Can China balance its national interests while maintaining a constructive foreign policy?

Can China balance its national interests while maintaining a constructive foreign policy?
Source: Reuters

Over the past several months, China’s international and domestic policies have become increasingly problematic in the eyes of many Western governments.

While long standing disputes – such as China’s territorial rights in the South China Sea and the alleged repression of ethnic minority Uighur communities in far-western Xinjiang – continue to grab headlines, the onset of the coronavirus and increasing encroachment on Hong Kong has added to the controversy.

Most recently, the United States and China exchanged tit-for-tat closures of their embassies in Houston and Chengdu, which was preceded by new sanctions by both the US and China – first from Washington in response to the situation in Xinjiang and Hong Kong and then from Beijing in retaliation for those sanctions.

While the relationship between the US and China has gotten a significant share of international attention, China’s relationship with other Western countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, is also taking a hit.

On July 28, China suspended extradition treaties for those countries’ residents in Hong Kong in response to those countries having suspended their own extradition treaties with Hong Kong just hours earlier.

Extradition treaties allow nations to extradite criminals back home to face prosecution.

New Zealand also suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong.

With the increased tensions between China and the West, renewed debates are emerging as to the nature of China’s rise on the global stage. While some observers argue that China’s rise could largely be a peaceful one, others are more wary of Beijing’s intentions and capabilities – especially in light of its rapid economic growth.

Is it possible for China to preserve its international standing while it pursues domestic interests that many governments say are repressive?

China’s defense

According to those within China who defend Beijing’s recent actions, heightened tensions are in large part due to the reactions of the Western countries to matters that are considered a part of Chinese internal affairs.

The Chinese government has often called on Western governments to keep out of its domestic affairs, painting itself as a world power that doesn’t interfere in the affairs of other countries and arguing that the rest of the world should respond in kind.

Critics say that China’s purported territorial expansions in the South China Sea and Taiwan, coupled with an increased political grip on Hong Kong, are hardly examples of keeping to one’s internal affairs, even if Beijing says it has historical claims to these territories.

Others argue that world governments are obliged to respond to gross human rights abuses, such as those in Xinjiang, no matter where they take place.

Domestically, Chinese nationalists argue that the country’s policy reactions amid increased tensions have been rational given the moves made by Western governments.

“But many times, the US side has forced China to take only one choice; that is, it must take reciprocal measures,” argued a recent editorial published by the Global Times, a publication under the purview of the People’s Daily, China’s leading state-run newspaper.

The article also noted that although the Chinese people largely have little desire to engage in conflict with the West, there is broad support to push back at any unwarranted aggression.

“Chinese society, until today, hasn’t given up its efforts to prevent China-US relations from free falling … or hyped up an ‘anti-US’ sentiment among the general public,” the article continued, adding that “China’s attitude is simple. We will hit back after any malicious provocations.”

Case for cooperation?

While public surveys in China are historically hard to come by, recent breakthroughs suggest that although the Chinese public apparently is highly satisfied with their central government, there seems to be little appetite for war or international conflict, especially from younger generations.

While different demographic groups demonstrate various opinions on the subject, a 2014 survey from the University of Western Australia on the Chinese public’s views on domestic policy in the South China Sea saw just 37% of respondents under 25 respond that they were in favor of using military force to secure the islands.

Similarly, out of the more than 1,400 respondents that were polled in March 2013 across five major Chinese cities, 57% said they were in favor of seeking compromise amid international disagreements.

However, for all the attention that US nationalism receives, there is also nationalistic sentiment in China, especially among those who feel pride with the dramatic economic rise of the country.

According to Brian Wong, a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford, Chinese nationalism is taking on new forms during the COVID-19 era as some Chinese officials are “catering to ‘domestic consumers,’ who – amid times of relative turbulence – are in search of impassioned, at times zealous, speech in defense of the Chinese nation.”

As for the Chinese government, in the recent opinion piece in the Global Times, the paper conceded that political posturing was at least part of Beijing’s intention when responding to increased tensions with the West.

“The Chinese side is facing a dilemma: It would appear weak if it doesn’t fight back, which will lead to a series of consequences, seriously hurting China’s long-term national interests,” the article argued.

The article also stated that spiraling conflict has no real benefit to the country in the long term.

“However, after reciprocal measures are taken to fight back, China and the US are pushed further away; [which could increase the likelihood of] decoupling … and strategic risk is rising [sic] in [the] Asia Pacific region.”

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