakers at the highest level. Australian narratives for the most part tend to follow, or indeed even push ahead of, US concerns about China’s growing role in the world.

Our built-in negative bias can be seen in how we perpetuate myths around China’s putative “bad behaviour” despite reams of academic evidence to the contrary. Allegations of debt trap diplomacy and weaponisation of debt are one example. Over the past few years, considerable research has either complicated the assumption that China is weaponising debt or contradicted it entirely. For years, academics such as Deborah Brautigam, Chris Alden, Erica S. Downs and Miwa Horono, among others, have been committed to myth-busting “truths” about China in English-language discourse. Indeed, as Miwa Hirono and Shogo Suzuki note, the “flurry of literature” that describes China as a threat to the interests of both Africa in particular and the international community more generally has created the necessity for a second genre of work whose primary purpose is myth-busting. Yet the myths continue to circulate unabated.

If we shift our perspective and instead ask “why” China is doing what it’s doing in its foreign policy, we can create space for a different perspective on what’s going on. This allows a broader range of approaches in response. How China views itself and the world around it rarely comes into our discussions, and indeed, for the past few years, even suggesting that considering Chinese perspectives might be a good idea was considered disloyal. We do not have to accept or agree with them, but we would do well to understand central elements of China’s elites’ worldviews. The “Century of Humiliation”, a narrative that is actively promoted in education and elsewhere, reminds Chinese people of how China’s former greatness was ripped apart at the hands of foreigners, quite deliberately to bring China to its knees and keep it there. The attitude within China today is that it can never again allow itself to be weak, backwards or vulnerable to external influences. Unsurprisingly, this visceral fear of the outside world and dread of what other actors want to do to China – justified or otherwise — shape how China understands things like trade wars or freedom of navigation operations.

There are numerous other examples of China’s self-perception that are critically important to understanding why China acts the way it does. The bottom line is that President Xi’s policy framework reflects the preoccupations and pathologies of the narrative of the Century of Humiliation: the idea that China is situated in a hostile world full of Western-driven aggression determined to keep it down, and that China is determined to throw off those shackles, never to be weak and vulnerable again, and to return to what it sees as its rightful place in the world, as a dignified, respected and peaceful global actor, not subject to “interference” in its “internal affairs”, with its sovereignty and territorial integrity accepted as sacrosanct.

Chinese foreign policies under President Xi reflect how China sees itself in the world: as a country and a people working diligently to overthrow their past disadvantages and current challenges, largely caused by the West, which still today is trying to keep China from growing and developing. But at the same time, the “outside world” – and there’s a big clue in that language about “us versus them” and “in versus out” – cannot be ignored. To develop, China has no option but to get more involved with a world that it sees as turbulent and largely hostile to its interests. But it is hyper-anxious about unsavoury Western influences “seeping in at the seams” and undermining the CCP’s legitimacy. Chinese worldviews provide a framework without which Chinese behaviour can seem to outsiders as counter-productive, or illogical. Once Chinese worldviews are added to an analysis, much of what can seem inchoate starts to make a lot more sense.

Putting aside the use of the word “enemy”, it is worth recalling Sun Tzu’s statement in The Art of War:

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

The same principle applies in the art of peace. Knowing China matters. It’s important to note that to understand is not to agree, accept, acquiesce or appease. However, working with a genuine understanding of why China acts in certain ways means we stand a better chance of achieving the results we want to achieve. In a situation as critical as the geopolitical one we face with China, if our language is politically loaded and our assumptions are questionable, then we need to review and critique them. Doing so might slow us on our trajectory, which is, if not hurtling, then certainly bumping along at a rollicking pace towards increased tensions and conflict. It is surely worth allowing ourselves to consider a different approach, to achieve different and, perhaps, more positive outcomes. If in the art of war it is essential to know your enemy, then surely, in the pursuit of peace, it is even more important to know exactly who and what you are dealing with.


This article is based on an article in Australian Foreign Affairs October 2023.

Read more articles in our China Perspectives series:

China: Perspectives beyond the mainstream media

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