The news from China so far this year has been all about tumbling equity markets and a wobbly currency. But there is another, less well-covered story emanating from Beijing that threatens to have just as much impact on the rest of the world as the shredding of the Shanghai stock index or the plummeting renminbi: the country has quietly changed its guiding military doctrine.
The state-owned Global Times newspaper offered a pithy summary of this new stance this month: “Our military strength has to be demonstrated to the world,” it said. “With a strong army, China can be more politically appealing, influential and persuasive, and will make it easier to network.” Such hawkishness effectively signals the death knell for the policy of “taoguang Yonghui”, or “hiding one’s brilliance and biding one’s time”, that has defined China’s foreign policy since the late 1970s.
This shift in fact began several years ago, but a series of statements issued since the start of the year by the People’s Liberation Army have crystallised the new doctrine encapsulated in the notion of “active defence”. In one little-noticed announcement posted on the ministry of defence’s website this month, a top naval planner revealed plans for China’s first homegrown aircraft carrier to protect “waterways along the 21st century maritime silk road”.
According to Beijing’s official definition, the latter includes everything between China’s eastern seaboard and Venice, and strategic points along the way. By any measure this marks an extraordinary expansion of China’s naval defence doctrine, which was previously focused on protecting only its territorial waters.
China clearly does not yet have the capability to dominate any of those waterways. The PLA navy and air force are currently not able to stop US or Japanese ships and aircraft operating in territory in the South and East China Seas that Beijing claims as its own. But China’s desire to expand its military reach is unmistakable. It is also logical, given the increasingly global nature of Chinese economic activity.
How this will be greeted in Washington is arguably the most significant foreign policy question in the world today. President Xi Jinping himself has warned of the “Thucydides Trap”, in which an established power’s fear of an emerging rival escalates into war, as in the case of Sparta challenged by the rise of Athens in Greek antiquity.
It is critical, therefore, that US and other western policymakers properly understand Beijing’s intentions and its likely next moves. Unfortunately, thanks to a combination of Chinese opacity and western ignorance, very few people outside the policymaking elite in Beijing have a decent grasp of what China wants and how it plans to get it.
One of the most misleading assertions you will hear about China — whether from party officials in Beijing or visiting western politicians and bankers — is that it has never been an expansionist power. A quick glance at some historical maps will show how China’s borders have waxed and waned through millennia of bloody conquest. Qin Shihuang, the first emperor to unify the country in 221 BC, did not achieve that feat through friendly overtures and cultural attraction but through slaughter, book-burning and burying scholars alive.
The more foreign observers repeat such fantasies of a benign and pacific China, the more threatening its rise will become. Rather than listen to the rhetoric coming out of Beijing, western policymakers should pay attention to what China actually does. They need to develop a much deeper understanding of the forces shaping modern Chinese culture and politics.
The history of other rising powers is instructive. Like China today, the US once explicitly rejected the notion of imperialism and expansionism. The age of American global dominance began as most other empires have begun — with the need to protect merchants and citizens far from its own shores. At the beginning of the 19th century, the fledgling US government established its first formal navy specifically to fight pirates off the coast of north Africa. As a result, the oldest war memorial in the US is the Tripoli Monument, in the grounds of the US Naval Academy in Annapolis and honours the heroes of the First Barbary War (1801-1805).
In China’s case, the first time it sent naval ships on a mission beyond its territorial waters in over 600 years was in 2008. The mission? To fight Somali pirates off the coast of Africa.